On the edge
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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".
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.
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
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
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
Off the streets
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.
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
Roma Red Cross
Getting children to school and keeping them
there has preoccupied the Red Cross in other Bulgarian cities,
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
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,
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 is Federation regional communications unit
head in Budapest.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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
ICRC delegate meeting with Roma to organize
an assistance programme for the community after the conflict
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
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 is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red
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