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East: Poor Conditions For Roma Harm All Citizens

A Council of Europe expert says that Roma in Eastern and Central Europe are worse off now than they were under communist governments. Moreover, their sad condition is dragging down their compatriots. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports on the expert's views, and on her warnings to East European governments.

Prague, 27 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Josephine Verspaget is the head of the Council of Europe Specialty Group on Roma. She says that 50 years of neglect under communism left Roma in Eastern and Central Europe dangerously vulnerable to poverty, poor education, and racial assaults.

And their condition, she says, is not a problem only for the Roma themselves and human rights advocates. Verspaget says another generation of unemployed, ill-educated, and mistreated Roma will be an increasingly severe social issue for the whole populations of the countries where they live.

Many people refer to Roma by the term "Gypsies," a label that some Roma consider offensive.

A Netherlands citizen, Verspaget was in Prague recently to attend a four-day International Seminar on Tolerance, Respect, and Human Rights. A human rights organization called Globea gathered scholars, students, human rights advocates, and minority leaders to discuss problems and possible solutions.

In an interview and during the sessions, Verspaget said that communist governments generally ignored the plights of minorities. Neglect, she said, left Roma and other minorities unequipped to deal with the opportunities and uncertainties of open markets after communism.

Verspaget says that conditions for Roma have sunk to new depths in the ten years since the communist systems fell. In her words:

"More Roma -- compared with the period before -- are without a job, also compared with other parts of the population. More Roma lack education. Many more Roma children, compared with the situation ten years ago, do not go to school. You can compare also the human rights situation with ten years ago. There are many more racist attacks on Roma."

Verspaget says that governments in Central and Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly aware of the problems. But, she says, reforms are difficult to devise and slow to implement.

The Council of Europe specialist says that one problem is the difficulty of uniting fragmented Romany groups and leaders to speak with one voice. When they do, she says, they can achieve a potent impact.

Verspaget cites an example in which Roma in Bulgaria were aided by a human rights advocacy group to work together:

"There will always be differences between groups. But in Bulgaria -- and I think this is really a remarkable example -- they made an excellent policy plan, and they offered their policy plan to the government, and the government at the end adopted this policy plan."

Verspaget's Council of Europe Specialty Group on Roma has found that non-Romany citizens also suffer when Roma are neglected, impoverished, and mistreated.

As an example, she cites the Czech Republic. There, most Romany children are automatically sent to remedial schools, from which they will not go on to gymnasium or university. With their educational opportunities curtailed, today's Romany youth will become another lost generation.

Verspaget says it is in the interest of Czechs and their leaders that this be prevented. If Roma are well educated and prepared for the job market, she says, they will contribute to national productivity rather than be a burden on it. The Czech Republic must recognize this self-evident wisdom, she says.

"If the majority of the Czech Republic is wise, and if the government is wise, and if the political parties are wise, they must be aware of these problems."

Verspaget says she uses the Czech Republic as her example mainly because the tolerance seminar convened in that country. She says she is not singling out Czechs for criticism.