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Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 11:14 UK

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Hungary

The European Union's freedom of movement laws mean Eastern Europe's large population of Roma (Gypsies) is now spreading west.

Roma family in Hungary
Roma make up as much as 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

The effect of this influx on national economies, as well as the deep poverty of the EU's Roma, are high on the agenda as the first summit on Roma integration within the EU begins in Brussels.

Italy and Spain have received the most Roma, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, where they make up as much as 10% of the population.

Italy has witnessed the most serious effects - murders blamed on Roma, and revenge attacks by vigilante groups, followed by controversial government attempts to fingerprint Roma immigrants.

In Hungary, there is tension between Roma and non-Roma, after a teacher was beaten to death by a Roma mob in one village, and attacks on a lorry driver and his family in another - both after road traffic accidents involving Roma children.

The creation of a "Hungarian Guard", by far-right groups who arrive in villages after such incidents, is fuelling fears of an explosion.

Integration key

"I don't really know how the EU could help," said Andras Ujlaky, head of the Chance for Children Foundation in Hungary.

"But perhaps they could start by pressurising national governments to implement their own declared policies in housing, employment and education."

Hungarian customs trainee Jozsef Nagy
There weren't many opportunities... This was the chance for me!
Jozsef Nagy
Trainee customs officer

In Hungary, an earlier policy to give money to schools for the mentally disabled, to which a disproportionate number of Roma were sent, was abandoned when it was realised that it encouraged segregation.

Now funds are focused on mainstream schools which accept more Roma - though they impose limits of 25% Roma in a class.

There has been a wave of school closures in recent years in Hungary, as population figures fall.

That cuts both ways for the Roma. When Roma ghetto schools close, and the children are redistributed among schools with an ethnic Hungarian majority, it helps integration efforts.

The town of Hodmezovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary has been a pioneer, with five out of 11 primary schools closed last year alone.

But in far-flung villages with a majority Roma population, Roma and non-Roma parents alike are upset when local schools close and children are bussed off each day to towns.

The links between the parents and the schools are broken.

An alternative policy, supported by opposition parties, would be to improve the facilities and standard of teaching in existing schools.

Police drive

In eastern Hungary poverty is so endemic - with the Roma blamed for widespread petty theft - that the head of the Hungarian Poultry Board recently complained that people are no longer raising hens in several counties.

One new initiative for Roma integration in Budapest is being run by Gyorgy Makula, a policeman of Roma origin.

Hungarian police officer Gyorgy Makula (left) and some Roma boys
Officer Gyorgy Makula (left) hopes to help Roma boys out of the ghetto

Giant placards will be placed at strategic points around Budapest, to try to encourage more Roma to consider a police career.

Data protection laws make it impossible to measure how many Roma police there are in Hungary, but Gyorgy Makula estimates no more than 200, in a police force of 38,000.

"We should show to the Hungarian people, to the majority, among them the police staff, that there are really excellent people in this community who have been working for the police, who are not criminals of course.

"So we would like to change the mind of the people," said Capt Makula.

At the police college on Szecsenyi Hill overlooking Budapest, Jozsef Nagy, a third-year trainee customs officer, says he always wanted to join one of the law enforcement agencies.

"There weren't many opportunities in our village to get somewhere in life. This was the chance for me!" he said.

Bending rules

One obstacle to increasing Roma numbers in the police is the fact that fewer than 10% of Roma students complete secondary school in Hungary.

A new idea is to bend the rules - to let them begin police training, and take their school-leaving exams inside the police academy.

In Csorog, a village less than an hour's drive north of Budapest, with a large Roma population, the idea of more Roma policemen goes down well.

"I can foresee some problems," said Zoltan Lakatos, a dustman, "if a policeman was forced to arrest one of his own relatives. But on the whole it's a good idea. I think it would help."

But his son, Zoli, 15, cannot imagine himself in uniform, planning a career steeped in Roma tradition.

"I've already decided," he said. "I'm going to be a dancer. I'm going to teach Gypsy dance."


SEE ALSO
Grappling with a Roma identity
01 Sep 08 |  Europe
The people the Olympics forgot
12 Aug 04 |  Europe

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