The neglected struggle for Roma civil rights across Europe
A struggle for equality that seeks to put an end to centuries of discrimination, segregation and persecution would usually be the stuff of international headlines.
The battle against apartheid, the fight for LGBT rights and campaigns for religious freedoms regularly dominate the world’s media. But, there is one civili rights movement at the heart of Europe which has been largely forgotten, or ignored – until now.
For hundreds of years the Roma have been a minority people, even though they have a population greater than 20 European states and more than twice that of Scotland.
Their political representation at local, national and international levels is almost zero.They have a life expectancy up to 16 years less than other EU residents, an infant mortality rate between two and six times higher than the general population, and are more likely to be poorly educated and in unskilled jobs or unemployed.
According to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency 80 per cent live below the poverty line. Millions live in slum conditions without electricity, running water or proper sanitation and suffer daily harassment and violence.
Forced evictions, segregation and discrimination have become commonplace in many places, even among access to public and private transportation, shops, restaurants, leisure facilities and clubs where signs proclaiming “No Gypsies allowed” go unchallenged.
Putting an end to Roma exclusion is one of the most serious challenges facing EU member states, so that’s why the Commission is encouraging Roma activists to fight the discrimination which causes so much suffering and costs EU countries an estimated €0.5billion a year each.
“It’s about conservation and communication,” said Ann Morton Hyde, the Glasgow-based co-ordinator of the international For Roma, with Roma project who is helping to change perceptions by encouraging the media to engage with Roma communities instead of demonising them.
“We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling but Roma people, even the most qualified, used to be trapped in a glass box environment where Roma social workers, lawyers, teachers and such like can only work within their own communities – getting work in mainstream employment was not possible.
“But, things are changing. There is a new generation of young Roma emerging who are breaking down barriers. I’m not saying the glass box doesn’t exists anymore but it has cracks in it and it’s not quite as solid as it was 10 years ago.”
Marius Tudor, 28, a former professional football player from Mărginenii de Jos is a leading example of a new generation of activists. A rising star in Romania he has helped Roma communities find a voice through the ballot box.
“If we were a country we would be entitled to at least six MEPs in the European Parliament,” said Marius, a project manager for the Resources Center for Social Inclusion CRIS.
“For the last 20 years the Roma community has been manipulated, neglected and considered irrelevant. Now we have mobilised and organised the Roma have discovered they are not powerless. We have a voice and if we use it correctly we can ensure politicians listen to us and represent the interests of the Roma in the same way they represent other communities.
“It is time we held our heads up and told the world who we really are and put an end to the negative image that is so often portrayed.”
Roma in Scotland
There is estimated to be around 5,000 Roma people in Scotland with many living in overcrowded, unsanitary, conditions and subject to discrimination.
Not to be confused with Scottish Gypsies, Travellers and Showpeople the group of migrants commonly referred to as Roma are generally from Eastern Europe states such Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Most can be found within settled communities in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife, North Lanarkshire, Aberdeen and Falkirk where many live in large inter-generational family groups, sometimes at the mercy of unscrupulous private landlords, in overcrowded housing without adequate sanitation and limited access to employment, education, local health and other services.
Many life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, often go untreated among the Roma community while cultural differences mean Roma women feel comfortable discussing sexual health, contraception or maternity care with a GP or a Midwife.
With little recourse to public funding or assistance some Roma turn to the black economy, dealing in scrap or selling The Big Issue, to provide for their families.
It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of The Big Issue vendors in Scotland are from Romania and are Roma.
Those that do manage to find a regular job usually end up in low-skilled, low-paid employment that many Scots no longer want to do.
The result is a vicious circle of poverty leading to cultural clashes with the wider community, discrimination and social exclusion.
Roma families tend to socialise outdoors, sometimes to escape overcrowded living conditions, and these gatherings can be seen as threatening by the majority community leading to rising tensions between neighbours.
According to a 2013 report for the Scottish Government Glasgow has successfully implemented a programme of employment and training activities in the Govanhill area, attracting members of the Slovakian Roma population.
“The programmes were funded by the European Social Fund and have been successful in improving the quality of lives of the participants.
“The projects provided a pathway towards employment by providing pre-employment training to improve understanding of the labour market, followed by on-the-job training and employment to develop horticultural and landscaping skills,” said the report.
Traditionally itinerant workers, the Roma used to be celebrated for their skills as craftsmen., horse trainers and entertainers. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that massive social change turned them into outcasts.
In England in 1544 it became an offence punishable by death to be Roma while in Sweden, Holland and Denmark, they were hunted for sport. In Romania they were driven into slavery – a practice which continued until 1864, a year after Abraham Lincoln made his famous emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves in the USA.
During the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis targeted them alongside Jews, gays and the disabled for extermination. As many as an estimated two million Roma men, women and children were murdered as part of the Holocaust.
Even after the war the discrimination continued with thousands of Roma women being sterilised against their will as recently as the 1990s. Even today, centuries of discrimination from governments, institutions and individuals continues to push Roma to the margins of society where they are often treated as second class citizens in ghettos, such as one on the outskirts of Glina, near Bucharest.
Less than 20 miles from the centre of a major European capital more than 1,500 Roma live in what can only be described as a ‘shanty town’ on top of a garbage heap. Remarkably the walled enclave is considered one of the better Roma townships.
Even so, drawing water from a makeshift well in the front yard of her ramshackle home Dorina Nitia is fully aware of the possible harm she might be doing to herself and her family.
The crystal clear liquid, brought 40ft to the surface in a customised section of second-hand drain pipe serving as a bucket, looks healthy enough. But, situated just a few hundred yards from one of the biggest rubbish dumps in Romania there is every risk it could be contaminated.
“It has never been tested,” said the grandmother of four young girls. “But what choice do I have? I can’t afford to have it tested, the authorities don’t want to know and if it was found to be unfit to drink there is no alternative supply.”
Dorina has lived in Glina most of her life in the same three-room makeshift house her mother lived in. Now, she shares it with two of her young granddaughters and 19-year-old deaf, mute son. Another son, the father of the children, is currently serving a 12 month prison sentence for driving without a licence and her husband works away almost nine months a year as a shepherd.
Every day her daughter Liliana visits with her daughters Flori, aged 6, and Mia, 19 months. Liliana’s husband works in a vehicle accessories factory in the Czech Republic making carpets for cars. He sends home money when he can but is employed on a casual basis without a contract and his earnings are erratic.
As matriarch of the family Dorina has much to worry about but she is most concerned about the crumbling state of her home.
“I worry the roof will give way and the whole house will collapse on top of the children,” she said. “We are trying to get the money together to build a new house further down the road but it is very difficult.”
Only the oldest child, six-year-old Flori, attends school on any kind of a regular basis.
“She loves school,” said Dorina.”She would go every day if she could and cries when I have to keep her home. One day I let her go but had no money to send any food with her. Some of her friends had a sandwich for lunch and she came home crying because she was hungry. It broke my heart. Sometimes all I have to give my children is a hug.”
There used to be a volunteer programme run by Romani CRISS which encouraged children to attend school and they were given at least one free meal a day. It was a popular programme and dramatically increased school attendance but after just one year its funding of around €75,000 a year was withdrawn and it had to close.
It was a vital lifeline for many. According to the UN children’s agency Unicef, in Eastern Europe only 20 per cent of Roma children are enrolled in primary school. Those who do attend often don’t get to mix with peers from non-Roma communities.
Despite school segregation being prohibited by the European Union’s Race Equality Directive the practice of placing Roma children in separate classes, based solely on their skin colour, ethnicity, and socio-economic situation persists. Even when they are not physically separated, Roma children are routinely placed in the back of the class, receive less attention from their teachers, and endure bullying and stigma. It is little wonder many quit school early and fail to see there is a better lifestyle available.
Providing youngsters with an alternative glimpse of the future, and seeing the look of realisation on their faces, is what drives Catalina Olteanu, a 28-year-old teacher from Rasuceni.As a Project Co-ordinator with the Impreuna Agency for Community Development her job is to visit schools, encourage Roma children to understand the value of a good education and inspire them to follow the examples of positive role models from the Roma community.
“I show a film featuring interviews with Roma people who have been successful as actors, musicians, singers, social workers, teachers and in other professions. It is the first time many of the children have seen a Roma priest or Roma doctor. They are not used to seeing such role models. There is a lot of negative ideas about Roma people and we want to show it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Catalina who was born into a poor Roma family.
“I understand their problems. I walked 3km to school and I faced the same kinds of discrimination they do. Although my family was poor they realised the importance of education and encouraged me to work hard.”
So far she has visited more than 100 schools throughout Romania and is convinced things are changing.
“I can see it in the eyes of the children that something is happening,” she said.