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EU Meeting Addresses Discrimination Against Roma

The European Union is hosting its first meeting to address the problems of the Roma community, which suffers from discrimination and poverty. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris that rights groups hope it will lead to a more inclusive policy for these peoples who are also known as gypsies.

The summit is expected to include European Union foreign ministers, government representatives of the 27 EU member states, along with rights advocates and members of the Roma community. It is the first such high-level meeting to address the problems of Roma in the bloc as a whole.

Most of the estimated seven to nine million members of the Roma community are concentrated in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. But Amnesty international's European Union office spokeswoman Joana Cardoso says Roma, and discrimination against them, are common across Europe.

"These are problems related to very basic rights," she said. "The right to access of education, the right to access to health. In some countries, for example, there are Roma-only schools. We are speaking of serious, almost apartheid-style discrimination, where Roma children are not allowed to go to normal schools, they are put in special schools for only Roma."

The Roma have been a top issue in Italy this year, where the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has cracked down on the community following several criminal incidents, and deported some members.

Rights groups like Amnesty International have sharply criticized plans by the Italian government to fingerprint Roma, which the government says is aimed at identifying the population. The European Commission has recently approved those plans, after the government agreed to make some changes.

France has also razed squatter Roma camps and the government has offered money for eastern-European Roma to return to their countries. Rights groups claim many simply return after the money has been spent.

Europe's Roma community is very diverse and speaks different languages. What they have in common, Amnesty's Cardoso says, is that they are poor and discriminated against.

"It is very important that the European Union is sending this very strong signal by creating the first-ever Roma summit," she said. "In terms of the summit, we are concerned that it does not limit itself in terms of words because we have had plenty of those."

Rights groups are calling for the European Union to come up with concrete answers for the Roma community, notably ensuring they have access to employment and basic rights, and that EU members establish policies that include Roma communities in their societies rather than exclusionary, punitive approaches.