Ambitious plans are afoot in central and eastern Europe to integrate Gypsies, or Sinti and Roma -- one of the continent's largest ethnic minorities -- into mainstream society within a decade.
Europe's Sinti and Roma often face discrimination
The plans, which include ending the segregation of Gypsies in schools and eradicating all-Gypsy ramshackle housing projects, are part of national action plans worked out in eight of the region's countries, whose leaders meet in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Wednesday to discuss Sinti and Roma integration. Gypsy leaders say these programs, already underway in some countries, could mark a new beginning in efforts to integrate Gypsies, who number up to 10 million in Europe according to some estimates, mostly living in central and eastern Europe.
"For the first time government budgets will allocate resources to begin the eradication of up to 700 all-Gypsy housing projects which have no utilities and to move those living there into decent housing over the next 10 years," Laszlo Teleki, state secretary in charge of Roma affairs in Hungary and himself a Gypsy, told AFP. He said that another Hungarian project would aim to end the segregation of Gypsies in 700 schools nationwide.
Efforts are concentrated on vital areas such as education, housing and employment in new European Union member states -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia -- and other countries -- Bulgaria and Romania -- which hope to join the EU in the future. Poverty and unemployment rates among Gypsies are up to 10 times higher than those of the general population, while education levels are far inferior, with many Gypsies dropping out before finishing primary school.
In the Czech Republic, the authorities have started to abolish "special" primary schools filled with Gypsies who receive a low-standard education, where many pupils are considered mentally handicapped. To help with the integration of Gypsy students, Prague has appointed more than 250 Gypsy educational assistants. And for Gypsy students who may have grown up speaking another language at home, the government has set up 103 classes to learn Czech for one year before starting primary school.
Bulgaria, which is slated to join the EU in 2007, has pledged to raise employment rates among Gypsies. A survey there in November found 89 percent of Gypsies said they would rather have jobs than rely on social assistance. The study also found one out of two Gypsy households was on the welfare rolls in Bulgaria, while every third family relied almost entirely on social benefits to make ends meet.
Gypsies are local
However, Gypsy leaders have warned that the ambitious plans to improve lives do not always translate into practical benefits.
In Croatia, Gypsy leaders complain that resources to fund health, housing and other projects were misallocated or never reached the targeted areas. "The projects only exist on paper," said Alija Mesic, a leader of an umbrella organization grouping 28 Gypsy associations. "The government estimated that the projects needed €2.5 million ($3.25 million) for 2004 but only one percent of that sum was allocated," he said.
Nevertheless, the meeting in Sofia on Wednesday is a hopeful sign for some that Gypsy issues will be taken more seriously. "It is very important that the political elite declare that Gypsies are not foreign, that we have to help them to help themselves," Teleki said. "If we don't get enough empathy, enough support, then it won't work," he said.