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World: New Roma Migration Reflects Eastern Europe's Social Ills

On the second day of this week's International Romani Union Congress in Prague, delegates discussed how to curtail Romani emigration from Eastern Europe and how to improve the lives of Roma in their home countries. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos attended the congress:

Prague, 26 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Roma, the world's greatest travelers, are once again on the move. Following the collapse of communism 10 years ago -- and with it the loss of many social benefits -- Roma in Eastern Europe increasingly are moving to the West in search of a better life.

Roma migration is one of the main topics at this week's world congress of the International Romani Union, or IRU, in Prague. The congress brings together delegates from around the world to discuss contemporary issues and problems faced by the Roma.

Nicolae Gheorghe, a Romani adviser at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, monitors migration. Gheorghe, who is a Roma from Romania, says the transition from communism has been the greatest impetus behind the new wave of migration:

"The transition from communism to now, whatever it is, generated problems for this social group. But I think we have to look not only to the Roma for why they are not integrated. We have to look at the general economics and policies which created this situation. They were integrated and now they became disintegrated."

Gheorghe says that although Roma were at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum under communism, they were at least partially incorporated into the fabric of society. Taken from lives of caravans and migrant labor, they were often forced to attend schools and jobs and to participate in the larger community.

Gheorghe says with the collapse of communism much of this has simply disappeared. Roma children are often denied access to normal schools and adults suffer jobless rates that are much higher than the average population.

But for Roma hoping for a better life in Western Europe or North America the process is not easy. To get around visa regulations and border controls, many Roma opt to apply for asylum status as political or economic refugees.

Gheorghe says though that many of these Roma are abusing international asylum protections. He says they make it more difficult for those who are genuinely fleeing to save their lives from extreme violence and persecution.

"We have to keep this legal provision for those who are entitled because otherwise -- because many of the people who ask for asylum do so for reasons other than direct threats to their personal security as individuals and as families. So the perception is that Roma are a little bit abusive of the situation of asylum, and they are not generally asylum seekers but are economic migrants. So then if you have a limited number of persons or maybe many persons who have legitimate fears of persecutions and have proof for that, then they will fail to receive the kinds of provisions they are entitled to because of the stereotype that they are a gypsy, they are Roma -- somehow they are not genuine asylum seekers."

Ultimately, says Gheorghe, the Roma have to try to make their lives easier by working within state structures and by pushing their children to take advantage of what economic opportunities are available. On the other side, he says local and national governments must include more social protections for the Roma.

But what about those Roma who feel they can no longer wait around for their situations to change?

Karolina Vanova is a Rom who presents a strong argument for why the Roma should be allowed to leave Eastern Europe. Vanova, who is from the Czech Republic, spoke to the IRU congress about emigrating to Toronto, Canada, after getting fed-up with the lack of Czech state reforms to improve educational and employment opportunities for Roma.

She says her family, along with some 1,500 Czech Roma, have successfully settled in Canada. She says that most won their immigration court cases and will soon be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship. But best of all, says Vanova, is the access to education and employment the Roma have found in Canada.

"The children of Czech Roma have made it in Canadian education with the same success as the children of other immigrants. Most of these children went to special schools in the Czech Republic. The year 2000 is a milestone year for Czech Roma in Canada. It is the year Roma are giving up social assistance and beginning to engage in enterprise in construction companies and catering firms."

Vanova says that her children would never have been able to get ahead in Czech society. Canada, she says, allows Roma to be normal people who can go to school and get opportunities for decent jobs without any of the racial baggage they have previously encountered. She believes that without those basic rights, wherever the Roma are their lives are not worth living.