Back to Magazine

On the edge
Jean-François Berger

Kosovo Albanian boy stands amongst the rubble of destroyed Roma homes in Pristina, Kosovo. These homes were burnt and destroyed, and the occupants evicted and expelled in a wave of ethnic cleansing.

For the Roma in central and eastern Europe, the post-cold war upheavals have made them the region's most marginalized and vulnerable minority. Red Cross, Red Crescent investigates the fate of a people scattered across several countries, who over the centuries has learned to survive in the direst conditions.

Every person has a place in the shadows" goes a Roma proverb. The truth of this saying is no more evident than in Budila, a village in the Transylvania region of Romania, where more than half of the 5,000 inhabitants are Roma. Confined to the outskirts of the village and reached by a muddy track, the Roma settlement in Budila has neither running water nor electricity. Their homes - usually just a single room - are poorly constructed letting in the cold and the rain. In the cramped interior, deprivation is the rule.

This situation is representative of most Roma across central Europe, where an estimated 6 to 10 million live. It is a rough estimate because the truth is that no one has an accurate figure. The European Union has calculated there are 700,000 to 800,000 Roma in Bulgaria; 250,000 to 300,000 in the Czech Republic; 550,000 to 600,000 in Hungary; 8,200 in Latvia; 50,000 to 60,000 in Poland; 1,800,000 to 2,500,000 in Romania; 480,000 to 520,000 in Slovakia; and 6,500 to 10,000 in Slovenia. Several hundred thousand more are living in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

However many there are, Roma are among the region's most vulnerable people. Marginalized despite their numbers, they live on average ten to 15 years less than the general population, and in shocking conditions. Unemployment rates among them can be 100 per cent, few of their children go to secondary school, and in some countries instability and economic crises have increased long-standing discrimination and violence against them. In one sector, they are ahead: they have the highest birth rate in the region.

Falling through the cracks

There are few Roma in the region who have benefited from the post-communist transition to a market economy. Poverty is widespread with the Roma hardest hit. Confined to ghettos on the edges of urban centres, they live in unhealthy housing under the threat of eviction as property is increasingly privatized.

Currently more than 70 per cent of them are jobless in central Europe, while three-quarters were employed in the 1970s, mostly in state-owned factories. Their low level of professional qualifications and the lack of employment for unskilled workers are particular disadvantages.

Poor sanitation and the lack of clean water in Roma ghettos are causing an increase in the transmission of infectious diseases.



The health situation is equally grim. Birth defects and infant mortality have risen, and turberculosis is widespread. Their lack of access to health care is glaring. "Many Roma live four or five kilometres from a medical centre," emphasizes Milan Scuka, one of the few Roma members of parliament in Slovakia. "The distance doesn't make it easy, but worse, we are often refused treatment, because without jobs, we don't have health insurance." Child vaccination is erratic: it depends on the level of the mother's health education - an education no longer provided by the Red Cross as it was in the past - but even more so on the public authorities, given that vaccinations are administered through the school system. "Before 1989 we were obliged to have a medical consultation in order to receive family allowances," recalls Milan Scuka.

It is the area of education that most clearly shows the marginalization of the Roma. Roma children in central and eastern Europe rarely go to school. In many instances, they are placed in institutions for the mentally handicapped. For lack of money or parental motivation, less than half of the children complete primary school; these children end up working on the streets to help put food on the table. Despite government initiatives to promote education among the Romungros, the largest group of Magyar-speaking Roma in Hungary, Bernath Gabor, head of the Roma Press Centre in Budapest, notes that "a Roma in Hungary has 50 times less chance of obtaining a university degree than a non-Roma Hungarian".

Reaching the Roma

Peter Yovkov of the Bulgarian Red Cross isn't a Roma but their plight concerns him. "Bulgarians and Roma have lived together for centuries and still don't know one another," he said. "And when people don't know someone they are often afraid of them. Bulgarians only see Roma when they are begging on the streets, or in front of churches, or are huddled in their blankets on our railway stations. They do not see the people or understand them. We have to get to know each other."

Yovkov is in the Filipovtzi quarter of Lyulin, a souless suburb of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. He is there to pave the way for the Participatory Community Development (PCD) programme he coordinates and which is already under way in a village of Roma and Turks in north-eastern Bulgaria, and in the desperate Roma neighbourhood of the industrial city of Sliven.

PCD is about helping people to analyse their situation and develop ways to improve their condition. The community is mobilized in the process, bringing together those in need and other concerned parties, the authorities and NGOs among them.

The Sofia branch of the Bulgarian Red Cross has its work cut out in Filipovtzi. So many NGOs have come and gone, written reports, taken pictures and done nothing, that trust is won slowly from the population. Here in the shadow of Lyulin's concrete jungle is a crumbling, unsanitary no-go area of slum dwellings deprived of hope and seething with discontent. The sewage system is broken down, most homes do not have running water, no one collects the garbage and there isn't a single public telephone.

The local doctor tells Yovkov that poverty and bad living conditions are the main causes of the population's poor health. A woman on the street says, "Most of us live in a toilet. There isn't even a public bathhouse anymore. Since democracy came we haven't had a life."

Yovkov will help the Red Cross branch put a team together here. They will survey the ghetto and community analysis will lead to a modest project the Roma will learn to manage. There will be hiccups, and Yovkov is aware they may be big ones. "But it's working so far in Sliven," he says, "and what is possible there..."

The Roma quarter of Sliven, the Nadezhda district, is one of Bulgaria's most deprived communities. In an industrial town of 100,000 people set below the country's central mountains, 15,000 impoverished Roma are crowded into narrow streets, most of them jobless, most of them living without sanitation, most of them without health insurance and condemned to low-quality health care.

The PCD programme is targeting 500 families, mostly Roma but also needy Turks and Bulgarians who live in Nadezhda as well. A report from the team doing fieldwork was due at the end of July. "It will confirm we are forgotten by God and everyone else," said one man, and most likely that public health is where the Red Cross should concentrate.

Off the streets

The Sliven branch of the Bulgarian Red Cross is well known to the Roma. Six years ago it began to focus on the growing number of street children, those induced into begging, stealing and prostitution, those who were abused, those obliged to earn money to contribute to family survival. "These were children without a future," said branch secretary Margarita Ruseva. "If the condition of the Roma is to change, they must have an education."

One of the most critical factors in the marginalization of the Roma is their high level of unemployment, caused to a large extent by their low level of education. The state is responsible for changing that but the Bulgarian Red Cross is lending a hand around the country, showing the way, forcing the pace with innovative programmes.

In Sliven, financed by the Belgian Red Cross, a former kindergarten has become a halfway house for youngsters who otherwise would not enter the education system. Children from the ages of eight to ten are provided with the language, literacy and life skills any child needs to progress.

Besides the start of an education, the centre provides the children with clothes, a bath and three meals a day. Rather than starting the year with the alphabet, they are introduced to such things as hygiene and healthy habits, and good communication with others. Lessons are short and there isn't a full school programme. "We deal with realities," said centre director Dimitar, "and little by little we prepare them to start first grade."



Roma Red Cross

Getting children to school and keeping them there has preoccupied the Red Cross in other Bulgarian cities, like Yambol and Pazardjik. Yambol is exceptional for something else. Since 1997, it has had a Roma Red Cross sub-branch.

Most Red Cross programmes are implemented with Roma partners from among the NGOs that have mushroomed over recent years. With one of the largest Roma populations in the country and the deprivations that come with 80 to 90 per cent unemployment, Yambol wanted more. "We had to open the door to what remained a closed community," said regional Red Cross secretary, Diana Dineva. A Romani doctor, Shukri Hasanov, who had the trust of his patients in the Roma quarter, did it for them, establishing a sub-branch which was at once a grass-roots lobby group.

Hasanov's group soon identified major problems and the Swiss Red Cross financed an 18-month project of social assistance and health education. A club for young mothers was organized where psychological and pedagogical support was available, along with medical consultations for often very young women, some little more than children themselves. Educational programmes were introduced for youngsters, promoting creativity and productive leisure. Pupils from very poor families had access to singing, dancing and painting classes, and a gymnastics club opened where young people could train with one of Bulgaria's sporting greats, former European and world gymnastics champion, Margarita Mollova.

The project had its problems, and was amended before formally ending in March 2002, but the positive impact is clear, and activities will continue and develop. Soon new plans will be presented to donors.

Motivating children and parents to ensure youngsters are properly educated will remain a vital element. Providing breakfasts for regular school-goers - which increased attendance by 12 per cent - is but a start in breaking what Nikolina Atanasova, secretary of the Roma sub-branch and a specialist on minority affairs for the municipality, described as a vicious circle.

Around the world, it is grass-roots presence, a community base that make Red Cross and Red Crescent programmes so effective. What the Bulgarian experience underlines is that the Roma challenge is no exception. With upwards of 6 million Roma in central Europe, more should be present in Red Cross ranks.

John Sparrow
John Sparrow is Federation regional communications unit head in Budapest.


A rise in racism

Nationalist sentiments stirred up by the end of the cold war have reawakened anti-Roma feeling, which although far from absent under communist rule was nonetheless held in check by the state's authority. Demands for ethnic purity, growing economic problems and insecurity linked to the end of communism have dealt a harsh hand to the Roma, who have been made the scapegoats of the decline. Racist incidents, notably attacks by neo-Nazi groups, have multiplied throughout Europe.

"During the communist era, only the police were aggressive; today it can be the whole population," explains Nicolae Gheorghe, a respected Roma community leader. The upshot is that some Roma are trying to reaffirm their identity and to assert their rights as a minority, while others are seeking to blend into the dominant groups by assimilation.

Doubtless, the democratic reforms since 1989 have engendered an awareness of human rights and the rights of minorities which is proving beneficial to the interests of the Roma and to their emancipation in the long term. Indeed, the emergence of Roma non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is a telling sign.

The driving force behind this development is a foundation, Open Society Institute (OSI), created by George Soros, a Hungarian-born financier. By focusing on the training of a Roma intellectual elite and by financing a large network of local NGOs, "the OSI hopes that the Roma will participate in public life and that they will be fully involved in making the decisions affecting them", affirms Rumyan Rusinov, a young director of the OSI. It must be said, however, that not all the Roma NGOs are models of good management and transparent accountancy.

Working for the European Union (EU) in Bucharest, Simona Botea is trying to identify Roma representatives "capable of developing, managing and evaluating development and education projects". Aware of what is at stake, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have stepped up aid to promote Roma integration. For its part, the Council of Europe has over the past ten years focused on improving the legal status and living conditions of the Roma, with the long-term goal of ensuring their effective participation in public life. The central and eastern European governments are in favour of such a development, as the protection of minorities is one of the political criteria for joining the EU.

As the economies of eastern and central Europe continue to collapse, the Roma will fall further into poverty and be used as racial scapegoats for the region's woes. Here a group of Roma from Romania are squatting in a house without water, electricity and gas in a suburb of Warsaw.

Driven out by war

The Roma have paid a high price in the various conflicts that have torn apart the former Yugoslavia.

During the Kosovo conflict, the Roma were caught in the crossfire. Between 1998 and 1999, they had to abandon their homes on at least three occasions: in 1998 following clashes between Serb police and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA); during the NATO air strikes which began in March 1999; and lastly, in July 1999 for fear of reprisals by the KLA. Their main concern today is to return and recover their lost belongings.

The number of Roma in Kosovo before 1998 is much disputed and varies between 50,000 and 150,000. One reason for the discrepancy is that before the war, the Ashkali and the Egyptians - traditionally close to the Kosovo Albanians - were considered and counted as Albanians. Since then, the Ashkalis have been trying to be recognized as such, but remain isolated and marginalized. Those who were close to the Serbs or suspected of collaborating with them have left Kosovo for Serbia and Macedonia. In Serbia, the disparity in estimates of the number of Roma is even greater, ranging from 150,000 (official sources) to 800,000 (Roma sources). There too, the "mimic effect" has meant that some of the Roma consider themselves to be either Serb or Roma, depending on the circumstances.

Since August 2001, the Belgian Red Cross, with the assistance of a branch of the Yugoslav Red Cross, has been running a socio-economic rehabilitation project for 800 Roma driven out of Kosovo and settled in Cukarica, a suburb of Belgrade. Six people - two Roma, two Serb and two Belgian - share the tasks, which include social mediation, home maintenance, school help for children, vaccinations and a myriad of other daily services. According to Vladimir, one of the social mediators, "We have to be realistic in our approach and facilitate access by the Roma to basic services." His colleague Stefan points out that "these are survivors who don't know whom to trust". This project is under way in Slovakia and Bulgaria as well.

In Macedonia, the Roma go way back. Here, film director Emir Kusturica captured those unforgettable sequences from "The Time of Gypsies". Esma Redzepova, the celebrated singer dubbed "Queen of the Gypsies", lives in Skopje, one of the world's principal Roma cities. In this fragile country, 55 per cent of the population live on the threshold of poverty. Two recent Roma migrations have taken place. The first was in July 1999 from Kosovo, at present there are 3,000 refugees waiting for asylum in western countries. The second population displacement was linked to the internal conflict in 2001. The Macedonian Red Cross, with the support of the ICRC and the Federation, is actively assisting the refugees, displaced people and social cases, who also benefit from the activities of some 70 Roma NGOs.



What is the Red Cross doing?

Roma are included in Red Cross programmes, as the most needy in society always are. But the question facing many National Societies is: are we doing enough? Do the cultural differences, the greatest needs and the widespread prejudice that exists at all levels of society, demand specifically Roma interventions? Or can enhanced integrated projects do better, given that not only the Roma, but majority populations in central Europe are in serious trouble.

The World Bank found that between 1988 and 1998 absolute poverty rates in central and eastern Europe increased by around 20 per cent, and beyond any doubt today's deprivation is unprecedented since the end of communist rule. Between 20 and 30 per cent of central Europe's 130 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and state health and welfare is failing them. Can poorly-funded Red Cross societies struggling to meet these challenges target minorities separately? Do they have the capacity?

The answers are not always easy and there are those in the Red Cross - perhaps reflecting the prejudice around them - who would bury their heads in the sand. But the Red Cross knows it is in a unique position to help, particularly through community health and care programmes, and in terms of advocacy.

But the main obstacle the Roma face in accessing social assistance is the tightening of conditions for receiving state aid. Most agencies require that beneficiaries have certain administrative documents, which they do not usually possess. The problem is not, however, purely bureaucratic. It is the product of a vicious circle, which reflects the deplorable condition of the Roma and the structural limitations that keep them marginalized.

For many Roma, the fall of the Berlin wall has only meant the creation of new barriers, including between east and west, which have heightened their vulnerability. For the Movement, the Roma issue has the potential to be a mobilizing force, both in the traditional arena of health education and in the social sector. In the words of the former Hungarian dissident Andras Biro, "The Roma issue is a bomb waiting to go off unless we give them an entry into society."

ICRC delegate meeting with Roma to organize an assistance programme for the community after the conflict in Kosovo.


A fragmented history

Everything to do with the Roma's past is vague, given the essentially oral nature of their culture. There are an estimated 12 million Roma worldwide; 8 million in Europe, the majority of whom - around 6 million - live in central and eastern Europe, making them the largest minority in the region.

Originating in India, Roma communities are a diverse minority who seek neither territory nor political sovereignty. Essentially, they desire recognition of their existence and their rights. They are culturally and geographically dispersed and their lack of unity in terms of international representation is common knowledge.

The word "Roma", which means "man" in Romany, the main language of the Roma, encompasses several diverse groups, such as the Kalderash (from the Romanian word for "cauldron"), the Lovara (from the Hungarian word for "horse"), the Sinti, the Manouches and the Gitans of southern France and Spain. There is no specifically Roma religion; while maintaining their own rituals, the Roma have generally adapted to the various religions in the countries in which they have settled.

The Roma moved to Europe in several major migrations from the 14th century onwards. Much prized by the European courts during the Renaissance owing to their skills as warriors, horsemen and blacksmiths, the Roma saw their status diminish over the centuries. During the Second World War, 500,000 Roma are believed to have perished in Nazi concentration camps, although the Nuremberg Tribunal paid little heed to their fate.


Jean-François Berger
Jean François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.



Top | Contact Us | Credits | Previous issue | Webmaster

© 2002 | Copyright