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Gary Younge
Shame of a continent

For as they rolled into town, a reception committee of residents was there to meet them. Every route was blocked by a mob of angry locals, telling the young Roma couple to go back to India and that they were not welcome. The demonstration had been encouraged by the mayor, who had told the local people not to sell their flats and houses to the Roma.

"We were told that if we go there they would burn the house down," says Karoly. "Since all the streets were closed we thought it was better that we didn't go and we turned back." To make sure he didn't change his mind, villagers set about demolishing the home. By the time police arrived, the roof was seriously damaged and the doors and windows destroyed.

So the Kolompars stand in a small settlement on the outskirts of Paks with five or six other Roma families who were also displaced by the storm. Pal Solt has just finished the school run in a minibus recently loaned from the council. Now they are displaced, school is several miles away for some. "Before then some children went to school and some didn't, depending on whose parents could or would take them and whose could or would not."

It is dusk, and each toddler boasts a runny nose and a halo of frantic midges. Women, balancing children on their hips, pull their cardigans in against the cold - the homes in which they have been placed have electricity but no heating and only a standpipe in the far corner for water. "We didn't expect this kind of treatment from the people here," says one woman. "Things were never easy, but they were never this bad. But now when they see us they tell us to go back to India. Maybe we should. It might be better and it can't be much worse. It's like Roma is a word they have stamped on our forehead."

At about the same time as the Kolompars were hounded out of town, all eyes in Hungary, as elsewhere in eastern Europe, were on Ireland, where the second referendum on EU enlargement was taking place. The first had been rejected in 2001, placing a final and unpredictable obstacle in the path of 75 million citizens seeking passage from eastern Europe, Cyprus and Malta to the bosom of the European Union. "They were watching the votes come in constituency by constituency," says Bernard Rorke, head of the Roma participation programme of the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute. Ireland's yes vote ended a chapter of anxiety in eastern Europe's long-held desire to return to the global fold.

The Kolompars did not even know the vote was taking place, yet the result may yet have a bigger impact on their lives than they will ever know. For the past few years the Hungarian government has been told that if it wishes to join the common European home then it will have to make sure that the Kolompars, and millions like them, can get into a home of their choice. Respect for minority rights in general, and the treatment of Roma in particular, has been a central issue in the process of accession. The same message has gone out to the Czech and Slovak governments, who are set to join the EU next year, as well as the Romanians and Bulgarians, who hope to join in 2007. Farm subsidies, corruption, crime, human trafficking and human-rights issues have all been high on the agenda during negotiations between the EU and candidate countries over the terms of accession.

But in terms of moral imperative, a human tragedy and a continent's shame, the treatment of the Roma, Europe's largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority, stands out. The fact that the Kolompars are still out in the cold gives some indication of how bad things still are. Roma children are routinely placed in schools for the "mentally disabled", unemployment rates stand at over 70% and housing segregation is as pervasive as popular prejudice and official discrimination.

Polls show that 91% of Czechs have "negative views" towards the Roma. The former Slovak prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, once stated that: "Slovaks produce first-rate values, Roma only themselves." A survey of Hungarian police officers revealed that 54% believe criminality to be a key element of the Roma identity, and all but 4% of those believed it to be genetic.

Their ethnicity effectively defines them as an underclass. It's as though Jim Crow was kicked out of America's deep south in the 60s only to land in central Europe at the start of the 21st century. But the fact that their plight is even on the international agenda is an indication of how much has changed and might yet still change. "It has it has been of genuine significance that the EU has made minority protection a main plank of its enlargement policy," says a report by the OSI. "The prospect of accession has brought criticism, money and an awareness in eastern Europe, that someone out there is watching," says Claude Cahn, director of research and publications at the European Roma Rights Centre, based in Budapest.

The journey from the Indian subcontinent to eastern Europe made by many Roma has been a long and hard one. "Linguistic evidence suggests that Gypsies originated in the Punjab," writes Zoltan Barany in his recent book, East European Gypsies. "They left perhaps as early as the sixth century and probably due to repeated incursions by Islamic warriors." They came through Persia, Armenia and Byzantium, reaching Europe sometime around the late 13th or early 14th century, settling mostly in the east. Their inequality has followed them to their graves. Nobody knows how many were murdered during the Roma holocaust, although estimates have ranged from 200,000 to 1.5 million. The Nazis murdered them but did not fight over them. "They were deemed so marginal that their murder provoked no intra-agency rivalries and thus required no written authorisation," wrote Henry Friedlander in The Origins of Nazi Genocide. Since the survivors were deprived of education and status, there is little in the way of diaries or memoirs to keep the experience in the public domain.

Under communism, their ethnic difference was denied in the interests of assimilation; under capitalism it has been persecuted in the name of chauvinism.

Today, at around 12 million (no reliable hard figures exist), the Roma population is roughly the size of Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg combined. Dispersed all over Europe, but mostly settled in the east, they make up 10% of Slovaks, 8% of Bulgarians, 6% of Romanians, 5% of Hungarians and 2% of Czechs, with smaller populations in Slovenia and Poland.

One of the two most popular misconceptions about the Roma is that nomadism is in trinsic to their culture. The truth is that while they are scattered, they are also settled. "The majority of east European Roma - especially in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia - have been sedentary for centuries," writes Barany.

The other misconception is that they comprise a homogenous group. Like any diaspora they have been heavily influenced by the places they have settled. In Macedonia the vast majority speak Romani; in Hungary 80% speak only Hungarian. Religion is an important aspect of the Romani culture, but precisely which faith is shaped more by geography than ethnicity - most Roma in Croatia are Catholic, in Bosnia Muslim and in Serbia Orthodox. Many, particularly in eastern Europe, have the skin tone of an Indian or a Sri Lankan - others, like two blond-haired children at the settlement in Paks, are functionally white. Some in the Roma community even dispute that India is the common homeland. Yet for all that, the Roma bear the crucial test for a meaningful identity - they know who one another are, and everybody else knows who they are too. The Roma are as able to discriminate between themselves and a gadje (non-Roma) as the state and civil society are to discriminate against them.

The European Commission has now set a date (May 2004) for its largest and most problematic expansion to date. Like so many of the major developments in the EU, the process of enlargement currently under way is underpinned by a sense of inevitability that masks an underlying and deep-seated fragility. While Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta have been accepted, referendums notwithstanding, huge obstacles remain.

The gross domestic product of all the candidate countries combined is roughly the same as that of Spain. One nation alone, Poland, has more people employed in agriculture than the rest of the EU put together. Six months before the new countries are due to join there will be a survey to see whether they have made sufficient progress in key areas, including treatment of the Roma.

Everyone acknowledges that the issue will not be a deal-breaker. "It is a problem, but it has not decisively influenced our decision on the readiness of the candidate countries to join the EU," says Jean-Christophe Filori, a spokesman on enlargement at the European Commission.

Roma activists and their advocates believe this is as it should be. "We have never argued that it should be a barrier," says Cahn. "An isolated Slovakia outside the EU would look even worse for Roma."

Given the appalling manner in which Roma are treated within EU member states, there is a paradox in them setting the standard - particularly given the huge rise in the hard right. At Prague airport stands the British consular office set up specifically to stop Czech Roma coming to the United Kingdom. In July 2001 two undercover Czech TV reporters exposed the routine discrimination when they turned up at the airport with tickets to Britain, the same amount of money and giving the same information. The Roma journalist wasn't allowed on the plane; his non-Roma colleague was allowed on. "Skin colour is of major importance" in the decisions by British authorities about whether certain Czech citizens should travel, said the Czech Republic's cultural minister last July. Canada has accepted 70% of Czech Roma seeking asylum; Britain won't even let them visit without a fight, let alone apply for refugee status.

So it is not so much a love of the Roma as a fear of them that has prompted the EU to advocate their rights. In 18 months' time, when the 10 candidate countries finally join, the right to free movement throughout the other 15 wealthier nations will be extended to all their citizens. That includes the Roma. Britain and others will no longer be able to deport them. So they want to do everything they can to improve their lot now, in the nations where they live, in the hope that a better-educated, housed, employed and less harassed Roma population would be less likely to leave.

In the small town of Mimon, 150km northwest of Prague, where one-fifth of the population is Roma and 98% of these are unemployed, a small exodus is already under way. "In the past two months 40 families left from here for Great Britain and Ireland," says Emilie Horackova, a Roma activist. "And others are getting ready."

After an afternoon of vodka and sausage, her husband, Dusan Ziga, shouts: "We need Martin Luther King." But given the fractured nature of Roma politics, it is difficult to see where either a leader or a unified movement would come from. There are several Roma organisations in different countries and some that are international, but none that commands the undisputed authority of those it seeks to represent and few that work together.

Given the intensity of discrimination, particularly in education, few have the confidence or the resources to assume leadership positions.

Given the limited scope for internal pressure, Roma activists regard the time between now and accession in May 2004 as a period in which considerable leverage can be applied.

Since the desire of eastern European nations to join the EU is stronger than their habit of discriminating against the Roma, government leaders have been, for the most part, anxious to show willing. They have signed up to nearly all the major international minority-rights treaties and use the EU council's race-equality directive as a template. Among other things, since 1997, the Czech government has initiated an anti-racism campaign, established an advisory body on Roma issues, changed laws relating to citizenship and access to education and employed many Romani advisers and assistants in schools and the civil service. Hungary has established an ombudsman to monitor the implementation of minority rights, while Slovakia has similarly established an institutional framework to oversee its "strategy" for addressing Roma issues.

But the progress has often been more symbolic than substantial. Many of the bodies are either advisory or lack the resources to be effective. In its report on Slovakia's progress in 2000, the EU commission noted "a gap between policy formulation and implementation on the ground". "All too commonly," concludes the Soros-backed report, "political leaders have not demonstrated determination or committed the financial resources necessary to guarantee effective implementation of minority standards and programmes."

The EU points to the complexity of the problem as a warning to those who are looking for any quick evidence of substantial progress. "This problem is not the result of some apartheid in the candidate countries," says Filori. "The discrimination is not legally inserted into constitutions. They are far more complex issues involving social discrimination and cultural heritage."

Filori has a point. While there are no longer laws that promote racism, there is insufficient will or power to promote anti-racism. Roma in eastern Europe do not so much fall foul of the law of the land as the law of probabilities. It is the dead weight of institutional discrimination at every level of society and at almost every stage of their life that is pervasive and persistent. Statistics on education and employment show how overwhelmingly the odds are stacked against them. In the Czech Republic, 75% of Roma children are educated in schools for people with learning difficulties, and 70% are unemployed (compared with a national rate of 9%). In Hungary, 44% of Roma children are in special schools, while 74% of men and 83% of women are unemployed. In Slovakia, Roma children are 28 times as likely to be sent to a special school than non-Roma; Roma unemployment stands at 80%. Whatever national initiatives may prevail, it is practices and prejudices that are acted upon every day at a local and social level that have the most chilling impact. The infamous concrete wall built in the Czech town of Ustinad Labem in the Czech Republic, with the help of an 80-strong police escort, to separate Roma from their "white" neighbours; the expulsion of Roma families from their homes in Zamoly, Hungary, by the local council; the assertion of the mayor of Mendez in Slovakia that "I am no racist ... but some Gypsies you would have to shoot." Economic and political developments in eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall have been volatile and precipitous, but racist cultures are more stubborn and enduring.

It is eviction day for the Bajzas, and the family of four have their lives in boxes in the Czech town of Mimon. Jan, the father, stands clutching the papers, cross-eyed and confused, as two fly papers crammed full of dead flies, sway in breeze above him. Despite being unemployed they had kept up with the council rent on their flat of formica and linoleum. But the council want them out anyway. The lawyer from the Prague-based NGO told him not to sign it, but when left to face the council on his own, Jan felt he had little choice. And now the family, including two young girls under five is about to be moved to a shelter on the outskirts of town. Hidden down a coal path and opposite a huge silo, they are out of sight and, hope the local authorities, out of mind also.

The shelter is sparsely and poorly furnished - a double room in a draughty place that will soon be home to the four of them. When Jan signed the letter, he says, he was told he could take his furniture with him; now the council has changed its mind. Nor will it allow him to store it. His visible distress at the prospect of losing the threadbare sofa, old cabinet, a few old wooden chairs and an old table is a sign of how few possessions the family has. But by the afternoon the battle is lost. During the local-election campaign that is taking place around him, one party has named its priorities as "preventing problematic families from moving into the town by all legal means" and the ending of "reverse racism". Together they are code for kicking out Gypsies and ending attempts at establishing equal opportunities. And sure enough, the local council official tells Jan: "You people have enough already and are always asking for me and causing problems." Jan is left with just a few hours to see if he can place his furniture with friends. It is this kind of ritual, grinding humiliation, whether looking for jobs, going to school or just walking the street, that compounds the violent exclusion of Paks. Daily reminders that their very presence is an affront which will at best be tolerated.

Back at home on the other side of town the sausage and vodka await Emilie Jorackova's return. As a local activist, she accompanied Jan to the council and has, not surprisingly, returned dispirited. We are discussing a recent article which argued that Roma are inherently more sensitive and artistic than other ethnic groups and whether the Roma are essentially any different to anyone else, save the acquired attributes of history, culture and discrimination that make them so. And then the conversation sprawls beyond Europe's borders to Rwanda, Zimbabwe or Israel - places where people who have been persecuted have started discriminating against others as soon as they had the opportunity.

"Would the Roma be any different, if the tables were turned?" I ask. And then Emilie sighs. Not from boredom, as I first imagined, but from the weariness of holding on to what Langston Hughers referred to as "a dream deferred". Because the tables aren't turned. They have remained exactly where they were these past centuries, leaving little scope for utopian theories of humanism.

"It is difficult to believe in humanity," she says, "when 99% of the people here treat us as they do 100% of the time."

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