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
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
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 discriminated.
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
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 frail.
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 colleagues.
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 rubber tyres.
Wood supplied to Mikulas by IOM in December 2005 lasted his family
more than a month - a period when temperatures were relatively
“This allowed us to buy more wood to help us get through the
worst of the winter,” says Mikulas.
“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 explains.
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 and counselling.
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.