Accessibility links

Olympics Makes Life More Difficult for the 'Roma' - 2004-08-27

After a slow start, the Olympics reached a measure of success in its second week in Athens, in the number of visitors and the amount of business generated by tourism. From taxi cab drivers, to restaurant owners and street vendors, Athenians appear to be cashing in on the summer games. But a human rights group charges the Olympics has made life worse for some.

Already living on the fringes of society, the human rights group Greek-Helsinki Monitor says Athens' Roma have been pushed even farther out to make way for the 2004 Olympics. Roma Project Manager, Theo Alexandridis, says some of Athens' Roma were told to make themselves scarce during the games.

"We have had reports with some of the Roma with whom we're working, that they're advised, in more or less insulting terms, not to go around Athens during the Olympics," he says. "Yeah, as in go away or next time I see you I'll give you a fine or something like that.

Mr. Alexandridis says Greek Roma, or Gypsies, as they are sometimes called, face continued racism and harassment, as they do in other parts of Europe. He says the government's response to the Roma, who often live in substandard housing, has been a series of broken promises. Before the Olympic stadium was built, Mr. Alexandridis says about 60 Roma families used to leave near a garbage dump located in the vicinity of what is now the Media Village. He says they were moved off the land to make way for the Olympics under an agreement that was to provide better housing in three stages.

"First they would be given rent subsidies every month so they could find a place to rent. Second they would be given prefabricated housing, and thirdly this would depend on the cooperation of the state, they would be moved to into permanent accommodation," he explains. "Now the agreement was on paper, it was fine it was perfect, the Roma's dream I suppose. But it was not implemented. We are still in phase one of rent subsidies."

The Roma are not unique to Greece, nor or their problems. They are a small minority here, but the largest minority in the European Union. Mr. Alesxandridis says there could be as many as 150,000-200,000 Roma in Greece. However, he stresses there are no accurate numbers on their population.

Although the Roma have lived in Europe for at least a thousand years, many Roma clans have never assimilated into mainstream society. Mr. Alexandrikis says centuries of prejudice may account for at least part of the reason.

"They're so many myths, so many misconceptions, so many misunderstandings about who they are and what they want," he notes. "They have the problem that no one really likes the Roma. You will see many people who use or take advantage of the Roma, so they can launch their studies or whatever. Not many people try to do something for them."

While discrimination against the Roma persists, Mr. Alexandridis says the Greek police force has made some positive overtures to the Roma, at least officially. He says a recent memo went out to police, ordering them not to refer to Roma as athigganos, a derogatory Greek word for Gypsies.

"The heads of the Greek police are sort of becoming more and more sensitive towards this issue," he adds. "But then again they cannot know how the police officer on the beat is going to react."

Greek officials, meanwhile, say there has been no targeting of ethnic minorities in the run-up to the summer games. But they, and everyone else, are simply feeling the effects of the increased security around the Olympics.