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European Leaders Agree to Tackle Poverty Among Gypsies - 2003-07-02


Central and Eastern Europe government leaders have agreed to reduce poverty among the region's estimated six million gypsies, known as Roma. The announcement was made in Budapest at the end of a conference on Roma.

Prime ministers of Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania and ministers from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, and Sweden say they will act to improve the lives of Roma within the next decade.

Millions of Roma will become European Union citizens, when 10 mainly former Soviet satellite states join the organization next year. EU leaders have been concerned about Roma migration to Western countries.

The plan, known as the Decade of Roma Inclusion, calls for better education, health care, housing and job opportunities as part of an effort to reduce poverty.

The main organizers of the three-day meeting in Budapest, the World Bank and Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, have welcomed the initiative. However Mr. Soros cautions that governments should also end discrimination of Roma, whom he calls the main victims of Eastern Europe's post Communist transition and the rise of nationalism. Mr. Soros specifically condemns Slovakia, where local authorities allowed the forced sterilization of Roma women amid reports that Roma could become the majority within next the 50 to 60 years.

"That has to stop," says Mr. Soros. "It is an embarrassment for the Slovakian government. I visited Slovakia and I have seen the conditions of the Roma in Slovakia. But I could have done it in other countries too. It is really quite incredible the condition under which some of them live."

A World Bank study released for the Budapest meeting, shows that the life span of Roma is up to 20 years less than the majority population due to poverty. In Hungary for instance, four in 10 Roma are said to live below the poverty threshold of four dollars per day and many Roma children have been banned from secular schools.

Yet not all government leaders agree that social aid is the best way to improve the Roma situation.

Prime Minister Simeon Saxe Coburg Gotha of Bulgaria, which is among the countries with the largest Roma populations says that job creation is the best way forward. "Social assistance by itself is not really creative," he says. "It compensates, it helps. Instead, if you create jobs, then people are integrated, motivated and produce even more."

But Roma leaders attending the conference, say that is easier said than done.

"There is a very wrong presumption in the majority opinion that "you see the Roma people like or love this kind of life, to sit at home, to be jobless and wait for $20 per month to get some kind of social security and which are not enough for anything," says Bulgarian Professor Hristo Kyuchukov, secretary general of the International Romany Union. "If you have one or two children and your husband or wife is unemployed than the situation is getting extremely stigmatizing and desperate. What are you going to do, you don't see any exit."

He adds that some Roma in Bulgaria even die from hunger. However Mr. Kyuchukov and other activists say they hope the Budapest meeting has lead to a new understanding of Roma, the most persecuted and impoverished people of Europe.

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