Members of one of the most socially deprived communities in Europe, the Roma, are being deported in large numbers and at huge expense, even though in a year’s time, when their home countries become EU members, they will be able to legally reside in the UK.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Roma Affairs in Stage One Accession Countries launched a disturbing report last month on the plight of Roma people in eastern European countries where, though the governments eager to join the EU have been enacting laws to outlaw discrimination in order to meet the criteria set by the European Council, the actual life of Roma is still one of prejudice, violence and discrimination.
From 1990 to 1999, 7,000 Roma asylum seekers from eastern Europe were granted refugee status in the EU. However, a recent amendment to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act in the UK has facilitated the deportation of Roma to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic on the grounds that these countries (the so-called ‘white list’) are safe and governed by the ‘rule of law’, and appeals against deportation decisions have been curtailed.
Even before there has been any time to assess the impact of the government’s ‘white-list’ policy, the Home Office has proposed that the original list of ten countries, from which asylum applicants’ claims will be deemed ‘manifestly unfounded’ and their appeal rights restricted, is to be extended. Now other countries with Roma populations – Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania – are also to be added to the ‘white list’. Applicants from any of these countries will most probably be detained at Oakington reception centre, where their claims will be ‘processed’ within 10 days. In such conditions, detainees will have little chance of rebutting the presumption that their claims are unfounded.
The report on the Roma
Launching the report on Roma in eastern Europe, Lord Avebury, involved in supporting and advising the research, pointed out that attempts to prevent Roma asylum seekers from entering the country are pointless and wasteful. ‘After 1 May 2004, all these people will be coming here legally. Why spend all this money turning Romani asylum seekers back?’, he asked. He suggested that EU member states should help attack the root causes of asylum claims. ‘People should connect the influx of Romani asylum seekers with the failure of states concerned to eliminate inequality. If countries eliminated violence and discrimination, people wouldn’t be asking for asylum.’
Paul Mercer, the chairman of the Roma Rights and Access to Justice in European organisations said: ‘Roma are consistently bottom of the pile. Unless their situation improves, these states should not be accepted into the EU. The human rights record of the EU is at stake.’
Examples from four of the accession countries include:
Although the most reliable estimates by the Minority Rights Group put Roma numbers at around 2.9% (275,000) of the 10.3 million population, the census of 2001 put it at 11,716, (a third of the 1991 figure), because there is such reluctance to admit to Roma ethnicity for fear of persecution.
In recent years, there have been numerous cases of violent assaults on Roma men by skinheads and police officers. Rarely are the perpetrators brought to justice, and, when they are, the process is slow.
According to Save the Children, Roma children are fifteen times more likely than non-Roma children to be placed in special schools for those with learning disabilities which means that 75 per cent of Roma children are segregated in a substandard separate education system.
In the absence of legislation against discrimination in housing, Roma families are allocated inferior social housing and are vulnerable to eviction.
Although, the government has ratified virtually all international and European treaties relating to the protection of minorities, new legislation against discrimination lacks an effective appeal system for compensation and sanctions. Furthermore there is no independent body monitoring racial equality and no plans to establish such a body.
Although the 1991 Hungarian census recorded 143,000 Roma, Romani groups and NGOs put the number closer to 500,000+ (in a total population of 10 million).
Anti-Roma prejudice is rife. Recently, six Roma families were given refugee status in France after facing racially motivated attacks against the person and property, culminating in the unlawful demolition of their homes by the local government in 1997.
The proportion of Roma children being placed in special schools for the mentally handicapped because of biased pre-school screening rose from 26 percent in 1974/1975 to 43 percent in 1992/93 (the last year of ethnic monitoring) with research indicating some areas where 90 percent end up in such segregated schools.
Housing conditions are very poor for a large proportion of Roma and often fail to meet the basic health and safety requirements. In addition, access to medical services is restricted with wide variations in provision with some clinics offering special ‘Roma days’ but providing no service for the rest of the time.
The shift to market liberalisation leading to the collapse of state enterprises has hit the Roma hard with at least 60 percent of working age Roma unemployed as against a national average of 12-13 percent. This is a dramatic reversal from the pre- 1989 situation when the Roma employment rate was almost on a par with that of ethnic Hungarians.
This multiple deprivation is reflected in the finding of a recent health survey that life expectancy for Roma is 15 years below that for the Hungarian average.
While the Hungarian Constitution provides for equal treatment and protection against discrimination, the country does not have a unified law against discrimination and no comprehensive system to effectively enforce the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation.
The Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, established in 1990, is responsible for developing a policy framework for minority issues and an ombudsman monitors the implementation of minority rights and investigates complaints. In 2001, 453 new cases were registered with the Ombudsman of which 292 affected the Roma.
In autumn 2002, the new government decided to present a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to parliament in response to the criticism that the existing legislation did not meet the standards required by the EU’s Race Equality Directive.
The Romani community in Poland is smaller than in other eastern European countries with estimates ranging from 15,000 to 50,000, within a total population of 38 million.
There have been incidents of clashes between skinheads with Roma and racially motivated violence towards the Roma.
The majority of Roma children receive segregated schooling, which takes the form of low standard ‘Roma classes’.
Poland has universal health insurance, which guarantees equal access to health care but does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on race and ethnicity. Evidence shows that Roma are more vulnerable to disease and illnesses when compared to the average because, in practice, they have less access to insurance protection and hence to providers and services.
Racial discrimination in housing is reportedly one of the biggest problems faced by Polish Roma with higher rents being charged on city owned flats and eviction from certain locations such as city and town centres.
Despite the lack of ethnic data on employment, sources acknowledge disproportionately high unemployment rates among the Roma depending on locality estimated at between 50 and 90 per cent. The Roma were badly affected by the economic liberalisation following the fall of the Communist government.
In the opinion of the European Commission, although the concept of non-discrimination is enshrined in the Polish Constitution adopted in 1997, the transposition of this principle into effective anti-discrimination legislation has been limited.
International attention on the situation of Roma in Poland was heightened in 1998 with the exodus of asylum seekers to EU member states, particularly the United Kingdom. Since then, the Polish government has intensified efforts to address discrimination by ratifying the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and adopting pilot programmes to reduce the hardship suffered by Roma. However these have been criticised by NGOs for relying too heavily on local initiatives, which are hindered by anti-Roma prejudices, and lacking in legislative clout.
Whereas in the census of May 2001, only 44,620 people (0.8 per cent) declared themselves to be Roma, the Minority Rights Group estimates that out of a population of 5.3 million, there are between 480,000 and 520,000 Roma (nearly 10 percent).
Over the last decade there have been hundreds of serious racially motivated attacks and numerous racially motivated murders. Examples of such attacks include death and assault in police custody and attacks by skinhead gangs. Slovak human rights NGOs report frequent allegations of harassment and violence by the police including raids on Roma settlements.
According to Save the Children, up to 75 per cent of Roma children attend special remedial schools for the mentally handicapped, placed there on the basis of linguistically and culturally biased IQ tests.
The European Commission recently found that housing conditions in so called Roma ‘settlements’ lack basic utilities such as water and electricity.
As a result of multiple deprivation, the Slovak National Committee for UNICEF assesses Roma infant mortality as three times higher than for children of other ethnic groups. The Open Society Institute reported in 2001 that the life expectancy of Roma men was 13 years shorter and for Roma women 17 year shorter than that of the majority population.
Since 1998, the Slovak government has established an institutional framework for protecting minority rights including appointing a Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights, National Minorities and Regional Development, a Plenipotentiary for Roma Issues and an Ombudsman’s Office. Having ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in June 2001, Slovakia is now party to all major international minority rights instruments. However, specific anti-discrimination legislation transposing EC protocols remain to be adopted. In March 2002, the Government adopted an Action Plan to prevent all forms of discrimination, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.