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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 11:28 GMT
Nations unite to help Roma people
By Gabriel Partos
BBC central and south-east Europe analyst

Elderly Roma woman in Albania
Many East European Roma live in shanty towns in appalling conditions
Leaders from central and eastern European countries are meeting to launch what is described as the first international effort to improve living conditions for the Roma - or Gypsies.

The project, dubbed the "Decade of Roma Inclusion", aims to tackle a range of educational and social disadvantages faced by Roma communities.

But how is that going to be achieved?

In terms of social or economic well-being, Europe's estimated 10-12m Roma people fare very badly.

A fresh survey prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, gives strong support for that conclusion.

According to the survey, conducted in 10 countries - many of which are taking part in the new Roma Inclusion project - around three-quarters of Roma do not complete primary school education.

In some of the countries surveyed, the share of Roma living below the poverty line was almost six times as high as that of the general population. Parallel to this background of deprivation, there are also many cases of open discrimination against gypsies.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion, sponsored by the World Bank, the UNDP and other organisations, is designed to tackle these problems through cross-border co-operation.

Third world conditions

It is a step in the right direction, says Claude Cahn - programme director at the Budapest-based think tank, the European Roma Rights Centre.

"The Decade is important insofar as it enshrines the idea that the situation of Roma is in many ways in Europe an emergency, and governments need to take it seriously," he said.

It's still socially acceptable to speak ill of or to discriminate against Gypsies. And that is the heart and soul of the Roma issue
Claude Cahn,
European Roma Rights Centre

So far eight countries have signed up the Decade of Roma Inclusion. The launch is being hosted by Bulgaria, and it's being joined by Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Slovakia.

Together these countries account for over half of Europe's Roma population. That's one reason why they are taking the issue of Roma rights seriously. But Mr Cahn believes other countries should join them:

"There has been pressure on central and eastern Europe to work on these measures. Whether or not these governments are taking as thorough-going an approach as they could be is open to question.

"But certainly the governments which are not participating in the Decade are in many cases those governments that haven't yet gotten there [recognised the issue]. One could mean, Germany, one could mean Russia, one could mean France and the United Kingdom."

Studies of central and south-eastern Europe's Roma populations have often characterised them as having attributes similar to those of the people of many developing countries. These include a high birth rate, a generally low life expectancy, low levels of education, mass unemployment and widespread poverty.

'Holistic' issue

Amidst all these problems, how should the Decade of Roma Inclusion set about tackling the key problems?

Mr Cahn argues for a joined-up approach.

"Many people see education as the key. Other people notice that unemployment is so high in a number of areas that really putting people back into work should be the first priority," he says.

"I think the closer one gets to the actual issues, the closer one sees that the problems are really holistic".

Begging Roma boy in Grozny, Chechnya
Many Roma are forced into begging from an early age

Europe's Roma also face a different challenge - discrimination. There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that so many gypsies live in poverty; the public perception that associates them with a high incidence of crime; and their separate ethnicity, often manifested in their darker skin colour.

Mr Cahn believes it is not enough to focus on social and economic programmes that provide better opportunities for the Roma.

"There really needs to be something done throughout Europe to tackle the very high level of anti-Romany sentiment. It's still socially acceptable to speak ill of or to discriminate against Gypsies. And that is the heart and soul of the Roma issue."

The long timescale of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is itself proof that no one underestimates just how hard it will be to improve the living conditions of Europe's gypsies. But there is now a much greater recognition that a more effective effort needs to be made - and that effort needs to be co-ordinated across borders.

On this issue EU enlargement may help provide some solutions - both through increased funding and higher standards from Brussels.

But few would harbour illusions about the scale of the task. And given the shortcomings encountered in the wealthier EU countries by non-European immigrants, there is much work to be done on both sides of the old east-west divide.


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SEE ALSO:
First Roma MEP on a mission
11 Jan 05 |  Europe
UK 'discriminated against Roma'
09 Dec 04 |  Politics
In pictures: The Roma of Athens
11 Aug 04 |  In Pictures
EU regrets envoy's Roma comment
14 May 04 |  Europe


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