|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE in conjunction with exhibit on holocaust
of roma and sinti, present day racism in europe
In a first ever joint appeal to the United Nations to intensify its engagement for the protection of the rights and emancipation of Europe’s largest minority, a panel of representatives of European Roma and Sinti organizations proposed the appointment of a United Nations Special Representative for Roma and Sinti questions at a Headquarters press conference today.
Calling on “politically responsible” people to press for the recognition of Roma and Sinti as citizens with equal rights in their respective countries, Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma said the term “Holocaust” stood not only for the murdering of the 6 million Jews, but also for the systematic genocide of 500,000 Roma and Sinti in Nazi-occupied Europe. In spite of that historical experience, some 12 million Roma and Sinti -– Europe’s largest minority -- were subject to discrimination, social disadvantage and open violence in their everyday lives.
The appeal, he said, would be delivered to the United Nations Secretary-General tomorrow, 30 January, at the opening of the exhibit, “The Holocaust against Roma and Sinti and present day racism in Europe”. According to the appeal, the task of the Special Representative would be to develop practical measures to improve the protection of Roma and Sinti minorities. The position would be assigned to a qualified representative of those communities.
The degrading conditions in which the millions of Roma and Sinti lived were reminiscent of South Africa’s former apartheid system, he added. Living in ghetto-like housing conditions, millions of the Roma and Sinti were often cut off from any infrastructure, especially in Eastern European countries. Infant mortality was extremely high. Frequently the victims of pogroms, racially motivated murder and other acts of violence –- often by State security forces –- Roma and Sinti, much like African Americans in the 1950s, were the victims of marginalization and racism.
Also participating in the panel were: Roman Kwiatkowski, Association of Roma in Poland; Laszlo Teleki, Member of Hungary’s Parliament; Yuliya Kondur, International Charitable Organization Roma Women Fund, Ukraine; Rudolf Sarkozi Association of Austrian Roma; Lalla Weiss, National Sinti Organization, Netherlands; Cenek Ruzicka, President of the Committee for the Compensation of the Romani Holocaust, Czech Republic; Ladislav Richter, Chairman, Council of NGOs of the Slovak Romani Communities, Slovakia; and Ostalinda May Ovalle, European Roma Rights Centre, Hungary.
As in other countries, Roma in Poland struggled against many problems, including low levels of education and high unemployment rates, Mr. Kwiatkowski said. Still the victims of discrimination, racism, xenophobia and violence, a great part of Roma lived in abnormal conditions, often without access to water, electricity and sewerage. While progress had been made since 1989 with the establishment of numerous organizations, associations and institutions dealing with the Roma issue, that progress was still insufficient. A main priority was the education of children and youth at the primarily level, and the use of scholarships and aid at the secondary and university levels. To solve the problems of Roma society, the United Nations was called upon to establish an office for Roma affairs, which, in the face of increasing discrimination and racism, would stand up for the rights of Roma society.
The fact that anti-Roma sentiment and discrimination still existed today indicated that the Roma people continued to be one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world, Mr. Teleki said. “It is a task for all of us to remedy the situation,” he said. With some 600,000 Roma, Hungary had the fourth largest such population in Europe after Romania, Spain and Bulgaria. The Hungarian Government had, since the 1990s, endeavoured to handle the complex issue of the social integration of the Roma people, not only as a minority issue, but also as a comprehensive, socio-political issue. In that context, significant efforts had been made to overcome the disadvantages facing Roma people, with special emphasis on equal chances, education, job creation, health care, social care and housing. To facilitate the social integration of the Roma, the new Hungary Development Plan for 2007-2013 had defined campaigns, educational programmes, training programmes and children and youth programmes to break down prejudice and change attitudes.
Mr. Kondur said many Roma in Ukraine lived in extreme poverty under insecure and unhealthy conditions. Roma non-governmental organizations regularly reported discrimination by both State and non-State actors in the areas of employment, housing and access to social services, such as health care and education. Lack of protection from direct and indirect discrimination had relegated Roma to a substandard peripheral existence. Despite indications that the overall human rights situation in Ukraine had improved, the same could not be said for the situation of Roma in the country. In that regard, he urged the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to take any and all measures to change the deeply worrying and very widespread views at the Government level.
Describing the situation of Roma in Austria, Mr. Sarkozi said Austria’s Parliament had recognized the Roma national minority in 1993. Austria had also agreed to make suitable financial means available. Roma enjoyed similar rights to other legally recognized Austrian national minorities. The State promoted easier access to education, made compensatory payments to the concentration camp victims through a national fund and supported survivors with a victim’s welfare pension. As a result of an educational deficit, the community faced many social problems. The main priority was the implementation of an education offensive. The national minority needed to acquire more self-confidence. “Internationalization” of the subject of Roma and Sinti, racism and xenophobia at the European and United Nations level was, therefore, of great importance, he said.
The situation of Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands was far from good, Ms. Weiss said. Sinti and Roma were seriously behind, both in terms of participation and level of schooling, and there was a very high level of unemployment and a large proportion was dependent on welfare. While the participation of Roma and Sinti children in the educational system had increased, a large part was directed towards schools for students with special needs. Many Sinti and Roma had feelings of inferiority, isolation, distrust and fear of persecution. An organization which represented the interests of Dutch Sinti and Roma was urgently needed.
Turning to the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic, Mr. Ruzicka said that, while Roma in that country formally enjoyed human and civil rights, the practical realization of those rights had not been attained. The unemployment rate among the Roma population was some 70 to 90 per cent. Research showed that some 90 per cent of ethnic Czech citizens did not want Roma as neighbours. His Government did not have a mechanism at its disposal to effectively prevent the social and cultural exclusion of the Roma at the local level. The problem in the country which most starkly symbolized the position of Roma in Czech society was the continued existence of offensive construction and activities on the sites of two former concentration camps for Roma, where up to 600 Romani men, women and children perished during the Nazi era because of their race.
Mr. Richter said the creation of a new Slovak Government was considered by the Roma community as the first chance that would allow a real pro-Roma oriented approach. International institutions noted, among other things, unbearable living conditions in Roma settlements and a 100 per cent unemployment rate in some regions in the country.
Regarding the situation of Bulgarian Roma, Ms. Ovalle said large numbers of Roma in Bulgaria did not have access to equal education. Most Roma children were educated in Roma-only schools, based in Roma-only neighbourhoods or special schools for children with disabilities. Roma were massively excluded from employment opportunities. Denial of equal opportunities in education for several generations of Roma, as well as the growing number of Roma children who had dropped out of school in recent years, posed serious barriers to the integration of Roma in the labour market. A number of Roma communities lived in physical separation from the majority population in neighbourhoods lacking basic infrastructure and without access to basic public services. Bulgaria’s recent accession to the European Union and the country’s participation in the international initiative Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 were expected to finally bring real improvements to the lives of Bulgarian Roma.
Responding to a question, Mr. Rose noted that, while the United Nations had passed a number of resolutions and signed various conventions, those documents had not been sufficient for Europe’s largest minority. Marginalized by individual European countries and not recognized as citizens with equal rights, Roma and Sinti turned to the Secretary-General, asking him to appoint a special representative who would paint an accurate picture of where the minority group stood today. On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was important to recall that some 500,000 Sinti and Roma had been victims of the Holocaust. Against a backdrop of increased violence and marginalization, increased awareness was needed.
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