Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

The Plight of the Gypsies

Voice of America (VOA)

The following transcript was taken from the radio program Voice of America: On the Line, originally broadcast on March, 15, 2000 at 2018 Universal Coordinated Time.  This broadcast focused on the situation of Roma (Gypsies) in Eastern Europe.

Announcer: On the Line - a discussion of United States policy and contemporary issues. This week, "The Plight of the Gypsies." Here is your host, Robert Reilly.

Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. The demise of the Soviet empire nearly ten years ago allowed ethnic tensions to surface in a number of countries. The strife in the Balkans is perhaps the most notable example, particularly the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. But one often-overlooked group that has suffered from discrimination are the Gypsies, or Roma. Last year, a sixty-meter-long concrete wall was built in a Czech city to segregate a Gypsy neighborhood. The wall has since come down. According to the European Roma Rights Center, anti-Romani attacks have resulted in deaths in several Central and Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria and Slovakia. And returning Kosovar Albanians are reported to have ethnically cleansed Gypsies from Kosovo. Joining me today to discuss the plight of the Gypsies are two experts. Paul Polansky is an author and historian who has lived with the Roma people in Eastern Europe for nine years and written three books on the subject. He recently wrote a report on the Gypsies in Kosovo for the United Nations Human Rights Commission. And Erika Schlager is counsel for international law at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. Welcome to the program. Paul Polansky, what exactly are the dimensions of the problem that we are attempting to address here?

Polansky: In Kosovo, before the war, according to a survey I did of the three hundred communities there for UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], there were approximately one hundred and fifty-one thousand Roma living in Kosovo. Since the NATO troops arrived, that number has fallen to less than thirty thousand. There were nineteen thousand Romani homes before the war; today, there are only four thousand. Most of those homes were burned by the Albanians returning with the NATO troops.

Host: Did not a number of Roma leave at the same time that the Kosovar Albanians were driven out by the Serbs?

Polansky: Many Kosovar Gypsies tried to leave but, because they are readily recognizable by the color of their skin and by their accent, the Serb guards at the border turned many of them back.

Host: Why?

Polansky: Because the Serbs have always used the Gypsies as almost slave labor. They have used them in the mines for ten deutsche marks a month. And so they wanted to keep their labor force there.

Host: Is cleansing too strong a term to use?

Polansky: Not at all.

Host: Why have they been cleaning the Gypsies out of Kosovo when they themselves were just cleansed?

Polansky: Because when they came back, they found the Gypsies still living in their homes, and the Albanians saw that their own homes were burned. I think it was an act of revenge in some cases, but in other cases it was a systematic cleansing operation by the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army]. Every Gypsy community was visited on June the 18th [1999]. Now this was more than a coincidence. I believe it was a systematic act, an organized act to get rid of the minorities in Kosovo.

Host: Erika Schlager, does that comport with what you know?

Schlager: I think it is certainly the case that Roma have been targeted for revenge attacks since the end of the NATO engagement in Kosovo.

Host: Why revenge?

Schlager: I think perhaps it might be helpful to understand that the Romani community in Kosovo is actually a diverse community. Prior to the escalation of violence at the end of 1998, Roma were already caught between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians, in many respects, with both of those groups trying to exploit the Roma to enhance their own standing and their own position in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians may have wanted to have Roma identify themselves as Albanians on the census, for example. Serbs may have wanted the same thing. Roma in the region have complained that they have been the victims of both Serbianization and Albanianization. But the result is that the community has some Roma who are Orthodox and Serbian-speaking, and some who are Muslim and primarily Albanian speaking, and other smaller groups as well. Some Roma who are Serbian-speaking are believed to have been complicit with Serbs when Serbs committed atrocities against Albanians. There are also Albanian-speaking Roma who were the victims of Serb-sponsored attacks. So you can see how complicated this is.

Host: It is, but according to some Roma organizations this is beyond revenge and it is a systematic ethnic cleansing of Gypsies from Kosovo. Is that too much of an exaggeration, or would you agree with Paul Polansky?

Schlager: I think we have to start out by saying that revenge in and of itself, even when someone has committed an atrocity, a revenge attack is not justifiable. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, that is the place to take those sorts of complaints. And then it is very clear that Roma who are completely innocent have been made scapegoats. One of the most egregious examples of this came in a refugee camp that had been established in Macedonia. When many people were fleeing from Kosovo in June of last year [1999], the UNHCR tried very hastily to establish refugee camps. A UNHCR official had told an official from the OSCE that Roma could not be protected in the camps. The UNHCR was already worried that there was such a sense of revenge among some of the ethnic Albanians in the camp that Roma would be in danger. On June 6th, there was a mob attack against some Roma in the camp that escalated to the point where a seven-year-old boy was being pulled by this mob, literally on the verge of being torn limb from limb. An official from a Catholic Relief Agency intervened and saved that boy's life. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill came in subsequently with Macedonian riot police and was able to settle the mob down. But I think that shows the extent to which the violence can escalate and escalate very rapidly in that setting.

Host: And this is something that has taken place, as you pointed out, under the eyes of the KFOR forces, the combined NATO forces that are there supposedly providing a modicum of some kind of order. Of the hundred and fifty thousand Gypsies or Roma in Kosovo, how many are left?

Polansky: Twenty to thirty thousand.

Host: Will any of them be able to return?

Polansky: The UN says today that it is not advisable for any Gypsies to return to Kosovo at this time.

Host: Because they cannot be protected?

Polansky: They cannot be protected. They were not protected.

Host: Where do they go? Gypsies are notoriously known as migrants or nomads, but where do you go when you are driven out of your own country?

Polansky: I think that is one of the problems with this exodus -- that people have this stereotyped idea that Gypsies are nomads. The Kosovar Gypsies actually are settled Gypsies. They have been settled. They have been in homes. They have been in jobs. They have gone to school. They are probably the most settled Gypsies in Europe. They are not nomadic at all. And this is one of the problems of resettling them. People think that they can look after themselves because they have this stereotyped image of them being nomadic. They are not. They all had homes. They all had jobs. They all went to school; they could all read and write.

Host: So really you are saying, as against that stereotype, that the Gypsies or Roma in Kosovo were as assimilated as they probably are anywhere in Europe.

Polansky: In the world.

Schlager: With respect to the question of where did they go or where are they now, I think that they can primarily be looked at as being in three different places. First of all, there are possibly thirty thousand Roma who are in Kosovo, many of whom are actually displaced persons because they have been burnt out of their homes. So they are in Kosovo, but that does not mean that they have a roof over their head or a place to live. Certainly in that setting they have no ability to send their children to school and many of them, as Paul has seen, do not have the same access to humanitarian aid that some of the other groups have. A very substantial number have gone into Macedonia. As I just said a few moments ago, we have seen that in Macedonia there are tremendous problems for them in the camps. And Macedonia itself is a very small country that has taken in a substantial number of the refuges and has really gone to great lengths to accommodate them, but can only be reasonably expected to go so far. And then there are Roma who have gone to Western countries: Germany, Hungary and Italy. But I think that we need to understand that those countries that we would normally think of as safe havens or safe third countries are not necessarily safe countries for Roma. In Italy, for example, about a year ago, about the same time that there was this mob incident in the camp in Macedonia, there was a mob attack in Naples. There was a settled Romani community there. There had been an incident where a Rom was believed to have committed some crime and there was a whole mob attack against a thousand people in a camp, and this was within the settled community in Italy. So you can imagine how difficult that it would really be for Roma from Kosovo to get settled.

Host: Let's talk about that for a moment -- how difficult it is in other parts of Eastern and Central Europe or even Western Europe. You have resided for some years in the Czech Republic. From your perch there, what do you see in Central and Eastern Europe as far as the Gypsies are concerned?

Polansky: Unfortunately, there is genocide, at the very least cultural genocide against the Roma in almost all Eastern European countries.

Host: That is a very strong term.

Polansky: When you have special schools for the children - you do not allow them to go to normal schools. At the age of five or six they are condemned to schools for the mentally retarded for their whole school life and are never allowed to go to college. I do not think that is a very strong term at all. And this is what is happening in the Czech Republic. In fact, the [European] Roma Rights Center in Budapest has filed a lawsuit against the Czech government to try to change these special schools. Romani children at the age of six are given a test. Ninety percent of them flunk this test and are condemned to special schools for the rest of their lives.

Host: A Roma cannot go to college in the Czech Republic?

Polansky: Not if they are sent to a special school.

Host: I see. You are disqualified by being sent there.

Polansky: By the age of six you are already sentenced to what your life is going to be.

Host: And what about other countries: Romania, Bulgaria? What is the situation there?

Polansky: I think the further east you go the more difficult it gets for Roma.

Host: These are OSCE countries. Are they not trampling upon some human rights obligations they have in that respect if they are treating a minority in this way?

Schlager: Certainly there are human rights violations and they are very serious ones. A couple of years ago, I was, in fact, very pessimistic about the prospects for human rights reform regarding the Roma. It seems to me that the Romani civil rights movement is going to be a very significant force in the twenty-first century and that the Romani civil rights movement can be seen as a speeding train heading toward Europe. And the question that I asked myself was whether the governments were going to stand aside as that train went past them, whether they would get on that train and ride it, or whether they would be run over by it. And a couple of years ago I was rather pessimistic. More recently, I think a number of governments have started to acknowledge the magnitude of the problems they have in their countries.

Host: For instance, you did have, when the wall went up in that Czech town, no one less than President Vaclav Havel come out and condemn it as an atrocious thing.

Schlager: I think that is very much to President Havel's credit. But at the same time, he was regrettably very isolated in making that kind of statement. Prime Minister [Milos] Zeman had said at one point, when the wall was still standing and there were a lot of efforts being made to resolve the crisis, Prime Minister Zeman said that under no circumstances would he even consider buying out the people who lived next to the Roma there. They had suggested: buy out our homes and we will go away quietly. It was bribery money that they were asking for. And in the end, that is exactly what the government did. Rather than paying the money directly to those who demanded this ransom, they effected this by paying the money to the city council which in turn bought out the homes of the ethnic Czechs who lived there and were not happy living next to Roma. And this was to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars. And unfortunately, I think that is a very negative precedent. There are other places in the region where I think there are more positive steps being taken. Paul was speaking a moment ago about the very serious problem of de facto segregation and that it's a problem that occurs in many of the post-Communist countries. In the last year, the Hungarian ombudsman for national minorities and the minister for education held a press conference where they basically admitted that that is what has been happening in Hungary. But I think admitting that the problem exists is an important first step to being able to address the problem. Most of the governments in the region are still not at the point of admitting there is a problem.

Host: But most of it is de facto rather than de jure segregation?

Schlager: That is true with respect to education. I think one area where the law is rather clearer in a negative sense is with respect to the absence of anti-discrimination legislation. All of the post-Communist countries lack any civil statute that would make discrimination in education and housing, employment and labor, in the military, in public places, that would make it illegal, that would give someone the right to go and sue if they had been discriminated against. As a consequence, it is not unheard of to see a sign in front of a restaurant that says, "no dogs, no Gypsies."

Host: And there is no recourse against that?

Schlager: There is theoretical recourse. It is possible under most of these little systems that you could go to a public prosecutor and persuade that person to bring criminal charges. But I can probably count on one hand the number of times when public prosecutors have been willing to do it. One of the most highly publicized events of this kind took place recently in the Czech Republic. There is one Romani Member of Parliament, Monika Horakova. She was trying to go into a club with a friend of hers and was turned away because she is a Rom. So even someone as well known as a member of parliament can have this happen. And what I think is particularly unfortunate from my view is that I am not aware of any members of Parliament who stood up and condemned the treatment their colleague suffered.

Host: Paul Polansky, what possible remedies do you see? This is a problem on which you have worked for so many years and written so much about. There are countries that have attempted programs of assimilation and pubic housing -- Spain is a notable example -- that have not worked that well.

Polansky: You know, you find racism also in Spain. I have lived in Spain for many years and I know that there are villages in Spain where the mayor and the Guardia Civil have not allowed any Gypsies to rent or buy a home. And in Great Britain, they are not processing legally the political asylum cases from Gypsies from Eastern Europe. They are sending them back as quickly as they can. I have spoken to many Rom who, the minute they got off the airplane in London and requested political asylum, the wife and children are taken to a bed and breakfast, the father was put into jail. A few weeks later a social worker would come by and say that your wife and children have been molested by skinheads. Don't you think you should sign on the dotted line voluntarily to go back to the Czech Republic?

Host: Erika Schlager was pointing to some signs of hope and a changing attitude in Europe. Do you see that, and how would it manifest itself? What would be your answer to the problems that the Romani are facing now? And is there any extent to which you would say that they have to change?

Polansky: I think that the Roma are trying to integrate. They are tying to assimilate more than the majority is allowing them to do so. I actually had some hope a few years ago that things were changing in Eastern Europe, that the governments were recognizing the problem and were willing to invest money in education and jobs. But now with the war in Kosovo and in the Balkans, you see a great influx of Roma seeking a safe haven in Europe. And since they are not invited there, they are going underground. And this is creating turmoil in these countries. So I think the problem is getting worse because of the war in the Balkans. We are seeing at least a hundred-thousand Roma now in Eastern Europe and Western Europe who were not there a year ago.

Host: How do you answer the point that some critics make who say that the Roma do not want to assimilate and that that's the problem. They keep by themselves and live by their own code.

Polansky: This is another stereotype because most Roma, under the age of thirty, cannot speak Romani. They are losing their culture faster than people can imagine. I lived with Roma. I'm trying to learn Romani and I'm finding very few people who can teach it to me. If they can pass for white, they do so and they assimilate very quickly.

Host: Maybe that is the ultimate, long-term answer: that assimilation will end discrimination. It is perhaps not what you would like to see.

Schlager: I have to say that I do not really think that that is the way it is going to go. I think we are really on the threshold of seeing some very dynamic and exciting changes that will occur in this next decade. Just looking back on what I have seen in the past decade, it is incredible -- the differences in the Romani communities. First of all, I think we have to remember that Romani political maturation was dealt a devastating blow by the Holocaust, where Roma were targeted for extermination. There had been in the twenties and thirties the beginning of Romani political movements and the Holocaust decimated them.

Host: So you think that they themselves are coming to the fore, to their own defense, and they are going to make progress this way.

Schlager: Very much so. They are very much experiencing an incredible period of empowerment and that is very exciting.

Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have this week. I would like to thank our guests -- historian Paul Polansky and Erika Schlager from the Helsinki Commission -- for joining me to discuss the plight of the Gypsies. This is Robert Reilly for On the Line.

Announcer: You've been listening to On the Line - a discussion of United States policies and contemporary issues...

Posted 18 March 2000.

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