Europe's Roma outsiders

Disease and hunger common in stateless community in Bulgaria.

    Most Roma live in squalid conditions
    and are exposed to disease

    The Roma are one of Europe's largest stateless communities. Estimates suggest up to eight and a half million people belong to the Roma.

    They have no country to live in, and are consequently disadvantaged and marginalised. A significant number of Roma do not have citizenship of the countries they live in.

    As part of Al Jazeera's special series on stateless people, Stephen Cole travelled to Bulgaria and Slovakia , home to nearly a million Roma.

    Dreams of home buried under rubble. Europe's stateless and wandering tribe had, they thought, found a place to settle. But the diggers arrive to smash their dreams - all to make way for the Billa Supermarket.

    The Roma don't shop at the supermarket – not because they don't want to, but because they are turned away. Security guards say they steal more than they buy.

    When the bulldozers went away, the Roma moved into dirty rusting metal boxes - improvised homes made from old freight containers.
     
    Squalid conditions are commonplace in Roma ghettos across eastern Europe. People's homes were destroyed in a damn demolition raid to make way for the new supermarket.

    Disease endemic

    Emily has tuberculosis and does
    not yet have a home of her own

    Emily is 19 and believes she may have tuberculosis. In the ghetto the disease is endemic.

    She is pregnant and her family has yet to build the wooden shack where she will give birth and live with her new-born child. The children we meet are undernourished and vulnerable to abuse and disease.

    Monika Milanova has five children. Three have pneumonia. Little Lieubeeka, her youngest child, is clearly undernourished. Her health worker says she has rickets.
     
    "The children get sick and we have no supplies to look after them – in the winter it freezes and in the summer we are fried like chickens - we can't stand it," Milonova says.
     
    There have been efforts at re-housing but they came to nothing. The stateless continue to be homeless.

    Housing scheme

    We drove across Europe into Slovakia, where the government has launched schemes to try and integrate the Roma. Most have failed.

    The Roma of Europe


    The Roma have faced persecution since they entered Europe 500 years ago

    The Nazis attempted to exterminate the European Roma and killed 500,000 belonging to the community

    During the Cold War, Communist governments tried to abolish Roma identity by methods such as forced sterilisation 

    The eventual break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992 has exacerbated the loss of the rights of many Roma

    Watch Stephen Cole's report from Bulgaria and Slovakia

    These people are living in physical danger – their homes are built on old mine workings which could collapse any day, and the ground is contaminated with dangerous chemicals.

    Some have been given a chance- funded by charity money - to build their own homes.

    Multi-coloured blocks of apartments at one Slovakian housing projects were only finished a few months ago.

    They are different colours so the illiterate Roma can identify their address to officials and prove they have a home.

    One of the conditions set by the leaders of the housing project was that the Roma had to physically help build the apartments.
     
    Zdenko Pokutova's husband died laying the foundations of their first-ever home. She says it's a price which makes the house all the more valuable.

    These are small beginnings for one group of Roma, but they are unlikely to impact on entrenched prejudices against people considered to be ethnic outsiders. 
     
    "I've had a lot of negative letters and feedback about all the work I've done here for the Roma, but just looking around me – at what we've achieved – I have a very good feeling and hope things will only get better," Miroslav Blistan, mayor of Rudnany, says.

    Attitudes challenged

    Housing projects offer relief to some Roma,
    but are rare in comparison to usual conditions
     
    Hope at Stolipinovo, one of the biggest ghettos in Bulgaria, walks the streets in the shape of their mayor, Krasimir Kuzmov. Fifty thousand Roma live here in Soviet-era apartments.

    When the Roma first arrived in Stolipinovo they took out all the glass in the windows, the wiring and pipeworks, and sold the lot.

    The mayor says the rubbish was piled 20 feet high and his first job was to clear it all away. Only then could he start to build roads and a pavement.
     
    "People's way of thinking is changing – many still hold opinions from the past, from communist times – when there were feelings against the ethnic minorities," Kuzmov says.

    "Now Bulgaria is part of the European Union, people are starting to change." 
     
    The Mayor hopes efforts to rebuild this community will bring some Roma, the outcasts, back from the social margins – and out from the ghetto.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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