The plight of the Roma in Romania

Diana Toma

Family in Szent Miklós, Haranglab (Photo: Joakim Eskildsen)

The brutal austerity measures introduced by the right-wing government led by Emil Boc in Romania have led to a severe worsening of living standards for the population in this member state of the European Union. Large-scale redundancies and wage cuts for public sector workers, cuts to social state provisions and rapidly rising prices for basic goods have made life for the average Hungarian increasingly precarious.

Especially hard hit in Romania is the Roma minority, which already faces discrimination and suffers from extreme poverty. The risk of poverty in the Roma community is three times higher than the national average, according to 2003 figures. A World Bank report revealed that approximately 70 percent of the Roma population live on less than US$4.30 a day.

A significant proportion of the Roma community suffers from a broad spectrum of social disadvantages. These include a low level of education and training, leading to a lack of qualifications, high numbers of children to support, poor living conditions, and virtually no chance for employment on the regular labour market. In addition, the Roma population is subjected to social exclusion and marginalisation as a result of racial discrimination.

The low level of participation in the labour market is the main problem in the Roma community. According to official data contained in the 2002 census, only 23 percent of the Roma population were part of the country’s actively employed population.

There are major deficiencies recorded in the professional field. More than 70 percent of the Roma minority have no qualifications or undertake activities that do not require any formal training. The proportion of temporary day workers (42 percent of the Roma population) makes clear they are in a difficult situation in terms of employment and have a minimum income for their needs. Many Roma lack any experience in legally recognised economic activity or have suffered long periods of unemployment (more than 50 percent of the Roma population were unemployed for more than 27 months).

The living conditions of the Roma are highly precarious. Often, their homes are not connected to electricity, heat or sewerage. Inadequate income leads to a low participation in the education system. As a result, dropping out of school and non-participation in education are more frequent in the Roma population than the national average. More than a third of the Roma population (39 percent) are affected by illiteracy. Some discriminatory practices in relation to the population of Roma—including teaching Roma in separate classes—have only worsened their situation.

The Plight of the Romani People


Photo: Roma prepare a meal in the garden of an abandoned house on December 9, 2009 in Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, where some 20 Roma people have taken shelter after they were disloged from various places. They are now refurbishing the property. [Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)]

President Nicholas Sarkozy of France has ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma and itinerant immigrants from his country as well as dismantling of their camps. Supporters of the order look upon the Roma as illegal settlers who sabotage public order and have criminal tendencies. Their camps are said to be sources of illicit trafficking, children exploited for begging, prostitution or delinquency. Opponents of this order criticize it as being xenophobic and populist and wrongfully labeling Roma as a public safety threat.

The President is planning on destroying 300 camps in France, most of which belong to the Roma. Unfortunately he is using an ethnic solution for a delinquency problem. But then France has a tendency of coming up with strict, intolerant policies that are quite hypocritical in their nature, such as their move to ban the veil.

On my last visit to France, I was intrigued by the presence of a group of people who resembled the gypsies of fairy tales. They stood out starkly in their colorful and unusual clothing, roaming the streets aimlessly with their children in tow and usually asking for money from tourists. I wondered, who are these people and where do they come from? They were definitely not originally from this region as their facial features and persona were exactly the opposite of what Frenchmen like to portray themselves as.

The Romani people are believed to have originated from central India, probably in the modern-day state of Rajasthan. Their westward migration is said to have occurred in waves between AD 500 to AD 1000, and migration continued towards Europe with the Roma spreading across the Balkans and Northern Europe by the 14th century. Many of them migrated from Persia through North Africa and they even managed to reach North America in colonial times.

The Roma People: Matt Lutton building upon a legacy of wandering photographers

Pete Brook

A young man in the Stara Gazela camp. © Matt Lutton

Friend Matt Lutton has presented words and images in the latest Lens Culture (Issue #26). His story is about the destruction of a settlement in Belgrade and the subsequent relocation of the Roma inhabitants.

I know that Matt has been working on this story for a long time and it matters very much to him. In September of last year, Matt put together a small edit of the work with a caveat that he was still working through the project. Matt recommended this local Serbian article for background on the issue.

Matt’s words:

Gazela was an isolated community of over 200 Roma families living abjectly difficult lives under the Gazela road bridge in Belgrade, Serbia. They made their living from the recycling of metals and refuse, and the landscape around their homes was filled with toxic mounds of rotting waste. It was a ghetto split on the banks of one of the region’s most important rivers and on premium real estate eyed by the elites. This photo story begins with the community living under the bridge before its destruction and partial relocation on August 31, 2009.

The people living there, depending on their legal status, would either be given a new container to live in on the outskirts of the city, free transport back to their villages or if they had no papers, an unceremonious trip to the curb and likely a home in another improvised camp.

A wall to keep out Roma

Michaela Stanková

Tensions between the mainly Roma inhabitants of a settlement next to the village of Ostrovany, near Šarišské Michaľany in eastern Slovakia, and the village’s mainly non-Roma population now have a physical embodiment: a wall that the local authorities agreed to build in order to separate the settlement from the rest of the village. While non-Roma villagers claim the wall is the only way to prevent raids on their fruit gardens from the Roma settlement, local Roma protest that the wall has turned their settlement into a zoo.

Šarišské Michaľany recently became a symbol of the problems between the Roma minority and the non-Roma majority in Slovakia. Last year an inhabitant of the Roma settlement murdered a shop assistant in the village and this summer two boys from the settlement assaulted a 65-year old man who lost an eye and suffered other injuries in the attack. In response to the attack a far-right group, Slovenská Pospolitosť, used the village as the venue for the first of several protests which it organised to oppose what it called ‘the gypsy terror’ in eastern Slovakia.

The cost of excluding the Roma minority

Michaela Stanková

With the Roma population in Slovakia growing the issue of how to involve Roma more in the society is becoming ever more urgent. Offering Roma, who in parts of Slovakia live in separate settlements, the chance to improve their living conditions and increase their quality of life is not merely a moral imperative, but also an economic necessity, a new study has concluded.

According to the study, ‘The Cost of Non-Inclusion’, carried out by Anton Marcinčin and Ľubica Marcinčinová and sponsored by the Open Society Foundation (OSF), the costs of non-inclusion of the Roma minority in mainstream society are immense.

“The main reason why the costs are so high isn’t the potential savings in social allowances, but the possibility of significantly increasing the size of the employed labour force in Slovakia and thus increasing GDP,” Anton Marcinčin said. In the study he estimates Slovakia could produce 7 to 11 percent higher GDP if Roma were included.

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