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Vol 2, No 41
27 November 2000
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Europe's Beggars, Romania's Roma
Marius Dragomir

Romania has the largest Roma minority in Europe. According to the last official census, roughly two million Roma, representing ten percent of the population, are living in Romania today. They are considered to be "the most disruptive" minority; an opinion supported by statistics from the Romanian police that reveal a high proportion of crimes are committed by Roma.

Representatives of the Romanian Roma Party argue that this is due to the grim medieval poverty Roma face today. They also claim that Romanians are prejudiced, blaming the Roma minority for all the troubles in Romania. According to the Party, Romani people cannot work, even if they want to, because the Romanian employers are reluctant to hire them. Roma party leaders also complain about the indifference of the government and their lack of effort in securing the social integration of the Roma minority.

Facing cruel poverty (living in houses without electricity and running water), the Roma are trying to survive by begging in the street. In the past ten years, many have moved to Central Europe where they can earn more money from begging.

In turn, Romania has had to bear the prejudices of Central and Western European countries that associate Romania with "a hell lived by Gypsies." Instead of working on the domestic economic situation which can change the standard of life for its people, the Romanian state has focused on improving "the image of the country abroad," by trying to keep its Roma at home, with the help of those Central European countries that have sent many of the Romanian Roma packing, declaring themselves "sick of Romanian Gypsies."

Illegal migration networks

The migration of Roma people started immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The Roma minority discovered a new way to make money. Because the competition in the "begging market" was too harsh in Romania, they went to the former Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany to earn their money. Soon, they created the "illegal migration network," as the official documents from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs describe it.

Romania gained a bad reputation that encouraged Czechoslovakia to propose the introduction of visas for Romanian citizens. The Romanian diplomats succeeded in avoiding the problem by signing a treaty of readmission with Prague in 1992. The treaty was renewed separately with the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split in 1993.

But the "illegal migration network" continued to work. Facing waves of Roma emigrés, a severe regime for Romanian travelers was introduced in Poland, and a stricter border control on entry into Germany was enforced. Consequently, after 1995, the Roma people chose Slovakia and the Czech Republic as their final destination. Two routes to Slovakia were established: the so-called "green border way," through Ukraine (they used to enter Slovakia by walking in the forest without any identity paper), and the normal route of crossing the border between Hungary and Slovakia.

According to froeign police in Slovakia, many Romanian Roma prefer Bratislava where they beg in the center or steal Western and Central European passports. They sell these passports to the heads of the more sophisticated prostitution networks that deliver prostitutes to the Western European sex market.

On arriving in Bratislava, they have their "contact persons" who provide them with a place to sleep—usually in deserted blocks of flats or caves.

Zanfira Gindac, a Roma woman from a village close to the Romanian town of Arad, begs in front of the TESCO supermarket in Bratislava. She says that she came with her husband and two of their five children, to beg in Bratislava. "We make about 1000 Slovak crowns a day (more than USD 20). After two months, we usually go home with almost 50,000 Slovak crowns (more than USD 1000). We live half a year with this money in Romania," she says.

Zanfira and her family usually cross the border by bribing the Slovak police officers. "We give them USD 100. Everybody has to eat a loaf," she says.

When the illegal immigrants are caught begging, they are taken by Slovak police to the Romanian embassy. "We have to make consular passports for them, valid one day, and send them home. They need these documents because after getting the interdiction stamp on their passports, they get rid of the documents," says Octavian Olteanu, consul at the Romanian embassy in Bratislava.

According to the diplomatic reports from the Romanian embassy, "the Romanians cross the border illegally in Slovakia by bribing the Slovak officers." In 2000, the number of illegal Romanian emigrés doubled, reaching almost 3000. Eighty percent of them are Roma. "Illegal emigrés" are considered those citizens whose purpose of travel is NOT study, tourism or business.

The consul says that they receive a lot of money in Slovakia. "Some Roma people told me some time ago that they came to beg for a car. I was puzzled," Olteanu says.

The Czech Republic has made a great progress in preventing these waves of Roma emigrés. During the past year the numbers of Romanians entering the Czech Republic was reduced tenfold and only 80 citizens were sent back to Romania. Ninety percent of all illegal emigrés are Roma, according to the Romanian embassy in Prague.

At the border they are met by "guides" who take them to Germany. But the Czech Republic has managed to limit "migration" through the introduction of a new law at the beginning of 2000. The law necessitates that the border guards put down on the "visa paper" their signature. This restricts the extent of bribery because the guards can easily be discovered and they don't want to jeopardize their jobs: if a person is found with illegal documents in the Czech Republic, the officer who permitted his or her entrance will be punished.

Picking up the coins in Central Europe

"Eventually, the Czechs realized that the Romanians are not beggars," says Marian Radu, secretary in the consular section of the Romanian Embassy in Prague.

"But the Slovaks still think that Romania is a country where only poor Gypsies live," says Ludmila Lasac, a student from Bratislava who came from the village of Voievozi (county Bihor) in Romania. She is a member of the Slovak minority from Romania who came to what she called "our grand grandparents' country."

Most Slovaks from Romania who have returned to Slovakia (more than 3000 in the past ten years, according to Foreign police in Bratislava) face similar resentments: "They know only those dirty Gypsies and that's the reason why, when they see a Romanian passport, they reject you," Lasac says.

It is the same with the case of Nicolae Dragu, a Romanian citizen who tried to visit his daughter who is studying in Bratislava. He was sent back to Romania in June 2000 by Slovak officers who refused to explain the reasons for his expulsion, Dragu says.

Jaromir Novak, a journalist working for Hospodarsky Dennik in Bratislava, is a member of the Slovak community from Romania and settled in Slovakia seven years ago. One of the problems he faces is that the Slovak state does not want to grant him Slovak citizenship—a refusal caused by the same prejudice against Romania and Roma people.

This is the situation for 90 percent of Slovaks from Romania, according to the Romanian Embassy in Bratislava. Slovak officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained their refusal by saying that Slovakia doesn't have a law for granting double citizenship.

"But if you are a Slovak from Switzerland or any other Western country, the law against double citizenship is suddenly irrelevant. If you are a Romanian, you are a Gypsy and you have to comply with the law," Lasac says.

Although the Slovak state blames Romania for their inability to keep its Roma people at home, the Slovak government has not made any effort to stop "migration networks." A high official from the Slovak Interior Ministry said that they knew about border officers taking bribes from Roma. They hope the situation will be improved when the salaries of these officers are increased, claiming that it will motivate officers to keep their jobs.

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During an official meeting in June this year, Romanian President Emil Constantinescu and Slovak President Rudolf Schuster brushed over the Roma subject saying that the "Roma problem is a European problem" and promised to solve it in the future. Unfortunately, nobody knows how this will be done.

While governments are anguishing over the prevention of Roma migration from Romania, the Romanian "Gypsies," as they are called by the public, ponder over the day when the Roma will be incarcerated in camps and isolated from the world:

"Everybody in Romania hates us. Now, we are loathed everywhere. We don't come here gladly. Do you think I like to see my child playing the accordeon in the tram and picking up the coins thrown by Slovaks? I would like to have a salary and come to Bratislava as a normal tourist. But I don't even dare to dream about that day," Zanfira bitterly concludes.

Marius Dragomir, 22 November 2000

photos courtesy of Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov

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