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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 January 2005, 18:19 GMT
First Roma MEP on a mission
Livia Jaroka
Ms Jaroka is one of the youngest MEPs
The first Member of the European Parliament of Romany origin, Livia Jaroka, has told the BBC she wants a better deal for Gypsy communities across Europe.

Ms Jaroka was elected to the European Parliament when Hungary joined the EU last year.

"I am a representative of the Hungarian people - of which a great percentage are of Roma origin, not to mention the Hungarian people either with a Roma background or who are outside our country's borders," Ms Jaroka told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"Because I was the first Romany in the European Union, of course I felt responsible - and I still do - for the European Roma community.

"Roma are the biggest minority group in Europe - around 15 million people, which is a larger number than the population of Austria or Sweden."

Widespread discrimination

Many of Europe's estimated 15 million Roma people live on the margins of society, with few of their own representatives in high political circles. That makes 29-year-old Ms Jaroka something of an exception.

She says Roma people throughout Europe - who are concentrated in central and east European countries - suffer from massive discrimination and a much lower standard of living, which has drastically deteriorated since the end of communism.

Gypsy living on rubbish dump in central Europe
The most visible form of segregation is definitely the living conditions that the Roma are facing
Livia Jaroka
"The situation is quite saddening," she stated.

"Most of our male, middle-aged population within the Gypsy society is without jobs, which is a huge, drastic change compared with the situation before 1989 - the [political] system change.

"Then, about 89% of our adult males were working. That meant quite a secure economic basis for the Roma families living in Hungary. In many cases the women had the chance to work as well.

"Today both male and female Roma have very little chance to work, and the work that they are doing is usually black market work."

She argues that the situation facing the Roma is made more difficult because of a number of types of segregation.

She says this has occurred in education, where Roma children are often taught in separate classrooms. According to Ms Jaroka, there are more than 600 such classrooms in Hungary at the moment.

A lack of education has been recognised as one of the key reasons for high unemployment among Roma communities throughout Europe. In some areas, unemployment can reach 100%.

Ms Jaroka also says there is similar discrimination in healthcare.

"Roma people get much poorer quality treatment - there are data about Roma people being put into separate wards," she argued.

"The most visible form of segregation is definitely the living conditions that the Roma are facing.

"At the moment, in Hungary, almost every single village and big city has a Roma settlement - the Roma are persuaded to live separately.

"That drastically changes the social life and the social experiences of these people."

Image problem

Ms Jaroka also points out that 80% of Europe's Roma are sedentary, not travellers, and there is a very "outdated image" surrounding them that is causing a number of problems.

"The image people have of the Roma at the moment is very far from reality," she stressed.

"Anti-gypsy" wall in Usti nad Labem, Czech Republic
In some parts of eastern Europe "anti-gypsy" walls were erected
"One of the jobs for me and people like me is to try to de-mystify the fog about being Roma.

"As soon as people realise and understand the similarities between the Roma and non-Roma population in Europe, I think we will start realising the contribution that this nation can give to European heritage."

She explained that, for example, the Hungarian tourist image is inseparable from Gypsy music.

However, she added that the Roma people's impact was not only cultural, and that, for example, during the 1960s they built many of Hungary's major factories and roads.

And even now, she said, there are still many who perform jobs such as teaching or fire-fighting.

"We have a lot of people who contribute daily to the life of these countries," she said.

"[They] are segregated and discriminated against, instead of being taken as real partners."

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