Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Southeast European Time: A new era for Romania's Roma

A new era for Romania's Roma

According to official estimates, Roma account for some 2.5% of the country's population, and the actual number could be much higher. They also are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Romania, with 74% in poverty. As the country prepares to join the EU, efforts are under way to better the quality of their lives.
By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest – 20/11/06

Europe is home to at least eight million Roma, of whom six million live in Central and Eastern Europe. The last census, in 2002, revealed that Romania had a stable Roma population of 535,140 -- amounting to 2.5% of the country's population -- but unofficial estimates run as high as 2.5 million.
Experts in Roma history agree that the population hails from India and probably left there no later than the 10th century. However, it remains very difficult to establish precisely when they settled down on Romanian territory. The first documented evidence of Roma in Romania dates back to 1374, when Dan the 1st offered the Vodita monastery 40 Roma as slaves. That was a status they had for centuries. In 1424, Transylvania's Roma were led by a voivode (ruler) as the Constitution stipulated, but that provision was scrapped in 1588 by the provincial assembly.
In 1785, Austrian Emperor Joseph II abolished slavery in Transylvania. Four years later, the first Roma were accepted in the province's schools and churches. Things were different in the other two Romanian provinces, Moldova and Walachia, which were still under Ottoman sovereignty and opposed to the modern ideas of the West. It was only in 1855 and 1856, respectively, that the two abolished slavery entirely, under pressure from writers and intellectuals.

Centuries of slavery were followed by persecutions and deportations during the pro-Nazi regime of Ion Antonescu in the Second World War. Nearly 38,000 Romanian Roma died in the Holocaust, according to figures advanced by the Romanian War Crimes Committee. The subsequent communist dictatorship then forcibly displaced whole Roma communities and confiscated their assets in pursuing its objective of creating a homogenous Romanian society.
For half a century, communism had tried to conceal these problems while fostering the illusion of utopia. With the fall of communism and the beginning of the transition period, however, social tensions erupted, and the fires were fanned by the burgeoning Romanian media. In 1991, a Roma villager in Bolintin Deal, a settlement near Bucharest, killed a Romanian. The murder aroused the Romanian community in the village, who responded by setting fire to Roma houses. Two years later, on September 23rd 1993, three Roma people were killed in Hadareni, Mures County, by angry villagers. One of the persons killed had earlier stabbed a Romanian. His crime brought a collective punishment -- 14 houses of the Roma community were burned down and 175 Roma that had lived in Hadareni for nearly 70 years were ousted from the village.

Between 1990 and 1993, at least eight Roma were killed and many others seriously wounded during outburst of collective violence, according to a report released by the European Center for Roma Rights. There have also been frequent instances of abuse of Roma at the hands of police. As with crimes of private violence, such occurrences frequently go unpunished and sometimes are not even properly investigated.

Racist statements have been made by the leader of an extremist opposition party, Corneliu Vadim Tudor. According to an OSCE report, he reportedly announced in August 1998 a ten-point programme which included "isolating the Roma criminals in special colonies" in order to "stop the transformation of Romania into a Gypsy camp".

The government, meanwhile, has become increasingly aware of the need to promote and apply a strategy for the Roma minority. In February 1997, the government founded the National Roma Office as part of the National Minorities Department. In October 2004, the office was transformed into the National Roma Agency, led by a president with the rank of state secretary.
In 2001, the government adopted a national strategy for bettering the quality of life for the Roma. It defines priorities across ten major fields of activity, including social security, health, justice, education, communication and civic involvement. A 7.6m-euro PHARE project meant to support this strategy was finalised in April 2006. Meanwhile, the Romanian General Inspectorate of Police has launched a programme aimed at improving relations between the police and the Roma community, and to enhance the police's capacity to respond effectively in situations of tension between Roma and non-Roma communities. The programme was developed with the help of the Project on Ethnic Relations and the Department of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville.

In July 2003, in Budapest, the leaders of eight Central and Eastern European states agreed to launch the "Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015", a project initiated by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute. Its primary objectives are the elimination of discrimination and poverty among this community. Romania held the presidency of the programme for a year, between July 2005 and July 2006.

In July 2006, the World Bank agreed to loan Romania 58.5m for a social inclusion project. Its beneficiaries include some of the most disadvantaged groups in the country -- the Roma minority, children at high risk and/or coming out of child care institutions, persons with disabilities, and victims of domestic violence. The project was developed under the new Country Partnership Strategy principles, intended to help Romania meet its commitments in the Joint Inclusion Memorandum signed with the European Commission.

In less than three months, Romania will join the EU. The time is ripe for addressing social sector issues, in order that the benefits of reform and EU accession can be brought to society's most vulnerable segments. With 74% living in poverty, an infant mortality rate four times higher than the country's average and a formal employment rate of 13%, the Roma are particularly at risk. The last census, conducted in 2002, revealed that a quarter of Roma are illiterate. Unwilling to renounce their traditions they've observed for hundreds years, including the custom of marrying children at an early age, the Roma are often at odds with the authorities and the law.
Minority Watch, based in London, suggests Romania and Bulgaria should use part of their regional development funds to improve life for the Roma. Unless a sustained effort is made, improvements will only be short-term. And that is something neither country can afford.



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