Statement by the Secretary General of the International Romani Union on the Situation of Roma in Greece
This is not my first visit to Greece. Consequently, after having visited settlements in Thessaloniki, Patras and Athens, I believe that I have gathered a critical mass of first-hand material, enabling me to formulate a realistic assessment of the situation of the Roma in Greece. Below, I will express my thoughts, based on my own direct observations and on conversations I have had with Roma during my most recent visit here. The fact that many of these conversations took place in the Romani language made the Roma feel more comfortable and enabled them to express their views more coherently.
The most depressing experience I had was in the squalid settlements of Patras: In the days before yesterday’s visit, two new-born Roma, aged 15 days and 2 months, died as a result of the cold, and I saw with my own eyes Roma bitten by rats. Victims of rat bites with whom I met included the representative of the Riganokampos settlement. Patras also had two welcome surprises in store for me. First was the enthusiastic concern of the representative of the prefectural administration: Had this body been listened to earlier on, the deaths and the bites would have been prevented. Second, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive and constructive approach of the governing authorities of the University of Patras – to the short-term need to deal with the squalid living conditions of the Roma who are illegally residing on grounds owned by the University, as well as to the development of research projects on Romani education, in co-operation with experienced academic institutions in Europe and in respecting prevailing international standards. In contrast, I was particularly puzzled by the indifference of the advisor to the Minister of Interior on Romani issues, with whom I met in Athens.
It does not take an expert to attest that the conditions in which most tent-dwelling Roma live are appalling. Usually situated in degraded areas, with no access to running water and electricity, and no sewage facilities, such settlements are frequently a collection of impromptu lodgings made of wooden planks and plastic. These sheds constitute the only homes that many Roma have known in their lives. As if the terrible living conditions were not enough, tent-dwelling Roma live with a constant fear of eviction, since they usually occupy land belonging to the state or private individuals. Despite the existence of a court decision to the effect that no eviction of Roma can take place if a suitable place for relocation has not been found, I was informed that a number of municipalities have proceeded to evict Roma. Being aware that their actions are closely monitored by non-governmental organisations and the Ombudsman’s office, they tend to disguise their attempts to evict the Roma as “cleaning operations”, notwithstanding the fact that such operations have resulted in the levelling of huts and the destruction of the livelihood of Romani families living in those huts.
|Albanian Romani girls in the settlement of Aspropyrgos, just outside Athens, shortly after municipal officials destroyed housing there on September 13, 2001 (a partially demolished shack is in the background, on the left). On the right is a mountain of trash; the Romani settlement in Aspropyrgos abuts the town dump.
The issue of health is intrinsically connected to that of housing. Most settlements are located in the vicinity of garbage dumps, and their inhabitants are consequently exposed to a host of infections and germs. Moreover, as the lack of running water and electricity precludes even the most rudimentary form of hygiene, it is no wonder that health is in short supply among the tent-dwelling Roma, whose average life expectancy is much lower than that of the ethnic Greeks. As was pointed out to me by many Roma, another aggravating factor is the inadequate access of Roma to health care, as they feel both discriminated against by doctors and medical staff and often are not covered by the social security system, due to the lack of even the most basic legal documents, such as identity cards.
Whereas the vast majority of ethnic Greeks can read and write, the vast majority of the country’s Roma (and especially of the older generations) cannot. It is only recently that the Greek state has designed educational programs specifically for Romani schoolchildren. Attendance might indeed have soared from 25 percent to 75 percent as state authorities assert, yet this percentage appears to refer to the number of Romani schoolchildren registered at school, and not those actually attending school throughout the year. Most Romani schoolchildren from the age of 12 onwards usually drop out of school, as they have to work alongside their parents in order to supplement their family’s income. In any case, it is unrealistic to expect that a tent-dwelling Romani pupil living in Aspropyrgos, just outside of Athens, or Riganokampos, near Patras, or Halastra, near Thessaloniki would be able to complete the nine-year mandatory school period. Another issue concerns the quality of education being provided. It was reported to me that many teachers readily issue graduation certificates to Romani pupils in order not to have them in the same class the next year. Moreover, government education programs have failed to take into account the fact that, for many Roma, Greek is not their mother tongue and that, consequently, the educational methods and material employed (designed with an ethnic Greek speaker in mind) can only be of marginal efficacy. Finally, the issue of teaching the Romani language has never been seriously considered.
A Romani child sitting on the ruins of a shed that was demolished on September 13, 2001, by the municipal authorities of Aspropyrgos, greater Athens area.
The events of Nea Kios in 20002 amply demonstrate that strong anti-Romani sentiments are lurking. There, the local municipal authority declared that “it would not tolerate the presence of Roma within its jurisdiction” because: “The Roma are dirty, they are criminals and are damaging to the image of our town.” It is regrettable that the Greek state itself espouses similar racist stereotypes. Thus, a 1983 “Sanitary Regulation” treats Roma as a health hazard, precluding the establishment of settlements for itinerant Roma close to aqueducts, wells and irrigation points. It also stipulates that settlements should be set up at a good distance from the nearest dwellings, presumably in order not to offend the taste of the average Greek citizen.
Roma with whom I spoke were quite reticent when it came to talking about their relations with the police. While initially assuring me that they faced no particular problems, they gradually opened up and told me that they are routinely pulled over when they are driving in their cars, and that police officers often verbally insult them by making derogatory references to their ethnicity. Minor physical abuse (e.g., slaps, kicks) is widespread and taken for granted by Roma themselves. Incidents where more serious ill-treatment, if not torture, has taken place have been reported, and in certain cases the abusive use of firearms by police officers has led to extra-judicial killings of Roma. Whereas such incidents constitute a world-wide phenomenon, the reluctance of both the Greek police and the Greek judiciary to punish the perpetrators, as well as the existence of an obsolete legal framework regulating the use of firearms by police officers – dating from the period of German occupation – and their inadequate training, cultivates a feeling of impunity among some Greek police officers. The recent acquittal by a court of a police officer charged with torture, when both an administrative inquiry and the prosecutorial investigation had concluded that he was the instigator of acts of ill-treatment, is clearly deplorable, as are last year’s court refusals even to hold public hearings in two cases of killings of Roma by police, in situations in which no one can accept legitimate defense. I hope that the Greek judiciary will not tread the same path in the case of Marinos Christopoulos.3 More than a few times, Roma with whom I met threatened to take law in their hands, a threat I consider by no means idle.
Most of the Roma living in Greece today were conferred the Greek nationality in the 1970s and the 1980s; until then, they were regarded as “aliens of Gypsy descent”, and were issued special documents from the Aliens’ Department that had to be renewed every two years. Even today, however, a small number of Roma (of Muslim religion) continue to be stateless, while a larger number of Roma are citizens in name only, as they lack birth certificates and/or identity cards. This creates numerous obstacles in their relations with the state authorities, such as the non-granting of social security benefits, which for many Roma families is a substantial source of income.
It need not be said that, for a young Rom, lacking even the most basic writing and reading skills, the chances of finding employment in an increasingly competitive labour market are virtually non-existent. If one adds to the above the prevailing stereotypes concerning the indolence of Roma, it will be only the “bravest” employer who will ever think of employing a Romani person. In the public sector, the possession of a junior high school graduation certificate is a common precondition for employment, thus excluding practically all adult Roma.
I cannot help but notice that many Roma in Greece live in much worse conditions than any Roma in Bulgaria, the country I am from and a country much poorer than Greece. Due to the chronic neglect of its Romani community throughout the years, the Greek state must initiate, and urgently and effectively implement, bold measures in order to integrate Roma into mainstream Greek society. Generous quota systems and other positive discrimination measures should be implemented, with a view to lifting the numerous handicaps the Romani community of Greece faces. After talking to state officials, I realised on the one hand that the Greek state does have the will to spend considerable sums of money in order to ameliorate the life of its Romani citizens. If this money is spent wisely, and always in co-operation with the Roma concerned, then soon many of the pressing concerns of Roma in Greece may be remedied. On the other hand, however, I did not fail to notice a reluctance on the part of the Greek state to acknowledge that the Roma constitute an ethnic group, and not merely a social one. While I understand that the issue of national and ethnic minorities is a very sensitive one in Greece, the impression that I gathered was that the Greek state is bent on assimilating and not integrating its Romani citizens into the mainstream Greek society. Such an assimilationist policy is not in accordance with the prevailing interpretations of a multicultural and democratic society.
- Hristo Kyuchukov is Secretary General of the International Romani Union. He issued this statement electronically in Athens on December 20, 2001.
- For information on events in Nea Kios, Peloponnesus Region, see: Greek municipalities evict Roma.
- For information on the case of Marinos Christopolous, see: ERRC Press Release: Police Abuse in Greece.