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Budapest Conference Focuses on Roma (Gypsy) Poverty

A two-day international conference has opened in Hungary on ways to deal with the problems of Romas, the gypsies of eastern Europe, who often live in poverty and social isolation.

Tackling Roma poverty is one of the most critical issues facing Eastern European nations that want to join the European Union, according to James Wolfensohn, head of the World Bank.

Mr. Wolfensohn told the conference, which is organized by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute, a research organization based in Budapest, that the Roma minority for centuries has been the victim of discrimination. Not only is this kind of inequality wrong, says Mr. Wolfensohn, it makes society unstable.

A World Bank study shows that central Europe's estimated six million Roma endure high poverty and severe health problems.

Hungary has an estimated 450,000 Roma out of a population of about 10 million. Forty percent of the Roma live below the poverty line of $4.30 a day, according to the World Bank report. Hungary is among the 10 mainly ex-communist central and eastern European countries due to join the European Union in May 2004.

Romania, which could join the European Union by 2007, has the largest Roma population in the region, with up to 2.5 million out of a total population of more than 22 million. World Bank estimates show that Roma life expectancy there is 15 to 20 years lower than in the majority of the population. In addition, half the Roma population in Romania is illiterate and unemployment levels among them reach 24 percent.

The European Union has pledged continued support for the integration of Roma into the mainstream of society, but says traditions that violate human rights cannot be tolerated. In some Roma communities buying and selling of young brides and keeping children from getting an education are still common.

EU Employment and Social Affairs commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou warned that when fundamental human rights and traditions collide, traditions must change.