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Europe's marginalised community

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:45 PM by Suresh V   [ updated Feb 25, 2012, 9:59 PM ]

Opinion - News Analysis

Europe's marginalised community

By Vaiju Naravane


A FRESH BEGINNING: A Roma family in their house built by a voluntary organisation near Ostrava in Czech republic.

Ostrava, the Czech Republic:

This is a big day for Kumar Vishwanathan and his humanitarian association, Vzajemné Souziti, which in Czech language translates as "Life Together". His dream of a housing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech citizens has become a reality and the first of the beneficiaries have moved in.

For several years now, Mr. Vishwanathan has been working for the rights of one of Eastern Europe's most despised, ostracised and marginalised communities, the Roma or gypsies.

The project is located in a village called Slezska Ostrava (on the outskirts of the industrial town of Ostrava near the Polish border) and provides housing in semi-detached bungalows to very poor families, both Roma and Czech, who have been living in dank, run-down houses badly affected by repeated flooding. The idea is to bring two deeply divided and mutually suspicious communities together in an experiment in "Life Together''.

The gypsies are Europe's most deprived and fastest growing ethnic minority. There are an estimated 9 million Roma in Europe, some 6 million of them in Eastern Europe. The Roma originally came to Europe from central and north-western India in three waves of migrations between the 5th and 12th centuries, reportedly fleeing religious persecution, although there is little historical proof for this claim. Most Roma have become sedentary and hardly anyone now speaks Romani, supposedly a dialect of their original Indian tongue.


Twenty-two-year-old Katerina Hodostova has the thick, dark features and stocky frame characteristic of the Roma. "Never in my life did I think I would live in a house like this. A room for the children, one for my husband's mother, one for us, a proper living and dining, even a garden in the backyard. We pay a rent of 2,300 kroner. In our old house in Hrusova which had damp patches, leaky taps and shared conveniences, we paid 4,300 kroner plus the heating. This is all thanks to Kumar's association,'' she says.

Eva Burova, a social worker with "Life Together" told The Hindu: "Ostrava has a population of 300,000 people of which 20,000 are Roma. In my entire life, I have known maybe three Roma who have university degrees. They are systematically discriminated against and are seen as alcoholics, thieves, and compulsive liars. They are right at the bottom of the social scale. Our association helps them to help themselves.''

Mr. Vishwanathan's is an exemplary story of commitment and drive. After earning a degree from the Birla Institute of Technology, this native of Kerala went to the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow to earn a degree in physics. There he met his Czech wife and after the fall of the Berlin, moved to Ostrava where she was finishing her education.


``My involvement with the Roma began in 1997 when the Czech Republic was hit by terrible floods. They lost their homes but received very little attention from the local authorities. I had heard so many terrible one-sided stories about them that I decided to find out for myself and for a year I lived in a cabin with them. They were suspicious of me at first. But since I was educated, I could help them make applications, deal with local authorities. I had to stay there and make myself useful in order to win trust. I worked a great deal with children and slowly my cabin became a community centre. They had nothing. No blankets, little furniture, no rubbish collection and rudimentary toilets. An entire family would live and cook in the space of five square metres — it was very dangerous. I contacted NGOs and established links with local authorities,'' recalls Mr. Vishwanathan.

The statistics for gypsies as compared to the national averages for other ethnic minorities are appalling: Their jobless rate is over 60 percent, more than six times the national average in most of Europe while their life expectancy is behind by as much as 10 years. Even today, although schooling has been compulsory for over half a century, only one in five gypsy families can send its children to secondary school. Verbal and physical abuse against the Roma are a common feature. The European Commission and the Council of Europe have both urged Eastern European Governments to uphold the human rights of the Roma. Nevertheless, they remain a downtrodden and largely despised community and although the Roma are looked on with suspicion in Western Europe too, it is in the East that discrimination and racial hatred is mostly practised.


The Roma, however, are beginning to organise themselves and with help from persons such as Mr. Vishwanathan, have begun claiming their rights. Many have begun to flee their home countries for Western Europe. There is now a new fear that masses of Roma will inundate the West. "The migration of the Roma will make the influx of Third World migrants to the West look like a mere trickle. Six million gypsies in Eastern Europe, most of them anxious to flee to the more prosperous West where they feel they will receive better treatment. At the moment, Western European Governments systematically deny them visas and right of entry. What will happen in 2004 when Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics will join the E.U.? What will happen when Bulgaria and Romania become members? "We are going to see mass movements of people on a scale not seen before and these will not be welcome moves,'' says the sociologist, Judith Scott, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Europe is sitting on a demographic time bomb, Ms Scott says.