BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Human Rights and the Roma
HITS: 1997 | 12-05-2004, 21:49 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

Western human rights groups were complaining about the treatment of Czechoslovakia’s Roma minorities as far back as the mid 1980s. When the country split into the Czech and Slovak Republics monitoring of the situation increased under the auspices of the Council of Europe and other EU institutions. At the same time, various cross border Romany NGOs were formed, ostensibly to protect the rights of this large and controversial minority. Funding was made available for a variety of projects, including the EU’s own PHARE project which supported initiatives to improve both living and educational standards for the Roma. On top of this, the Slovak government appointed a minister for Roma Affairs at the time of writing the post is held by Klara Orgovanova, herself of Roma origin.
While many of the people involved in NGO work are well-meaning, many projects have been based on the (mis)understanding that the Roma inhabit a quaint, picturesque bohème world strumming the cembalon and speak their ancient Romany language. Mrs Orgovanova’s web page features what purports to be a Romany dance troop regaled in their finest, völkisch costumes as they perform some elaborate peasant dance. In contrast, a further photograph - this time of a Slovak peasant woman - shows her bent double under a load of branches gathered, presumably, for fire wood. The two representations are, in fact, a reversion of the truth. It is the Romanies who are bowed down under piles of fire wood while only ‘white’ Slovaks are likely to be doing the folk dancing.
Everywhere they went, BHHRG met Roma who spoke Slovak and who only wanted to learn the Slovak language. They were also told by people in the villages they visited in Eastern Slovakia that they hadn’t received any benefits from the projects launched on their behalf by the EU, the Slovak government and NGOs.. It is also difficult to see how people living in such dire circumstances could possibly partake in a PHARE project - just to take one example - which involves filling in numerous, complicated forms as well as finding a local ‘partner’, a condition for receiving PHARE funding. Many of the Roma interviewed by BHHRG were quick to accuse the various agencies of stealing money targeted for them or just implementing totally pointless projects – something also alleged by the media.[1]
An interesting example of botched funding occurred in 2003 when the local council in the village of Svinia, north west of Prešov, cancelled a project to build houses for local Roma arranged in cooperation with the Habitat for Humanity and the Canadian International Development Agency. “According to Ms. Agnes Ulična [mayor of Svinia] during the four years that the three groups had been cooperating not a single house had been built for Roma in Svinia because the local council reportedly did not have any land to offer for the type of housing envisioned in the project”.[2] It would be interesting to know how much funding had been released before this was discovered.
Although there is evidence that some nuns and priests are sympathetic and helpful to the Roma communities, BHHRG noted the near total absence of any kind of charity emanating from the Roman Catholic church which has a large following in eastern Slovakia. In fact, it seems that when contact does occur the Roma pay the church, rather than the other way round: in Trhovište BBHRG was told that the local priest charges Sk. 500 to baptize a Roma child which, judging by the number of children around, must provide a useful addition to his income.
Adult Roma men and women are politically astute and were quick to tell BHHRG that life had been better in the Communist era when they all had jobs - for example, in the Spiš mines or the railway loading yards around the border towns of Eastern Slovakia.

Conclusion

Although the Europeans continue to criticize the government in Bratislava they should have made tangible improvements in the lives of the Romani community a condition of Slovakia’s entry into the EU. A minimum requirement would have been the provision of proper housing with basic facilities like running water and electricity that have been the norm in mainstream Europe for the past hundred years. To sit back while large numbers of Roma subsist in the lower reaches of hell affects not only the victims but also condemns ordinary Slovaks to live alongside mayhem and squalor. This state of affairs only serves to compound the existing economic blight in Eastern Slovakia.
The Slovak government cannot say that it doesn’t have the funds when it is prepared to pour millions of crowns into the pockets of foreign investors who will bring few jobs to the country and whose long-term commitment is, anyway, precarious. While BHHRG was in Slovakia, a further 17 millions euros was made available to increase ‘security’ for the participants at a large European security conference taking place in Bratislava. 17 million euros would go a long way in improving the lives of many ordinary Slovaks, including the Roma.
Proper housing should be accompanied by a serious programme of birth control including voluntary sterilization (all made freely available by the state) to encourage Romas to control the size of their families. BHHRG doubts that sticks rather than carrots will encourage people to do this. There must also be some attempt to introduce programmes of affirmative action. In the long run, policies which involve the cutting of social security payments accompanied by half-baked work fare programmes will not encourage cooperation with the authorities. There is simply not enough work to go around. The likely outcome is more stealing and unrest. After visiting Eastern Slovakia BHHRG was convinced that most able bodied Roma men are not lazy but want to work – they had done so in the past and want to do so again. And, although much is made of the poor educational standards in their community, BHHRG found both Roma men and women sharp, intelligent and well-informed.
However, this is not to say that a solution to this problem is easy, either in Slovakia or other central and eastern European countries with large Roma minorities. The root cause of their difficulties - and the difficulties faced by millions of their non-Romany compatriots – rests with the inappropriate economic policies that have been pursued all over the region since the collapse of Communism. Jobs cannot be summoned up overnight; closed factories and mines will never function again. If the likely ‘blowback’ of this situation is for millions of people from the New Europe, including the Roma, to seek a better life in the West then that is a price we in the old Europe will have to pay for having forced them into poverty in the name of ‘reform’.


[1] Robert Nurden, "email", The Guardian, 8th March 2004,
[2] “Slovak Local Council Cancels Romani Housing Project"
www.errc.org/rr_nr3_2003.

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