European Union Meets To Discuss Fair Treatment Of Romas There are more than nine million Roma, also known as "Gypsys," living in Europe. But their lives have been marked with poverty, lack of education and outright racism. The European Union (EU) met for the first time in its history last week to talk about the challenges faced by the Roma minority. David Mark, of the EU Roma Policy Coalition, explains the recent summit.

European Union Meets To Discuss Fair Treatment Of Romas

European Union Meets To Discuss Fair Treatment Of Romas

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There are more than nine million Roma, also known as "Gypsys," living in Europe. But their lives have been marked with poverty, lack of education and outright racism. The European Union (EU) met for the first time in its history last week to talk about the challenges faced by the Roma minority. David Mark, of the EU Roma Policy Coalition, explains the recent summit.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we continue our international briefing with a story from Europe. For centuries, the Roma people have lived throughout the continent, but European countries have not always been welcoming. The Roma, who are also known as Gypsys - although the term is no longer considered polite - have suffered discrimination for centuries and still do in many places. In Italy, in particular, the Roma have recently become targets for violence and physical attacks. ..TEXT: The European Union held its first ever senior-level summit to address the growing challenges of the Roma last week. Activists such as David Mark helped bring about the historic event. Mark is the coordinator of the EU Roma Policy Coalition, and he is a Roma himself. Mark joins me now on the phone from Brussels. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID MARK (Coordinator, EU Roma Policy Coalition): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Can you first tell us, where do the nine million Roma - approximately nine million live? What countries do they generally live in?

Mr. MARK: The Roma live all across Europe, actually, from Spain all throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where the bigger concentration of Roma. But even in Russia, so all - probably with the exception of Cyprus and Malta, all the member states of the European Union have a percentage of Roma population, which are culturally diverse but which belong to what we call the Roma ethnic group.

MARTIN: Is there a common language?

Mr. MARK: Yes. The common language is Romanesque, but unfortunately the language is not anymore spoken by a majority of the Roma. This is mainly because of assimilation policies that were introduced throughout the centuries, and the policies of the Communist regime was (unintelligible) total assimilation of the Roma.

MARTIN: Do Roma have full citizenship rights in all the countries that they live in, and are they - do they - you're saying that the policies have been sort of full assimilation, but is there - does - has that assimilation in fact taken place?

Mr. MARK: No. The Roma remain excluded from the society at large. It's also a question of how, to put it in U.S. terms, maybe it's a question of race. Roma are visibly Roma, darker color of the skin. But also, Roma kept ancient traditions over the centuries, which differentiates them from the majority society. These, coupled actually, with social exclusion and deep prejudice and discrimination against the Roma, create a situation where Roma are actually totally excluded from the majority society.

MARTIN: So, of course, you know that some argue that the Roma don't wish to be integrated fully into society, that they wish to be kind of a people apart. What's your take on that?

Mr. MARK: I certainly do not agree with that. I think everyone wants to be integrated if integration means access to equal opportunities, access to desegregated education, access to quality jobs, to payment, to health care and so on. Roma are deprived of all of that, and this is mainly due to racial bias and due to the social situation that Roma have been kept for centuries.

I mean, in certain countries, Roma have been slaves. Like in my home country in Romania, Roma have been slaves until the late 19th century. In other countries, they were close to slave conditions or so. So it's a historical background that stays behind the social exclusion of Roma. In any case, I do not agree that Roma do not want to integrate, but what does that mean - an integration mean? Does it mean assimilation or it's actual integration and equal opportunities?

MARTIN: Tell me about what happened in Italy recently that caused so much concern.

Mr. MARK: Well, it all started in 2007. We had unprecedented outburst of bias against Roma in the media, and also, we had comments by a very high-level politicians which were simply racially biased. We had this in 2007, and this was followed up by more events. This summer, when in May, a (unintelligible) burned a Ponticielli Roma settlement in Naples to the ground. Approximately 800 residents had to flee while the Italians stood by and cheered. This was broadcasted on television and this was even before the police was alerted. And even today, we don't have any measures against what happened there.

MARTIN: There's no specific statutes saying you cannot target people because of their ethnic background.

Mr. MARK: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So tell me about the summit. What were you and the other organizers hoping to accomplish?

Mr. MARK: What we wanted to accomplish is for the European Union policymakers to come up with a plan how to deal with this issue, how to help speed up the integration of the Roma, how to avoid situations like in Italy.

MARTIN: So having raised awareness, it's certainly, you know, gotten the attention of high-level individuals and also human rights activists around the world, what are next steps? What are some of the other steps that you would like to see going forward?

Mr. MARK: We would like to see that the European Union comes up with this plan. We want to see that they create a policy for Roma integration which includes a legislation, which includes budgetary packages, which includes a lot of measures that are there to alleviate the problems that Roma are faced with. This is what we expect.

We certainly hope that the approach that the Italian government has and their approach is totally based - you know, Roma are security concerns. Roma are not a security concern and this is very clear and this has been used politically by the Berlusconi government to convince voters. It is using fear and mistrust and prejudice against the Roma to push forward these policies.

MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Mark, do you mind if I ask you, based in this background yourself, I mean, you speak five languages...

Mr. MARK: Yes.

MARTIN: You travel all over the world. How were you able to accomplish all these things?

Mr. MARK: Well, I'm lucky. Actually, I'm lucky because I come from a family, you know, my mother, she's also a Roma activist, and I grew up in the spirit that she was already - I mean, how can I say? She already managed to escape the cycle of poverty. While she grew up in those conditions, I didn't have to go through the same, and by the way, many programs have started from the starting of the '90s, and young Roma that want to study, to start working, actually, also, on Roma issues and become activists, do have these opportunities.

Something that is known about Roma is that they use a strategy of not recognizing their ethnicity to escape all the issues and all the problems that can come up because of being Roma. Now this is reversing. A lot of young Roma choose to be proud of who they are and actually start working also for the communities.

MARTIN: David Mark is the coordinator of the EU Roma Policy Coalition. He joined us on the phone from Brussels. Mr. Mark, thank you so much.

Mr. MARK: Thank you very much.

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