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Moldova: Forgotten Roma Minority, Poorest Of The Poor, In Need Of Help

Moldova's Roma minority lives in almost total poverty, with as many as 75 percent of the population jobless. More than three-quarters of Romany children do not attend school, and health care is almost nonexistent. Moldova is Europe's poorest country, and authorities say they cannot improve the situation of the Roma because of economic difficulties. But Romany leaders say Moldova's Communist government and even international organizations are largely indifferent to their community's plight.

Prague, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romany community leaders in Moldova are warning that their minority is increasingly facing extreme poverty, appalling living conditions and very high rates of illiteracy.

They say Moldovan authorities are indifferent to the plight of the Roma, amid growing economic troubles and political instability.

Moldova, a former Soviet republic with a population of some 4.5 million, is Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly income of $30. Since proclaiming its independence in 1991, Moldova has been plagued by poverty, widespread animosity between Moldovans and the large Russian minority, and even separatism.

Official figures put the number of Roma in Moldova at around 11,000. However, it is unclear how big Moldova's Roma minority really is, since the only records date back to Soviet times. Moreover, Romany community groups themselves have incomplete information.

Ecaterina Drosu, the head of the Juvlia Romani organization -- Moldova's most prominent Romany group -- says Soviet-era records were highly inaccurate because many Roma refused to admit their origins for fear of discrimination.

Drosu told RFE/RL that the real number could be as high as 3 percent of Moldova's current population. "The [government's] department of minorities has records based on the [last Moldovan] census from 1989, which officially puts the number of Moldovan Roma at some 11,000 people. But the current figure could be as high as 100,000-150,000 Roma."

Drosu says the estimate is based on a study conducted among Moldovan Roma by Juvlia Romani as part of a project sponsored by Minority Rights Group International (MRG), a London-based nongovernmental organization.

The two-year project, called "Roma Influence on Policy and Practice in Localities in Central and Eastern Europe," or RIPPLE, is under way in seven Eastern and Southeastern European countries -- Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Albania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Slovakia.

Drosu says the study paints a bleak picture of the situation of Moldova's Roma -- or Gypsies, as they are largely known in the region.

The study found that as many as 75 percent of the Roma population is jobless, and only 23 percent of Romany children attend school.

She says the study's findings may be only partially complete, since many Roma continue to refuse to admit their origin out of fear of rejection by the majority population.

Much of present-day Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, and some 65 percent of the 4.5 million Moldovans are of ethnic Romanian origin. The vast majority of Moldova's remaining citizens speak Russian, but there are also other ethnic groups, such as Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and the ethnic Turkish Gagauz minority.

The Roma's fear of the majority population has deep historical roots. Before the war, the number of Roma in what was then the Romanian province of Bessarabia -- much of which is now Moldova -- was estimated at some 80,000.

During the war, a large part of the Bessarabian Roma, together with hundreds of thousands of Jews, were deported to concentration camps on order of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu.

Precise accounts are unavailable, but Moldovan historian Nicolae Salii told RFE/RL that as few as 10,000 Bessarabian Roma likely survived the camps. To date, it is still unknown how many survivors are still alive, since many of them are reluctant to talk about their past.

Juvlia Romani's Ecaterina Drosu says the poll estimated that many Roma are leaving Moldova today against a background of general poverty. She says some 25 percent of Roma are currently working illegally abroad -- many of them as seasonal crop workers in Western European countries.

Drosu says a few Roma own small plots of land where they practice subsistence farming. But she tells RFE/RL that the situation of the Roma, especially in rural areas, is abysmal. "But many of them don't have anything, no income source. There are people who are half wild. There are entire villages where children have no clothes, no shoes, and going to school cannot even be taken into consideration. [In such places] there is no medical assistance. There is no source of elementary personal hygiene."

Drosu, herself an ethnic Roma doctor, says some 18 percent of Moldovan Roma suffer from chronic illnesses -- especially tuberculosis, heart disease, and mental illness. Most of them never see a doctor.

In cities, Roma encounter different problems, as many youths are left without adult supervision once their parents go abroad to find work.

Moldovan police say Romany gangs are involved in the country's lucrative smuggling industry. But community leaders say Romany youths mostly serve as foot soldiers for Moldovan- or Russian-controlled criminal organizations. They say many Romany youths leave school and turn to crime, sometimes being recruited as pushers by criminal gangs.

Drosu says Moldovan officials are indifferent to Romany problems, and the only scarce support comes from international organizations such as MRG. The Communist authorities say they have been paying constant attention to the situation of the Roma since they came to power in February of last year.

Agnesa Eftodi is head of the national minorities department in Moldova's Education Ministry. She told RFE/RL that Moldova's dire economic situation is the main obstacle to improving the situation of the Roma. "Based on this [February 2001] decision, every ministry and department came up with a concrete action program to solve the problems of the Roma minority. But the economic and financial situation of Moldova does not allow us yet to implement measures which would solve these problems immediately, or in a very short time."

Despite a widespread perception that associates Roma with crime, Eftodi says the majority Moldovans and Roma generally get along well. That is, she says, because most Moldovans suffer from poverty as well. "There are sometimes isolated situations and cases when the majority does not accept Gypsies as neighbors or work colleagues. But these are isolated cases, because in essence, there is mutual acceptance, because I could not say that the majority Moldovans are currently enjoying any better economic and social conditions than the Roma minority."

But Ecaterina Drosu says it is the government that should do more to help the Roma. She told RFE/RL: "In February 2001, [the government] came up with a plan to improve the health care and education of the Roma minority. But the plan remained only on paper. Nothing has been done since."

Furthermore, says Drosu, even the interest of international organizations in the plight of Moldova's Roma is limited. She wonders, "Is it because the situation is too horrific?"