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Romania: International Conference Tackles Discrimination Against Roma

International officials are urging concrete action to end anti-Roma discrimination at a three-day international conference in Romania. The OSCE-sponsored conference on equal opportunities for Roma seeks to review the way in which OSCE members fulfill their commitments toward the rights of the Romany minority and to find better ways of integration for it.

Prague, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A three-day international conference on the status of Roma in Europe kicked off yesterday (10 September) in Bucharest.

The conference, called "Equal Opportunities for Roma and Sinti: Translating Words into Facts," is organized by the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and co-financed by the Romanian Foreign Ministry and the European Union's PHARE program.

The aims of the conference are to review measures and policies for the Roma adopted by OSCE countries since the collapse of communism, to raise governments' awareness about the necessity to create legal structures to fight racism and to begin outlining a draft OSCE action plan on Romany and Sinti minorities.

The conference is also attended by representatives of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labor Organization, and the 43-member Council of Europe as well as Romany groups. Discussions are being simultaneously translated into the Romany language.

Romany and Sinti minorities -- also known as gypsies -- number an estimated 9 million worldwide and are believed to have moved to Europe from India some 600 years ago.

Gypsies have always been among the poorest and least integrated ethnic groups in Europe and have been subjected to discrimination, slavery, and even extermination. They face widespread prejudice and are often blamed for petty crime and other social ills.

The largest proportion of Roma is concentrated in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, with Romania having a sizeable Romany minority.

According to official statistics, there are only some 400,000 Roma and Sinti in Romania, but the real figure may be as high as 1-1.5 million. International organizations have repeatedly criticized Romania as well as other former communist countries for failure to improve the situation of the Roma.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana -- who is the OSCE chairman-in-office -- said at the opening of the Bucharest conference that Europe cannot afford to ignore the Romany problem. He said that solving this problem will be what he called "a test of values of the new Europe" and the only antidote against "a social time bomb."

The OSCE high commissioner for minorities, Rolf Ekeus, pointed out that combating discrimination requires public education and familiarizing people with other cultures. Ekeus added that Europe's Roma and Sinti face challenges that are not specific to one country.

The OSCE adviser on Roma and Sinti affairs, Nicolae Gheorghe, himself a Romanian Rom -- also said that the Romany issue is a pan-European issue and not just a regional one. Gheorghe told RFE/RL that one of the conference's aims is to find ways to establish and consolidate international institutions which would directly involve Roma in policymaking.

"We want to try and find ways to establish an institutional mechanism -- European or even Euro-Atlantic -- which would enable the Roma to participate in policy-making, such as expanding the OSCE contact center for Roma or even creating a center at the European Commission."

Gheorghe said it was surprising that the European Union, which is confronted with a wave of illegal Romany immigrants and asylum seekers, has yet to follow in OSCE's steps and establish a center for dealing with Romany problems.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said the situation in Romania has improved over the past few years, with ethnic minorities represented in parliament, government, and local administration.

"The presence of minorities in parliament -- and Romania is one of the few examples of this -- the existence of the National Council for Minorities, which is a consultative body of the government, the presence of minorities' representatives in the government, multicultural education, coherent policies to fight against discrimination, the use of mother tongue in local administration and others."

But Nastase said that "a Romany problem" still exists in Romania due to poverty and a chronic lack of education.

Adrian Nastase noted that in Romania, just 27 percent of Roma have regular jobs -- much of it menial -- and only 10 percent of them work legally. He added that as little as half of the Romany children go to school and almost one-third of the total Romany population is illiterate.

Earlier this year (April) Romania's government adopted a 10-year strategy to integrate Roma in society in order to reduce widespread discrimination. Nastase yesterday said that to fulfill the government strategy, Romany organizations, communities and leaders must also assume greater responsibilities.

However, OSCE Roma adviser Nicolae Gheorghe says that many programs and plans aimed at the Roma are just a facade for official complacency. Gheorghe told our correspondent that politicians and societies across the region must realize the Romany problem is their own problem.

"Governments must have the political and moral courage to admit this complex problem exists. Their recognition of the problem is still superficial, and more for the sake of the West. Politicians are not yet convinced that the Romany problem is their societies' problem -- the Slovaks', Czechs', Romanians', or Bulgarians' problem -- they say it is the Roma's problem. And they think, let's come up with two or three programs or strategies to show the West we're doing our homework and get into the EU faster."

Gheorghe pointed out that an increase in the number of Romany asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in Western Europe and Canada has prompted some western states to reintroduce visa restrictions against a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

More recently, the Czech Republic -- which has its own cases of discrimination against Roma -- has announced visa restrictions for Romania to curb a wave of illegal Romany immigrants and asylum seekers.

Gheorghe says that many in Eastern Europe blame Roma for travel restrictions or even for their countries' failure to integrate into European structures, and this fact could cause major social tensions or even conflicts.

"People are angry because they say it is because of gypsies that they can not travel freely, or -- more serious -- they cannot become EU members; and this is the core of a major tension that can turn into a conflict with devastating effects."

Gheorghe says Romany migration is caused by three main factors: social and racial prejudice and discrimination, growing poverty, and demographic pressure resulted from a much higher rate of population growth among Roma, especially in eastern Slovakia and parts of Romania.

He warns that it is up to the governments in the region and international organizations to take action before the problems which the Romany minority face turn into a crisis situation for the whole continent.