After a Roma couple accused of kidnapping a child were arrested in Greece, pressure on the minority group has increased throughout Europe.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 11/11/13
Many Roma do not have access to legal housing. [AFP]
The recent case of the Bulgarian child Maria, who was found with a Roma couple in Greece, puts the beleaguered Roma community back in the spotlight and has in some cases led to growing discrimination of the minority group throughout Europe.
"The increasingly frequent hooligan attacks on the Roma in various European and other countries indicate that the ethnic distance between the Roma and other peoples is suddenly growing," World Roma Parliament President Dragoljub Ackovic told SETimes, adding that the assaults on Roma should be treated with "zero tolerance."
The case of Maria, known by some as the "blonde angel," emerged last month during an operation by Greek police looking into suspected drug trafficking at a Roma settlement. An investigation determined that Maria is the child of a Bulgarian Roma couple and her mother knew she was in Greece, although there are conflicting reports about whether the child was abandoned or was a victim of trafficking.
Particularly compelling were the photos released by police of Maria, whose albino features contrast sharply from the Greek Roma couple who called her their child, and served to renew suspicion of Roma elsewhere.
In the Serbian city of Novi Sad, a group of skinheads tried to take away a 2-year-old child from his Roma parents due to the colour of their skin, and accused the child's father, Stefan Nikolić, of stealing the boy from his biological parents.
Nikolić, who is a Roma, said he and his wife Jovanka had been out walking with their son, when a man who looked about 25 years old started shouting, "How did you get that white child, you must have stolen it!"
"I was so frightened I didn't know what to do, he was pointing at my 2-year-old son Čeda," Nikolić told Blic.
In the official census conducted last month in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), documents failed to recognise Roma as a minority, instead lumping them in the category of "others."
Programmes in the region hope to give Roma better access to food, housing and education. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
"It is important that the Roma identify themselves as belonging to the Roma national minority. We had a campaign during the census in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a clear message, 'Declare as Roma and Roma women, do not allow to be treated like Others,'" Indira Bajramovic, president of the Roma Women Better Future association in Tuzla, told SETimes.
In Romania, where Roma make up more than 3 percent of the population, the forced eviction in September of about 100 Roma living in Eforie Sud, a summer resort on the Black Sea coast, sparked protests from NGOs accusing local authorities of discrimination.
Another 20 families were forcibly relocated by the town hall last month, prompting Amnesty International to submit a petition signed by 25,000 people in 85 countries to Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, asking him for concrete measures to prevent evictions and to provide the Roma communities with proper housing.
"What we seek for the Roma community is active citizenship as a concrete means for social integration," Gelu Duminica, director of the Impreuna (Together) Association, told SETimes.
"Unfortunately, the Roma are not truly seen as citizens of this country and what is happening these days in Eforie supports this theory," he added.
The EU has repeatedly stressed the need for better integration of Roma. In order to ensure that national, regional and local integration policies focus on Roma in a clear and specific manner in the member countries, the European Commission adopted the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies by 2020.
The plan focuses on improving Roma access to education, housing, healthcare and basic services.
Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina fall under the minority classification of "others." [AFP]
The National Roma Centrum in Kumanovo, Macedonia, is hoping for state institutions' support to help the country's Roma gain better access to personal documents, freedom of movement, legalised housing, better healthcare and a higher percentage of employment.
Asmet Elezovski, the organisation's director, said the integration of Roma "is a process, not an event."
"Roma are citizens of the country where they were born, but above all, they are European citizens and it is urgent to seriously accept the Roma issue as a political problem because that is the only way to find the right solution," Elezovski told SETimes.
Jasmina Mikovic, executive director of the Belgrade-based NGO Praxis, said that only through long-term efforts could the discrimination against the Roma be suppressed.
"Although there is certain progress in terms of improving the position of the Roma national minority, a number of measures still need to be taken to achieve essential changes. Among other things, public awareness needs to be raised, attention needs to be devoted to the education and empowerment of the Roma, while at the same time public administration officials and the broader public need to be educated for the sake of better recognising and preventing discrimination," Mikovic told SETimes.
Correspondents Klaudija Lutovska in Skopje, Bedrana Kaletovic in Tulza and Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.
What steps can regional countries take to include their Roma populations? Tell us what you think in the comments section.