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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
A rare celebration of Roma culture
By Hannah Goff
BBC News Online political staff

Londoners were given the opportunity to experience Roma culture when the capital's mayor, Ken Livingstone, brought a celebration of dance and music to Trafalgar Square.

BBC News Online went along to experience the culture of one of the world's most marginalised racial groups.


The rousing rhythms of gypsy music cannot fail to move even the most tone deaf amongst us.

But the reaction to the Roma asylum seekers and travelling communities that keep it alive has not always been so positive.

Members of folk group Romani Rad
Romani Rad entertained the city crowds in Trafalgar Square

Throughout the past eight centuries or so Roma communities have been abused, harassed and chased across Europe.

In many parts of eastern Europe, Romanies are still subjected to discrimination, marginalisation and segregation, the Council of Europe says.

In some former Soviet bloc countries, Roma women are not only racially abused but subjected to enforced sterilisations, the council's commissioner for human rights has said.

It is experiences like these that have led many to take refuge as asylum seekers in the UK.

But Sylvia Ingmire of the Roma Support Group, said the community has not always been received with open arms.

"They feel discrimination and persecution. They came here to seek asylum and they stay here as refugees but they also experience quite a lot of hostility in the UK," she said.

"Part of our aim as an organisation is to build bridges, and art is a fantastic medium between cultures.

"So we use music, dancing and the visual arts to facilitate a dialogue."

'Forbidden'

And in a grey and very wet Trafalgar Square in central London it was the music that did the talking.

Scores of people were drawn in by the melancholic sounds of Transylvanian folk music from London-based band Mukka.

And despite a downpour of torrential proportions, the revellers returned to witness the whirling dances of Polish Roma band Romani Rad.

Beatrice Parvin
Beatrice Parvin says the folk dances are passed on by performing them

Like the Romany travelling people themselves, the music cannot be fixed or tied to a particular place.

"The music is where the Roma people are. We look at the gypsy music and it shows the route of the Roma people's migration," Mrs Ingmire says.

"It evolves according to the way the people emigrated," she adds.

Beatrice Parvin performed a dance which she said drew from Algerian folk music, Spanish Flamenco, Macedonia, Turkey and eastern Europe.

Another performer told the audience she would sing a song "from Transylvania" where she was born - "via Camberwell".

"It's an enormous honour for these Roma musicians to play in Trafalgar Square," says Mrs Ingmire.

"Where they come from they couldn't play this music - it is forbidden - so this is tremendous."

'Safe countries'

Despite the abuse that many of these Romany people say they have experienced, it has been almost impossible for many to prove to the British authorities that they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

Before the recent EU expansion many were travelling from countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, considered "safe countries" by the Home Office.

Mukka
Romanian musicians Mukka perform Transylvanian songs
A Refugee Council spokeswoman said it has became increasingly difficult to gain refugee status if you have come from one of these countries.

"People have to show that they have been individually targeted.

"It was generally agreed that people coming from the Czech Republic and Hungary, for example, were making claims that were clearly unfounded," she added.

Delaney death

A spokeswoman for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: "Historically in UK law, the courts seem to have taken the view that the Roma have a borderline case for asylum in this country.

"This is because while the UK courts have taken the view that there is evidence that Roma suffer discrimination, a restrictive interpretation of the Geneva Convention by them construes that this discrimination does not amount to persecution. "

Clearly anyone from the 10 new EU accession states now has a legal right to freedom of movement within the 25 countries that make up the EU. But this does not mean they are always welcome.

It is not just in eastern Europe where Roma gypsies have faced discrimination.

Sylvia Ingmire
Roma music is banned in many of the musician's home countries, says Sylvia Ingmire

The killing in Cheshire of 15-year-old Johnny Delaney, who was from an Irish travelling family, has highlighted the prejudice some gypsies and travellers experience in the UK.

The court heard he was beaten to death simply because he was a gypsy. His family called it a racist killing.

Policy development officer with the Young Woman's Christian Association, Lucy Russell, who has been researching the issue, says discrimination and marginalisation is the common experience of the Roma women she has spoken to.

She recalls two girls who said they were followed around every time they went to a certain shop.

"It took two about years before the shop owner realised they weren't going to steal anything," she added.

As elsewhere, the arrival of travellers is frequently met with fierce hostility from rural communities in the UK.

Crowds in Trafalgar Square
Crowds brave a near torrential downpour
Travelling communities tend not to have good access to the basic services, like health and education

"The picture is very extreme. There are really unacceptable differences between gypsy communities and mainstream communities in terms of health," says Ms Russell.

And then there is access to local authority sites.

The 1994 Criminal Justice Act ended local authorities' legal obligation to provide traveller sites.

'Isolated'

As a result many have been closed down, leading to more illegal encampments without facilities like running water or rubbish collection.

Many Roma people have been forced out of their caravans and into council houses, Ms Russell says.

Romani Rad
Members of Romani Rad in traditional Roma costumes

"It's like forcing non-Roma people to live in a caravan - it is very destructive to the family life which is very important to Roma people.

"They can end up feeling very isolated and cut off from the rest of the family," she adds.

For many enjoying the music and dance in London's Trafalgar Square - it wasn't just about the music.

One Roma folk music fan Nadifa Mohamed said it was good Mr Livingstone was backing the event.

"The recent immigration of people from eastern Europe has not been dealt with very well by the newspapers. The Roma community are a great community and the music's great."

Another audience member Keith Jarrett, 20, said: "Anyone who says Ken Livingstone shouldn't be spending tax-payers' money on an event like this - well they should just get a life."




SEE ALSO:
Roma mark Holocaust at Auschwitz
02 Aug 04  |  Europe
Slovak police clamp down on Roma
25 Feb 04  |  Europe


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