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Europe: Cities And Towns Vow To Aid Romanies

Pardubice, Czech Republic; 24 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Eight cities across Europe have vowed to join in a network to seek local solutions to the problems and needs of European Romanies (gypsies).

They formalized the decision at a two-day conference on Romanies held in the east Bohemian city of Pardubice. The conference ended today.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe originally scheduled the meeting to discuss Romany housing, health, and social issues. But the session was enlivened by an impromptu debate on an exodus of Czech and Slovak Romanies seeking asylum in England and Canada.

The Congress is a body of the 40-nation Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg. Ulrich Bohner, deputy head of the Congress' secretariat, told RFE/RL correspondent that each of the charter cities expects to lead a mini-network of cities and towns in its own country. He said the eight hope to be joined by other European communities.

The charter eight municipalities are Ankara, Berlin, Budapest, Cordova (Spain), Pardubice, Strasbourg, Thivai (Greece), and Varna (Bulgaria).

Ulrich said representatives of the member cities have concluded that the responsibility for solving many of the Romanies' social needs lies with local communities. The group's charter says its goal is to build a tolerant and multicultural Europe and to improve provisions for Romanies through shared information and experience.

Demographers estimate that between 7 million and 12 million Romanies live in Europe, with the greatest concentrations in the Balkans, eastern Slovakia, and Romania. Because of their typically brown complexion and other ethnic characteristics -- and because their common language, Romani, evidently derives from Sanskrit -- researchers have concluded that they are descendants of migrants who came from northern India seven centuries ago.

Sociologist and Romany advocate Nicolae Gheorghe, a Romanian Romany, told the conference that Romanies constitute the largest minority in Central and Eastern Europe -- and the fastest growing. They have the highest birthrate in Europe and the youngest population. Typically, he said, Romanies marry young and average five children per couple. They have a low life expectancy. He said half the Romanies in Central and Eastern Europe are under 15 years old.

Gheogrhe is coordinator of an advocacy group in Romania known as RRomani CRISS. He also is a member of the board of the international law group. European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), based in Budapest.

The ERRC circulated a statement at the conference asserting that Czech and Slovak Romanies who have been traveling in recent weeks to Canada and Great Britain have a valid case for seeking asylum from their home countries. The ERRC statement said that Romanies in the two countries have reason to fear for their lives. The statement quoted the Czech-based NGO, Host, as saying it had documented 1,200 racially motivated attacks on Romanies from 1991 to 1997 in the Czech Republic alone.

Gheorghe said that Czech Romanies who have sought asylum in Britain should have their claims considered by an impartial tribunal. He said that if such claims are heard, ERRC and other legal aid groups will be available as advocates.

Representatives of Slovakia and the Czech Republic disputed the ERRC's conclusions. Jiri Malenovsky, Czech ambassador to the Council of Europe, said the principal cause of Romany discontent in the Czech Republic is poor communications which are manifested then, as he put it, in "certain displays of racism." He said neighboring countries have similar problems. Slovak minorities Commissioner Branislav Balaz said the problemns of Slovak Romanies are social and economic, not racist.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe representative at the conference, Ulrich Bohner, told our correspondent that the response of the Czech and Slovak governments to racist statements and attacks has been inadequate. He said he believes pleas from Czech and Slovak Romanies for asylum in Western countries should be given fair hearing.

CTK news service today quotes Rudolph Jindrak of the Czech Foreign Ministry as saying that 186 Czech Romanies travelled to Britain in the five days ending Wednesday. Jindrak said that British authorities are processing 60 asylum claims, refused entry to 102 Romanies, and have jailed 36 for crimes alleged to have been commited while awaiting processing.