Slovakia’s forgotten Roma

While central European country’s economy has flourished, the Roma community has been left behind.

People in the Roma settlement of Plavecky Stvrtok live on $81 a month [Simona Foltyn/Al Jazeera]

Bratislava, Slovakia – Gabor Pysny’s situation is a rarity in Slovakia – and the rest of Europe for that matter.

A Roma, Pysny and his family live in the village of Lozorno, north of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava. Working as a mason for the municipality, he has earned a solid reputation for his reliability and craftsmanship.

“My brothers and I all have work, we don’t need social welfare,” he said.

Lubo Hubek, mayor of the town, said the majority of the Roma in his village are well integrated into Slovakian society. “Three quarters of the Roma here work, live in legal housing and contribute to our community.”

But such Roma success stories are not common as they struggle to assimilate and often face ill-treatment and racism. France, for example, has been criticised after police detained a 15-year-old Roma girl during a school trip and deported her to Kosovo.

The controversy in France follows an outcry last month over remarks by Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who said most of the 20,000 Roma in the country had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin.

Slovakia has also faced condemnation for its treatment of Roma. Last month the UN denounced police for “human rights violations” after a June raid on a Roma shantytown in the east.

Despite Slovakia’s economic growth and integration into the European Union, many of the country’s 500,000-strong Roma population continue to live in abject poverty. 

Who can survive on 60 euros a month? I have only two options: begging or stealing.

by - Pavel Olak, 50, Roma villager

The Roma settlement in Plavecky Stvrtok, Slovakia offers another account of the troubles the ethnic group faces.

Though only a few kilometres from Lozorno, the two villages are worlds apart. The settlement here consists of about 100 makeshift homes, providing shelter to more than 600 Roma.

All the houses are built illegally. A fence segregates the settlement from the rest of the village, and the non-Roma homes in its immediate proximity are shielded by barbed-wire fences or walls.

Many of the Roma who live in Plavecky Stvrtok rely on social welfare. Pavel Olak is 50-years old, unemployed, and receives 60 euros ($81) of social welfare per month.

“Who can survive on 60 Euros a month? I have only two options: begging or stealing,” Olak said.

He has not completed elementary school or any other professional training, and blames racism for not being given a chance. Like many other Roma, he has given up on finding employment.

Mayor Ivan Slezak said he has repeatedly tried to resolve the situation, and accused the Roma of being unwilling to assimilate and become productive members of society.

“They pretend to be poor, but they all have cell phones, cars and TVs. Yet at the same time they collect social welfare,” Slezak said.

EU embarrassment

The Roma are traditionally a nomadic people who arrived in Europe in the 11th century from the Indian subcontinent’s northwestern regions. Many were captured and sold as slaves. 

About 500,000 Roma now live in Slovakia, comprising nine percent of the population. They have been largely bypassed by the socioeconomic transformation the country has undergone over the last two decades, marked by the fall of communism, double digit economic growth, and its accession to the European Union in 2004.

A survey conducted by the United Nations in 2011 showed a sustained, alarming difference in socioeconomic indicators between Roma and non-Roma citizens in Slovakia.

The statistics are in stark contrast to what would be expected from an EU member state: Only 19 percent of Roma adults have completed secondary education, compared to 78 percent non-Roma. More than 90 percent of Roma live below the national poverty line, and their unemployment rates are as high as 70 percent – more than twice that of non-Roma.

The fact that Roma lag behind in educational attainment perpetuates a cycle of unemployment, poverty and dependency, observers say.

“Only 50 percent of first graders go on to eighth grade,” Emilia Caganova, the principal of the elementary school in Plavecky Stvrtok, told Al Jazeera. “Parents and students lack the fundamental interest to learn, and many Roma children go to school only because they get free lunches.”

A Roma at the Plavecky Strvrtok settlement [Simona Foltyn]

The school has become a de-facto Roma school, with all non-Roma children having transferred to schools in surrounding towns.

Jaroslav Kling from United Nations Development Programme said the foundation for social exclusion is often laid in early childhood. “Slovakia has one of the highest shares of Roma children in specialised schools. These schools are meant for the physically and mentally handicapped, which Roma children are not. They just often don’t speak the language.”

‘We need jobs’

From 2007-13, more than 185m euros from the European Social Fund (ESF) and government funding was dedicated to projects aimed at propelling Roma integration. Last year, the UNDP published a report analysing the progress of such projects, concluding that funds were not targeted at the right interventions, and were too short-term in nature.

“You cannot expect the mental change, the generational change to happen in the course of a two-year project. But this is how the ESF funding was set up until now,” Kling told Al Jazeera.

Many of these projects focused on training or generating temporary employment, but once over, they had no lasting impact on the Roma’s ability to find work.

“We don’t need projects, we need jobs,” one Roma who participated in an ESF-funded project was cited in the report as saying.

We don't want to move out of our settlement. We have lived here for decades. All we need is for the government to provide water and sewage.

by - Roma woman

The Slovak government has struggled to come up with policies to address the needs of the Roma community.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Transport proposed a new construction law ordering the removal of illegal structures, which would affect at least 10,000 Roma homes. If passed, the law would provide unlawful tenants with a time window to retroactively apply for a permit. Roma families unable to legalise their residences would be evicted and moved to government housing.

Some welcome the government’s resolute attempt to bring an end to a long-lasting impasse over illegal Roma settlements, though many have criticised the proposed law for being ruthless and imposing integration in an unrealistic timeline without allowing municipalities to address the issue individually.

Some Roma also see the law as an infringement on their way of life. “We don’t want to move out of our settlement. We have lived here for decades. All we need is for the government to provide water and sewage,” a Roma woman in Plavecky Stvrtok told Al Jazeera, requesting that she not be identified for fear of reprisals.

The fact that Roma have been marginalised for so long raises doubts whether there is true willingness to find a sustainable solution.

Kling said he believes a change in attitude by Slovak authorities is required to move forward. “Local government and police often display racist behavior. The key is to have top-level political commitment to tolerance. Political leaders must speak out publically against racism.”

Many Slovaks are resigned to the fact that Roma cannot be integrated. Fences and walls erected in many towns to physically segregate Roma bear witness to communities’ reluctance to change the status quo. But cases such as the village of Lozorno prove that it is possible to find a solution, even without government funding.

When asked why Lozorno’s Roma community has integrated so well, Gabor Pysny replied: “It’s up to each individual to decide to change his life.”

Source: Al Jazeera