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OSCE: Report Details Discrimination Against Roma

Roma face centuries-old discrimination all over Europe -- denied jobs and housing, shunted into remedial schooling. Many national governments are attempting to help Roma integrate into the rest of society. But a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lists many examples of where government orders are thwarted by prejudiced local authorities. RFE/RL's Roland Eggleston reports.

Munich, 18 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ana-Mariana Roseanu, who is 35 but looks much older, lives with her two children in a shack made with cardboard and pieces of old wood in the ruins of an old factory in Romania.

Her neighbors are people like herself -- outcasts from society. They all live in shanties with no proper toilets and no garbage collection.

Their problem is that they are Roma -- or Sinti, Cigany or gypsies, as they are called in some countries. There are about 8 million of them in Europe. And most of them suffer several forms of discrimination -- in housing, health care, education, jobs, and protection by the police.

Ana-Mariana's story was told by an expert with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which this month (April 7) issued a 175-page report on the situation of the Roma and Sinti in most European countries. The report was drawn up by the OSCE's high commissioner for national minorities, Max van der Stoel, and his staff.

The report acknowledges that in many places, governments are attempting to combat the discrimination against Roma. But it says that, too often, government orders are thwarted by prejudiced local authorities.

Ana-Mariana has been a victim of this. Romania is trying to improve the Roma's living conditions and combat prejudice against them. But in Ana-Mariana's village, the mayor and town council ignore the directives from above. They refuse to collect garbage or install a proper toilet in the Romany settlement. The village just wants them to move elsewhere.

Walter Kemp is a senior assistant to the OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities. He says the gap between what European governments say and what European villages do is wide.

One of the worst forms of discrimination is in education. The report says that in many European countries, Romany children are often forced to sit at the back of the classroom where they are ignored, and they are excluded from sports and other school activities. In some countries, they are even put into what are called "special schools" -- meaning schools for the mentally disabled.

Kemp says the Czech Republic is one of the worst offenders.

"I think it's fair to say that the problem is most pronounced in the Czech Republic and this is something that's brought out in the high commissioner's report. He actually was very scathing in his criticism of the so-called 'special schools' and strongly suggested that these be phased out as soon as possible."

The Czech government said in a 1999 report that about 75 percent of Romany children attend special schools for children with light mental defects. Slovakia and Hungary also have a large number of Romany children enrolled in remedial schools.

A Hungarian parliamentary commission found last year that the high number of Romany children in those schools was due to discrimination, not to mental deficiency among. The OSCE report suggests that Romany children sometimes appear backward because they are not fluent in the national language, having been brought up speaking a Romany dialect.

The OSCE report also discusses discrimination in obtaining housing, giving examples from Slovakia and some other countries. It refers to resolutions adopted in 1997 by the municipal councils in the eastern Slovak villages of Nagov and Rokytovce, banning Romany families from settling in the villages or even entering them. Many of the Roma had previously held jobs at a nearby state cooperative which had also provided housing. The battle over this case went to the European Court of Human Rights. After local authorities intervened, the ban on Roma entering or settling in the villages was lifted in April 1999.

The OSCE report also discusses the health problems of Romany communities. Rates of disease and death tend to be higher among Roma, partly because Romany settlements are often located close to garbage dumps or contaminated industrial sites. In some cases, Roma are excluded from normal medical services because they lack birth certificates or proofs of residence.

The OSCE report concludes with a list of recommendations. It suggests ways for local governments to reach out to Roma to integrate them into local communities. But it also calls on authorities to be more open in understanding Roma's desire to retain their own culture and language.

Discrimination against the Roma is not likely to be easily eliminated as a result of this report, an OSCE spokesman said. But he described the report as a guide to what should not be allowed to continue. The high commissioner, Max van der Stoel, says the first lesson of the report is that well-meaning words are not enough. Governments must take firm action to ensure that Roma are protected by the rule of law.

(Jeremy Bransten of RFE/RL contributed to this report.)