Chipping Away at Roma Discrimination
In a forest near the village of Svinia in
eastern Slovakia, 35-year-old Miro is clearing storm-felled timber
from the forest undergrowth.
At the peak of his life, Miro, a Roma or
‘gypsy’, has already experienced a lifetime’s
worth of burdens and worries. From the age of 20 he has cared for
his four siblings. Now he also has a wife and four children of his
own to support.
Properly feeding, clothing, housing, schooling
a family of 10 is tough for anyone these days. But for a Roma
family in Central Europe, it’s a virtually impossible task.
Many Roma, the continent’s largest transnational ethnic
minority, are today in the 21st century, living in the kind of
poverty easily seen across the third world.
Daily life for Miro and fellow Roma in Svinia
is particularly hard as so few of them have paid jobs. Access to
good housing and opportunities that would help to lift the Roma out
of poverty and which many Europeans take for granted, is but a
distant dream. The story is the same for other Roma elsewhere in
Slovakia and in the region, many of whom who also don’t have
access to basic education - the one right that could empower them
to help themselves.
IOM estimates there are 6.2 million Roma in
Europe, nearly 75 per cent in Central and Eastern Europe. As well
as being the largest ethnic minority on the continent, the Roma are
also the oldest minority group and for several centuries, the most
No longer nomadic as their ancestors were,
many Roma now live in squalid ‘tabors’, remote often,
illegal settlements not often found on any map. Their isolation
further entrenched by poverty and racism.
Miro may not live in a tabor, but life has
been no less difficult for him in Svinia. Unable to find work to
feed his family, he was first arrested at the age of 15 for
stealing potatoes. Since then, he’s spent eight years of his
life in jail - almost always, he says, because he needed to provide
food for his family.
Although it has been many years now that Miro
has stopped breaking the law - a conscious decision to set a good
example to his children - putting bread and potatoes on the table
has not been any easier. Nor has it been easy to keep his family
warm during the bitter cold winters in the European heartland in a
home without heating and no legal means to collect wood from either
private or municipal forests.
This winter has been particularly difficult
for Roma everywhere. The sub-zero temperatures and heavy snows have
already taken a heavy toll on the elderly, with some Roma in
communities known to IOM having literally frozen to death.
For Miro, however, the task of providing for
his family has now been made a bit easier. As part of a Belgian
government funded IOM programme to stabilize Roma communities
suffering badly from socio-economic exclusion, Miro and 11 other
Roma men have been given jobs that open up new horizons for them
and a brighter future for their families.
Several towns in Slovakia have given IOM and
its local partner, a non-governmental organization (NGO) the ETP
Centre for Sustainable Development, access to municipal forests to
collect storm-felled timber that would have otherwise rotted away.
Miro and his colleagues either chip the timber on the spot or haul
the logs away for splitting and bundling.
These wood chips or split logs are then
‘sold’ to another IOM Roma programme which provides
humanitarian assistance to Roma Holocaust victims. Through the
programme, funded in Slovakia by the US District Court for the
Eastern District of New York, IOM provides essential items such as
fuel, food and medicines to poor Roma who are now old and
The wood processed by Miro and his colleagues
and given to one elderly Roma can often heat a home where 10 other
family members also live. Families are large because many younger
Roma depend on the elderly to look after their children as they
migrate to other parts of Europe in desperate search of work.
Grandparents are left to care for entire households on monthly
state pensions incapable of sustaining one person.
Sixty-two-year-old Mikulas who lives in the
Roma settlement of Rozkovce in the Spis region of Slovakia, is one
of the people who benefits directly from the work of Miro and his
Increasingly deaf, Mikulas lives in a small
one-room house on the boundaries of the settlement with his wife
and son. There is no running water or toilet here nor anywhere else
in Rozkovce. And of course, without money to pay for fuel, there is
no heating. To stay warm and to play, children in the settlement
burn what they can - including an abandoned Skoda car and its
Wood supplied to Mikulas by IOM in December
2005 lasted his family more than a month - a period when
temperatures were relatively mild.
“This allowed us to buy more wood to
help us get through the worst of the winter,” says
“It’s a win-win situation,”
says Marian Vlasaty, IOM’s humanitarian and social programmes
coordinator in Slovakia. “Both for the elderly Roma who could
not survive without this assistance and for the younger Roma who
have been given a chance in life.”
Miro couldn’t agree more. Despite many
attempts to change the economic situation in his community, nothing
has worked before.
“I used to say ‘please give me
work or I will not be able to bear it any longer’” he
says. But now, with this IOM programme, Miro feels more upbeat
about life. “A day I go to work feels really different to a
day when I sit at home doing nothing. It’s a day when you
know you are useful for yourself and others,” he
The extra motivation and sense of satisfaction
for Miro and his colleagues come from knowing the product of their
work is helping elderly Roma and the value they could now attach to
the things they could buy from their own wages.
And for Miro, that purchasing power now
includes being able to afford a mortgage to buy a house for his
family. It’s an act that not only gives him hope for the
future, but a belief in it too. Inclusion into society cannot
happen without it and that inclusion is what IOM is trying to
achieve for Roma through income generating activities, employment
But while Miro’s future is more stable
and hence brighter, that of the elderly Roma is much more bleak. In
March 2006, funding for IOM programmes that assist Roma Holocaust
survivors such as Mikulas, runs out. Nearly 70,000 elderly Roma in
Central and Eastern Europe have been able to make it through four
winters with the assistance IOM has been able to provide. Next
winter, Miro’s wood will not be helping to keep Mikulas and
his family warm and alive. It’s a grim realization for
Mikulas’ generation that some of them will end a lifetime of
struggle, hungry and cold.