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Eastern Europe: Roma Face Severe Discrimination

Communism collapsed in Europe a decade ago. But despite the advance of democracy and political freedoms, human rights activists say the Romany community in Eastern and Central Europe continue to face age-old prejudices and discrimination. And, at times, even unprovoked violence. Activists say the situation could present a social time bomb for the region. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists say the Romany community in Eastern and Central Europe continues to face severe discrimination a decade after the fall of communism and that the situation could explode into violence.

Ina Zoon, a former vice president of the Romanian League for Human Rights, says the Roma are discriminated against when they look for jobs and seek schooling and health care. She says there is "a potential of conflict" between the Roma and their neighbors.

Zoon singled out instances of local police roughing up members of the Romany community when searching their homes. She said such incidents create tension and mistrust between the Roma and the authorities.

She said discrimination is creating "a social time bomb" that threatens the stability of the region.

Zoon said that since the collapse of communism most groups had gained additional rights, but the Roma have faced overt racism and discrimination.

Zoon is currently preparing a report on Romany access to public services in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. She made the comments on Thursday at a briefing held at the RFE/RL offices in Washington about the status of the Romany community.

She said the Romany community wants essential human freedoms and equality.

"Basic respect for human rights and for the principle of equality is the starting point of the discussion."

Zoon, who is not a Roma herself, said discrimination has not lessened in Eastern and Central Europe following the downfall of communist regimes.

"We can say that free elections, in the race for free elections, human rights won. In the race for freedom of expression, human rights are winning. In the minority rights, human rights are winning. But on Roma rights, racism and discrimination are winning, unfortunately."

Zoon said Romany men are dying of very young age -- often 10 or 15 years younger than their counterparts.

Also appearing at the RFE/RL briefing was Rumyan Russinov, a Bulgarian human rights advocate and himself a Rom. He said governments in the region lack the political will to deal with the problem.

Russinov said that in Bulgaria there are between 800,000 to 1 million Romany people, or 10 to 12 percent of the population. He said in the past 10 years of democratic development, Roma in that country have been confronted with a new wave of violence, including stabbings and other hate crimes.

Russinov expressed disappointment that the Bulgarian government had failed to implement a framework program which called for the integration of the Romany community into Bulgarian society. The program was adopted by the Bulgarian cabinet in April 1999.

Both speakers stressed that much of the discrimination Romany communities face is hidden -- masked in the form of supposedly objective regulations that in fact discriminated primarily against Romany families.

For example, they singled out a Macedonian regulation that provides medical insurance to only the first three children in a family. Most Macedonians have fewer than three children, the two human rights activists said, while most Roma there have more. As a result, they said Romany families are forced to choose which of their children will get medical attention.

Zoon and Russinov currently work for the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary. They were also invited by the U.S. Helsinki Commission to testify in Washington about the status of the Romany minority in Europe.