When the European Union opens its doors to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and other nations of Eastern Europe in the next few years, it will also be opening its doors to millions of people known as Roma. They are a people who, after a millennium in Europe, have never fully assimilated and frequently suffer from discrimination and abuse.
Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Song and folklore long have glamorized, and stereotyped, the Gypsies -- carefree travelers in colorful caravans, girls with golden earrings and flashing eyes, dark-haired, laughing men, legions of carefree children.
The reality is much different. The caravans are virtually extinct, succeeded by sad ghettoes in both Western and Eastern Europe. In the East, educators often sequester Romany children in what they euphemistically term "special" schools. The very name Gypsy has fallen into disrepute, displaced by the now-favored Roma.
Despite widely published statistics indicating the contrary, Europeans often blame Roma for the majority of petty street crime wherever Roma live in substantial numbers.
With the European Union set to expand in the next few years, there are fears in some Western European circles that EU enlargement eastward will be followed by a surge westward of undesired migrants, including large numbers of the region's estimated six million Roma.
In the last few years, rumors of jobs and warm welcomes stirred Roma to travel in groups to destinations such as Canada and the Netherlands, These destination countries responded by establishing urgent programs to block the migrants and to dispel the rumors. In 2001, British authorities set up a unit at Prague's Ruzyne Airport to screen unwanted travelers trying to enter Britain from the Czech Republic. The unit did not name Roma as its target, but in practice, those turned back have been predominantly Roma.
The EU has made a condition of accession that the right to travel and work anywhere in the bloc -- a mainstay of union policy -- be delayed for residents of new Eastern European member nations. The delays are to be imposed for up to seven years.
Francoise Kempf works in the Roma Unit of the Council of Europe, Europe's leading human rights organization. She says she believes Western European fears about Roma migration are overstated.
"When Spain and Portugal joined the EU (in 1995), the Roma in Spain and Portugal were very...I mean, their communities were in very bad situations, not much better than in Central Europe," Kempf says. "They did not move [in large numbers] to other EU countries."
Even when Roma -- feeling isolated or endangered in their countries of origin -- do leave, Kempf says, the majority of such migrants are not impoverished or illiterate. She says the very poor and unskilled -- not just among the Roma but among any peoples -- cannot raise either the funds or the determination to travel far.
"We have seen in recent migration waves to a number of Western European countries that these Roma who were leaving their countries very often were not the uneducated, illiterate, very poor Roma," Kempf says. "It is rather the Roma middle class, because the others, I mean, they just do not have the possibility to leave [their countries]."
There no doubt will be Roma-related problems in an enlarged EU, just as there are such problems in present member nations and in accession applicants. Violent, often murderous, attacks by skinheads and followers of other xenophobic movements occur with some frequency in both Eastern and Western Europe.
Roma who have sought asylum in the last few years in England, Canada, Germany, and elsewhere often have cited discrimination and fear of bodily harm as their motive for escape. Receiving countries, however, have tended to rule that the true motive is economic -- and therefore grounds for denying asylum.
The Council of Europe's Kempf contends that those who fear a wave of Roma crossing national boundaries within the EU are focusing on the wrong issue.
"So I would say that the main issue, the main focus, for the EU should be not the possible influx of migrants, even if, of course, I mean, it can be a problem sometimes for some countries," Kempf says. "But the problem really facing the EU is these huge masses of poor Roma in ghettoes in big cities of Central Europe."
Ivan Vesely is a Czech citizen, president of the Roma advocacy association Dzura, and commissar for media of the International Romany Union. He says people should begin thinking of Roma not as a problematic group of strangers but simply as citizens of their home countries who should enjoy the same rights of unfettered travel within the EU as any other citizens.
"I do not understand where [there] is [a] problem. Because, really, if the Czech Republic [for example] goes into Europe and becomes [an EU] member, we [Roma] are citizens of this country and must be [afforded] this right."
He says a great number of Roma travelers crossing EU borders is unlikely: "I think some percent maybe will go out from [their] countries, but I think this would be a small number."
Vesely agrees with Kempf that the poorest of the poor are likely to stay home: "It is not easy to move from a country, from the Czech Republic, for example, if you do not know the language, and if you haven't some education and skills, and [it] is very difficult [to find a] job, for example, in England or in France."
Kempf says the Council of Europe promotes a policy treating Roma as any other citizens -- with equality of opportunity and equality of rights. The Council faces a paradox, she says. In her words: "We very well know that if we want to reach that equality, there is a need for positive action, specific policies."
But the Council, she says, wishes also to avoid singling the Romany population out for special programs. "There is a difference between positive action and special programs," Kempf says.