Europe without frontiers? Why Roma feel different about it

Europe without frontiers. It´s a dream, a vision, a hope for a continent of peace, of wealth, of freedom – and it is so far away for the Roma and Sinti living in Eastern – and also in Western – Europe.
Other Europeans dream of long adventurous journeys to the last hidden corners of the continent, we try to learn some languages so that it is possible for us to work anywhere in Europe – some years in Prague perhaps, then go to Berlin… or rather to Budapest? There seem to be no frontiers to hold us back.
Many members of the Roma communities never left their hometowns. They would be glad to speak at least the language of their home country properly and they are stuck in a vicious circle of prejudice, poor education and unemployment. And Europe seems to be very far away.
“We´re not treated like citizens” says Jarmila Balazova, a well-known Czech journalist who was born into a Roma family. “We´re just people who live here”.

Marie Gailov holds up a picture of a Roma boy

A report of the United Nations stated that the living conditions of Roma in Eastern European countries are more similiar to those in Zimbabwe or Botswana than to those in Europe. The frontiers do not exist anymore between the European countries – there are within the societies now. The new frontiers now separate the rich from the poor, the winners of the transformation process from its losers. Most Roma belong to the latter.

Take for example the Czech Republic. A recent study revealed how unsurmountable the frontiers are between the Roma and the rest of the population. There are more than 300 so-called Roma ghettos in the Czech Republic, says Czech sociologist Iwan Gabal. According to Gabal, its characteristic features are unemployment, drug abuse, debts, prostitution and children who are being sent to schools for the mentally disabled. 80.000 people, that is about one third of the country´s Roma population, live in these kind of separated settlements. Mostly, the frontiers of those ghettos are invisible – consisting of prejudices, racism, poor education etc. – and still, they are harder to cross than a barbed wire fence. But sometimes, the frontiers become visible. For example in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem, where inhabitants built a fence around the Roma settlement. It was only removed after worldwide protests.

Jarmila Balazova crossed the frontier. In the 1980s, when she was going to school, Czech teachers got extra pay for each Roma child in class. “We were said to be harder to teach” Balazova remembers. When she got excellent marks, her teachers assumed that she must be a Hungarian. “They couldn´t believe a Roma girl could be so clever”. Today she is a pretty, self-conscious woman in her early 30s, with red streaks in her dark, curly hair. Balazova went to university and in 1992 she founded the Romani section at the public Czech Radio. Now, she is the host of several radio shows, but still, very often she is denied entrance at clubs in her hometown of Brno.

This is a typical experience for a Roma who lives in the Czech Republic. Nobody knows how many of them live in this country or in the European Union altogether. Many Roma do not disclose their identity for fear of discrimination. During World War II, the Nazis registered the Roma before they sent them to the death camps of Auschwitz. More than 277.00 gypsies from all over Europe were murdered during those years, but discrimination did not stop in 1945. Therefore it is understandable that many Romani still disapprove of disclosing their nationality. 

The German NGO “Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker – GFBV” (“Society for Endangered Peoples“) estimates that today about 3,6 million Romani and Sinti live in the European Union. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, their number will increase to 6,4 million people.

Romani communities do not merely exist in Eastern Europe. But it was not before the accession process of the Central European countries that the European Union engaged into the problems concerning their integration. Roma are underrepresented at all levels of local, regional and national administration – the same applies to the European Parliament where only two of the 732 members belong to the Roma minority. Lívia Járóka and Viktória Mohácsi are both delegates from Hungary who want to fight for the right of Romani at the European level. “The EU needs to act against segregated classrooms, discrimination in employment, ´ghettoisation´ of Romani communities, and to ensure that the legal system protects everybody including Romani people”, says Viktória Mohácsi from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Among their first successes was a resolution by the European Parliament in April 2005. It condemns “all the forms of discrimination faced by the Roma people” and calls on the Commission “to adopt an action plan […] to bring about better economic, social and political integration of the Roma”. Member states and candidate countries are urged to “improve the access of Roma to labour markets” and to end the segregation of Roma children in school.

Marie Gailov in her bureau

Marie Gailová is fighting for the rights of her minority on a different  level. She is the head of “Romodrom”, a Czech NGO that is concerned with social issues and supported by the European Union. Romodrom means “way of the Roma people” and Marie Gailová seems to find her way. She is an energetic woman with a dark voice, during the discussion she changes from Czech to English and from German to Romani. Romodrom works on several projects – street workers who care for settlements with predominantly Roma residents, a jail workshop where Roma detainees can earn some money and qualify for a regular job, and a centre for school children with free access to computers, English classes and supervised homework. These are small steps that could help members of the Roma minority to cross the frontier that separates them from a proper education, regular income, a nice home – a life that most Europeans are used to.

But the most stubborn frontiers seem to be inside the heads of the majority population and their representatives. Marie Gailova tells the story of Jiri Cunek, mayor of the Czech town Vsetin, who ran for a senator seat this autumn. During his election campaign he had more than 100 Roma of his town picked up in the middle of the night and transferred them to small villages more than 200 kilometres away. The reason: They had fallen behind with their rent payments. “I just removed an abscess, why, that´s what doctors do, too”, Cunek commented his actions.

The voters seem to support Jiri Cuneks policy of discrimination: He was elected senator by over 70 percent. But a storm of protest swept through the liberal Czech press, and Marie Gailova faced Jiri Cunek on a live debate on public television. Gailova is ready to fight for a Europe without frontiers – a Europe of peace, of wealth, of freedom that includes the Roma people, too…

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