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Western Press Review: Great Romany Migration

By Don Hill/Dora Slaba

Prague, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Having encountered rejection in Canada, which altered its visa policies to halt their influx, Czech and Slovak Romanies in search of a good life now are flooding England. The wave of asylum seekers is promoting a countervailing wave of commentary in the British press.

TIMES: Gypsies are the quintessential outsiders of the European imagination

Author Isabel Fonseca, whose book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, is published by Vintage, calls the Gypsies -- their preferred term is Romanies -- "strangers in their own lands." In a commentary today she writes: "In the past few days nearly 200 Czech and Slovak Gypsies have arrived at Dover, joining some 600 others who have come over in recent months. They have been greeted with suspicion and alarm in broadsheet and tabloid newspapers alike. The very word Gypsy, usually followed by hordes or thieves, is often shorthand for swindlers and parasites; that is, it refers not to an ethnic group but to a social type"

Fonseca asks, rhetorically: "What are they trying to escape?"

Her answer: "Gypsies everywhere are mostly illiterate, poor and without proper housing. Their health is worse and their lives are about a third shorter than those of their countrymen. And Eastern European Gypsies are not alone in their vulnerability: 70 percent of Italian Gypsy families lose at least one child, while among Irish travelers infant mortality is three times the national average."

She continues: "The ERRC (Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center) reports a dreadful list of persecution across Europe. It includes mob violence against Gypsies in Poland; the murder of a Gypsy by a Bulgarian policeman; police abuses of Gypsies in Pforzheim, Germany, and Pisek, Czech Republic; attacks by military officers in Bulgaria; mob attacks on Gypsies in Klatovy, Czech Republic; skinhead attacks in Slovakia; Gypsies killed by unknown gunmen in France and the forcible resettlement of Greek Gypsies. In Romania, mobs have torched dozens of Gypsy settlements without punishment."

The writer says: "Gypsies are the quintessential outsiders of the European imagination; and in the Czech Republic, since the introduction of a much criticized new citizenship Law, many have become strangers in their own land."

She adds: "Only 5 percent of Gypsies are nomadic, but we still think of them as wanderers. Thus we can let ourselves be persuaded that they want to uproot their families and gamble everything on a foreign handout. In truth, the vast majority of Gypsies, like most people, want to live in the countries in which they are born."

TIMES : What is really at issue is the appalling mess which the European Union has made of asylum policy."

In an editorial yesterday the paper wrote of what it called "The Asylum Trap." The newspaper said: "Great though the strain their arrival has put on Dover's limited emergency accommodation and schools, the sudden influx of Romanies from the Czech Republic and Slovakia is only a small part of a larger problem. What is really at issue here is not the plight of these particular asylum-seekers, who come from countries where Gypsies certainly suffer from discrimination but which are not otherwise tyrannies. It is the appalling mess which the European Union has made of asylum policy."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: We should withdraw from the Dublin Convention

"The caravan moves here." Says the paper today in an editorial. "Three thousand gypsies are en route from Central Europe to the United Kingdom," the editorial warns, adding that "tens of thousands more" may follow.

The editorial says: "The Romanies are passing through several safe countries before reaching Britain. But under the EU's Dublin Convention, they are the responsibility of the state to which they have applied for asylum, rather than of the first state they reached."

The editorial concludes: "We (Great Britain) should withdraw from the Dublin Convention, which encourages states on the EU's eastern borders to allow migrants across their territory, secure in the knowledge that others will have to bear the cost."

INDEPENDENT: The British do not want them but that message hasn't yet filtered through

A report from Prague yesterday said: "Last night in Prague, Gypsy families still were packing up and saying their farewells before embarking on what they believed would be a wonderful new life in Britain. The British do not want them but that message hasn't yet filtered through the Czech media."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Since the influx, traders have reported incidents of intimidation from Gypsies

David Walmsley wrote yesterday that the first Romany arrivals in Dover, England, have given the British reason to dread those still to come. He wrote: "On Folkestone Road in Dover, it is commonplace to find groups of recently arrived Gypsies walking back to their temporary accommodations with bags of groceries. Yet most have arrived in England with little cash."

He says: "Since the influx, traders in Dover have reported numerous incidents of intimidation from Gypsies who, despite being penniless, are filling their shopping trolleys."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Gypsies happen to be such problematic people

The migration has come to the attention of a German commentator also. In a commentary Michael Frank recalls elements of the long history of Romany persecution. Well-intentioned people contend that racism isn't the problem, he says; Romanies themselves contribute by being difficult. He writes: "One of the greatest circus numbers of Realistic Socialism was its (adroit) adaptation of reality to theory. This was called dialectics."

Frank says that communist justice systems often had to interpret apparently straightforward facts so as not to contradict state doctrine. Then, he describes a post-communist case in Hradec Kralove (Czech Republic) in which a judge ruled that Czech youths throwing Gypsies out of a train were not motivated by racism. Frank says the judge decreed that, since Czechs and Romanies both are Indo-Europeans, racism was not a factor.

Frank quotes Czech President Vaclav Havel as saying that the Romany question doesn't test democracy so much as it does the civil society. The writer says in conclusion that a form of the old dialectic survives. "Resentment against the Romanies as neighbors isn't racism and is quite normal," he writes satirically, "because Gypsies happen to be such problematic people."

NEW YORK TIMES: There has been an increasing number of violent assaults on Gypsies

Chris Hedges describes today a funeral in Belgrade for a Romany youth, killed on a shopping expedition. Two Serb teen-agers stand charged with beating him to death. "In the last few months, with the rise of neo-Nazi street gangs in Serbia," Hedges writes, "there has been an increasing number of violent assaults on Gypsies."

He says: "The Gypsies have no affinity with the Croatian, Serbian and Muslim ethnic parties in power in the former war zone. Most of the Gypsies are poor, barely literate and work in menial jobs, hawking cigarettes and toilet paper on street corners or cleaning car windows at traffic lights... (a) pregnant woman was beaten to death 10 days ago as she walked with her young children on Skadarska Street in Belgrade. Gypsy leaders say they have reports of attacks every two or three days in the capital."