Romania: Gypsy Ghetto Controversy

Bucharest leaders speak out against plan to transfer Roma into a ghetto.

Romania: Gypsy Ghetto Controversy

Bucharest leaders speak out against plan to transfer Roma into a ghetto.

Pigs and barefoot children run through the dirt streets, while stray dogs scavenge in the rubbish-strewn yards of abandoned hovels. This is the Gypsy quarter of Piatra Neamt, a town of 2,000 inhabitants in the north-east of Romania.

The Gypsies of Piatra Neamt, like those almost everywhere in Romania, are totally marginalised. Official statistics put the national number of Roma - as Gypsies prefer to be known - at 425,000 although their leaders claim 1.5 million to 2 million is a more accurate figure.

Fearful of racism, many members of the minority are reluctant to admit their ethnicity to officialdom.

While poverty and squalor are nothing new for Piatra Neamt's Roma, the mayor's plans for them are. Ion Rotaru wants to construct a ghetto to house them. The planned compound, on the site of a former chicken farm, would incarcerate local Roma behind a high wall, where they would be under continual police surveillance, and forced to work.

Rotaru said most of those who would be moved there have no source of income, refuse to work and have already destroyed the housing they have received from welfare authorities. He claims that his planned ghetto would be a "modern district, with a church, a school, a medical centre and a sports hall".

"The Roma will be put to work and forced to learn, and they will be completely separated from the rest of the town. We are just trying to discipline them," he said.

Anti-Roma prejudice is widespread in Romania and much of post-Communist eastern Europe. European Union officials are concerned at the persistence of racism and hate crimes - often violent - not just in Romania, but also in countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are first in line for EU membership.

Anti-Roma racism is common among young people. Even university students are not immune. Costel Gidoiu, a student at the University of Bucharest, said, "I will change my opinion about Gypsies only when I see most of them are eager to work or to have a decent life, and when they'll stop trying to steal, or cheat me."

An opinion poll carried out this year shows that three out of four Romanians do not want to live next door to Roma people. The minority is often blamed for petty crime and other social ills. Their customs are not always understood. Many of them see no shame in begging, regarding it as simply another way of making a living.

At the same time, critics of their social values argue that they do not always attempt to integrate into modern society. Young Roma women have been sold into marriage - sometimes for the price of a second-hand car. The community's social customs mean that it can be very difficult for women to escape such practices.

The harsh reality for Roma in Romania is that they are the

poorest of the poor. They have the worst level of physical health and live in the most overcrowded and run-down accommodation. According to official data, just 27 per cent of the minority have regular jobs - many of them involving menial labour - and only 10 per cent work legally. As little as half of Roma children go to school and almost one-third of the community is illiterate.

Under pressure from the EU, the Bucharest government has stepped up efforts to integrate the minority, or at least impress Brussels with its readiness to meet European norms.

The government in April presented a report to the EU setting out its strategy. This focuses on boosting social security and child protection. It also includes programmes to stimulate economic development, and for the employment of Roma within the public administration system.

The first steps have already been implemented. Spending on Roma education has been increased, and health ministry officials have signed an agreement with Roma representatives to provide free health care.

"We are doing our best to address the issues of Roma poverty and

marginalisation," said the information minister, Vasile Dancu, who is the coordinator of the strategy. Dincu added that around Euro 100 million euro will be spent next year on Roma programmes, of which 68 per cent will come from the EU and other international donors.

But many human rights organisation say much more has to be done to

improve the lives of the minority. "People of Roma origin have been

particularly vulnerable to the acute economic deprivation that has affected Romania over the last decade - made worse by long-established discrimination," said a recent Open Society Institute report.

In the EU's progress reports on candidate countries, due out next month, Romania is expected to be criticised over its treatment of minorities. "Rotaru's proposals are not likely to help Romania improve its image in Brussels. Roma should be integrated into society and not isolated," said Cristian Pirvulescu, leader of the human rights group Pro Democratia.

Romanian leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Piatra Neamt mayor. "I do not believe one can speak of integration and

at the same time perceive solutions in terms of ghettoization," Prime

Minister Adrian Nastase said.

President Ion Iliescu said the solution proposed by Rotaru is "unwise" and that the problems of the Roma should be solved through "integration rather than isolation".

Faced with such opposition, Mayor Rotaru relented, and announced that places in the planned compound would only be offered to those in need.

Marian Chiriac is a regular contributor for IWPR.

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