Limited choices push Roma from Romania

A child stands by a gate in a Roma village near Arges, southern Romania, (27 November 2009) Sociologists believe there may be more than two million Roma in Romania

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"The only point on which we agree with the French authorities is that the authorities here in Romania have dealt very poorly, very irresponsibly with the integration of the Roma," says David Mark, of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Bucharest.

That, he believes, is the root cause of the current exodus - not only to France, but to Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

"We are not even talking just of Roma here," agrees his mother, Letitia Mark, who runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for Roma women in the western city of Timisoara.

"The economic crisis is turning the poorest Romanians into Roma as well. Some of those being expelled from France now are not actually Roma. They are victims of the 'gypsification' of the Romanian countryside."

Government schemes

In the latest census, 530,000 people identified themselves as Roma (Gypsies), but sociologists suggest the real figure may be more than two million out of Romania's population of 22 million.

Not all Roma are poor. On the road between Oradea and Cluj, the traditional capital of Transylvania, ornate, Chinese-style villas sprout at the roadside - evidence of the conspicuous wealth of some Roma clans.

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The Roma have a history of being persecuted - many were killed by the Nazis”

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But these are the exceptions which prove the general rule - barefoot children carrying buckets from the village well, even in winter; unemployment rates close to 100% in places; low rates of literacy as a result of failing to finish school; and a life expectancy far below the national average.

Many national and international programmes have been drawn up to help.

In a wide circle of villages around Oradea, the Ruhama foundation works in co-operation with local churches to encourage Roma children to attend pre-school education to help them prepare for primary school each September.

In Bucharest, the Civic Alliance for Roma groups 21 Roma NGOs and recently held talks with the state secretary responsible for Roma integration in the Labour Ministry, Valentin Mocanu.

Mr Mocanu is one of two Romanian government officials due to attend talks in France next week.

Low priority

"We asked for two things - for the Romanian government to provide legal assistance to Roma living in France who do not want to leave and above all, for the government to finally draw up and implement a strategy for the integration of Roma," Mr Mark explains.

Roma children play with their teacher on the courtyard of the kindergarten in Barbulesti (13 August 2009) When local school mediators were appointed, attendance rates dramatically increased

A similar programme, announced in 2001, was never taken seriously by previous governments, he adds.

As positive examples, he highlights two government-sponsored initiatives which were more effective than most - appointing local health and school mediators.

The first were responsible for helping Roma get proper identification papers - often lacking in Romania - which would entitle them to at least rudimentary health care.

The second were tasked with encouraging Roma children go to school. Where the scheme was implemented, attendance rates shot up, Mr Mark says.

Both programmes are, however, now under threat as a result of the government's decentralisation strategy, which leaves local mayors with the financial burden.

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What harm can a few hundred people do?”

End Quote Letitia Mark Gypsy Women's Association "For Our Children"

"They don't prioritise Roma integration, so they don't find the funds for the mediators," he says.

According to Marian Daragiu in Oradea, children fail to attend school not out of unwillingness to learn but out of shame - that they do not have shoes, or proper clothes.

And if they do turn up, they are often too hungry to concentrate on their lessons.

In Timisoara, Mrs Mark recognises that many of the Roma who are currently being sent back to Romania will soon return to France, or other countries.

But she says they have little choice.

"What harm can a few hundred people do?" she asks.

"France has already forgotten the slogan of the European Roma Summit in Cordoba, Spain, in April - exclusion is much more expensive than integration."

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