European Union and Roma leaders met Tuesday to seek ways to end the ongoing discrimination and poverty suffered by one of Europe's biggest minorities.
Roma have been persecuted across Europe for generations
The meeting of some 400 government, Roma and civil society officials on Tuesday, Sept. 16, came amid controversy over an Italian move to fingerprint Roma, including children, which was watered down under pressure from rights groups.
"The problem which we are facing together -- as political leaders and citizens, as members of majority societies and as Roma -- is one of great urgency," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, opening the talks. "Mainstream societies need to offer the Roma a real, practical chance to improve their perspectives."
There are around 10 million Roma living in Europe, mostly in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. In Belgium, where the European Commission conference is taking place, there are 20,000 Roma.
Roma were among those sent to concentration camps by the Nazis
Ahead of the summit, rights groups led by Amnesty International urged the EU to tackle the problems and protect the rights of Roma people.
"Enough time has passed, there needs to be a framework with objectives and deadlines" the groups said in a statement.
The Roma are a historically persecuted group: the Nazis sent them to concentration camps, and more recently, they've been attacked by far right-wing groups.
"In many cities in eastern as well as western Europe, violence and racist agitation against our people," said Romani Rose, head of the German Central Council of Roma and Sinti.
In Italy earlier this year, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced his government would begin fingerprinting the Roma population. That move was denounced by human rights groups, but the European Commission has decided the policy is not racist.
Manuel Charpentier, head of Belgium's Roma organization, travels in a white caravan, with a group of 50 men, women and children. They often stop somewhere, only to be moved on by police a few minutes later. Authorities are trying to destroy their way of life, Charpentier said.
"We have a culture, a tradition," he said. "We're old Europeans."
Ostracized by society
Many Roma continue to live in poverty
The Roma want to be a part of general society, but general society won't let them, Charpentier said.
"They have to see us as equal human beings and respect us as equal members of society," he said. "We exist."
According to the EU Commission, millions of European Roma face widespread discrimination, high poverty and unemployment. Life expectancy for Roma is also 10 year to 15 years lower than those of other Europeans.
In Belgium, most of the Roma have Belgian citizenship. However, being a citizen requires having a postal address, and that's difficult when the address always changes.
In Flemish Belgium, towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants are required to reserve a site of land for Roma. In the Belgian capital Brussels, where several thousand Roma are estimated to live, there is no such requirement.
For years, Charpentier said he has been holding talks on the allocation of land to Roma in Brussels, also looking at access to power, water, sewerage and rubbish disposal facilities.