Not enough action: government policy on Roma in Greece

15 August 2001

Theodoros Alexandridis1

According to the 1951 census, the last one which included data on mother tongue, there were 7429 individuals with Romani as their mother tongue in Greece2. This number however appears to comprise only Roma who lived in Western Thrace (and not all of them) and were considered to be members of the Muslim minority3. As such, they were protected under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey and had been granted Greek citizenship. There was no information on the number of Christian Roma in Greece, as until relatively recently they were stateless and were issued with a residence permit from the Aliens Department of the Greek Police. This permit had to be renewed every two years4. It was only in 1955 that the first efforts to provide citizenship to the many Roma who were stateless would be made, by virtue of Law 3370/20-9-1955. Even after the enactment of that Law and an amendment adopted in 1968 however, the majority of Roma remained stateless. This prompted Greek authorities to issue Decrees 69468/212 and 16701/51, in 1978 and 1979 respectively, to facilitate the acquisition of Greek citizenship by those Roma who had not benefited from the 1955 Law5. Ironically, the last to acquire citizenship were reportedly Roma established in Greece for many centuries, while those who came as part of the "population exchange" (i.e., institutionalised ethnic cleansing resulting from the Lausanne Treaty) – Christian Roma who had previously lived in today's Turkey - benefited from the 1955 Law and existing settlement policies for refugees much earlier. Most of the former make up today's destitute tent-dwelling Romani community, whereas most of the latter are settled if not culturally assimilated.

As can be easily inferred from the above, it was only in the early 1980s that any efforts to integrate Roma into mainstream Greek society could start having any impact, as until then many were not even Greek citizens. Nevertheless, the conferring of Greek citizenship was not to be the end of the trouble for Roma in Greece6.

Roma in Greece today

The fact that Greece is a long-standing member of the European Union and a relatively prosperous country does not appear to be reflected in the everyday life of Roma, especially those who still live in camps and who constitute approximately half of the Romani population of Greece7. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has noted in its Second Report on Greece, "Roma/Gypsies living in camps often face extremely harsh living conditions8," while generally "Roma/Gypsies are reported to be excluded from many normal citizenship rights and benefits9." Following a 1998 field visit in Greece, ERRC Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova stated to the Agence France-Presse on May 12, 1998, that "Roma are not treated and do not live like humans; they exist outside society, their situation is totally unacceptable." More recently, a mission headed by Ms Josephine Verspaget, Chair of the Council of Europe Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies, reached similar conclusions. Following a visit to Romani settlements in the wider Athens area, Ms Verspaget stated that she was shocked by the living conditions of the Roma she visited10.

Tent-dwelling Roma often live in particularly appalling conditions. Referring to the Romani settlement previously located near the Gallikos River (just outside Thessaloniki), Mr Yannis Boukovinas,the vice-president of the non-governmental organisation Doctors of the World-Greece, stated that it was, "…worse than the refugee camps I have visited with our organisation in occupied Palestine or war-torn Iraq11." Ms Verspaget similarly stated, "In Aspropyrgos, I saw one of the worst places I have ever visited in my life - and I have been to many refugee camps in Africa and Asia. It is a shame that Roma live in such conditions in the midst of a garbage dump: no water, no electricity, bare-foot children with skin diseases and no access to school12."

Evictions of Roma from their destitute settlements have frequently been reported, especially as many of the places where Roma live have recently increased in value in the booming property market. Additionally, the traditional hostility of the local authorities, who perceive the existence of Roma in the vicinity of their localities as a threat to public order and often believe that all Roma are criminals, drug dealers and thieves, is another reason behind the frequent eviction of Roma. Finally, fears have been voiced that, as the state is interested in obtaining land for the construction of infrastructure for the 2004 Olympic Games, further evictions may soon take place of Roma living - some for more than fifty years - on land which is strategically located. One such place is the Kaloghreza (Marousi) settlement, right next to the existing Olympic Stadium. The settlement may soon be under threat of eviction.

In the vast majority of evictions that have taken place, the Roma have not been provided with a suitable place to which they could relocate, in violation of both domestic and international legal provisions. Thus, a Greek court quashed as abusive a 1997 eviction protocol by the Mayor of Nea Alikarnassos in Crete, precisely because the Roma were asked to vacate the area without being provided with alternative housing13. Ironically, the very year the Nea Alikarnassos eviction protocol was served, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted its "General Comment 7 on the Right to Housing (Art 11.1 of the Covenant): forced evictions14". Paragraph 17 of General Comment 7 states: "Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures [...] to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available."

Related to the issue of housing is that of health. The findings of a survey carried out by Doctors of the World among the Roma living in the settlements in Ano Liosia and Aspropyrgos (both localities are in the greater Athens area), reveal that 99 percent of the population has been exposed to Hepatitis A and 50 percent to Hepatitis B15. These percentages should come as no surprise, considering that both settlements are literally on a huge garbage dump and that the Roma of the two settlements have virtually no access to health care.

The issue of police abuse is another area of concern. According to the ECRI report, "…Roma/Gypsies are often reported to be victims of excessive use of force - in some cases resulting in death - ill treatment and verbal abuse on the part of the police. In most cases there is reported to be little investigation of these cases, and little transparency on the results of these investigations. Although most of these incidents do not generally result in a complaint being filed by the victim, when charges have been pressed the victims have reportedly in some cases been subjected to pressure to drop such charges16."

Recently, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) reached a similar conclusion, noting, "…there is evidence that the police sometimes use excessive or unjustifiable force in carrying out their duties, particularly when dealing with ethnic and national minorities and foreigners17." Further, during Greece's presentation before CAT, Roma were portrayed in a way one CAT expert called "racial profiling": "Roma often reside in isolated tent camps where drug and weapon trafficking takes place, or other crimes are being committed. This fact obliges the police to intervene according to a plan with the use of special forces and depending on the danger that the police personnel faces each time18." In many instances, prosecuting authorities tend unquestioningly to adopt the police's version of events involved, even in the face of very strong evidence to the contrary.

The case of Angelos Celal, a Romani man who was killed on April 1, 1998, in the area of Partheni, near Thessaloniki, is illustrative of the impunity police officers enjoy. Despite the admission by the police that Mr Celal was unarmed and the fact that he was shot in the back (and could therefore hardly have been threatening the police officers), the Council of First Instance Judges of Thessaloniki ordered, on March 29, 2000, that the charges be dropped, arguing that the police officers in question were acting in legitimate self-defence.

Discrimination in the field of education, racist speech propagated by both public officials and state media and the lack of commitment by the Greek government to the development of a multicultural and tolerant society19 additionally burden Roma rights in Greece. It is against a backdrop of widespread discrimination that the two government programmes addressing issues related to Roma have to be assessed20.

The 1996 National Framework Programme for the Roma

In June 1996, the Greek Government announced a Framework Programme consisting of a series of measures aimed at alleviating the manifold problems that the Romani community of Greece was experiencing. These measures were set out in an eight-page document. In the preface, it was recognised that the problems faced by Roma, especially those who were itinerant or were living in camps, were highly complex and that, despite their existence on the territory of the contemporary Greek state for approximately 600 years, their primary needs were not being met. The ministers responsible for the implementation of the measures set out in the document explicitly acknowledged that the Greek state has never attempted, at a national level, to formulate and implement a comprehensive policy vis-a-vis the Roma. Furthermore, they stated that the formulation of such a policy is imperative, in order to end their social exclusion and promote their integration into mainstream society, respecting at the same time their way of life, identity, language and customs. Toward this end, a number of measures are set out in the document, broadly falling within the following categories: housing, education, vocational training, provision of counselling services, health/hygiene and culture.

The crowning achievement of the policy document was to be the formation of a Policy Council for Greek Gypsies, to be chaired by the Deputy Health Minister. The Council was also supposed to include government officials from other ministries, local officials, while representatives from other organisations and authorities dealing with Romani issues could be invited to take part in the proceedings. The Council would be entrusted with advising the government on Roma-related measures, as well as co-ordinating Roma-oriented policies, with a view to formulating a mid-term national policy for the Roma of Greece. Toward this end, the Council was to co-operate with other international institutions dealing with Roma rights.

Romani children in Aspropyrgos, Greece.
Photo: ERRC

The "dowry" to the programme from the state budget amounted to 3 billion Greek drachmas (approximately 8.8 million euros) for the years 1996-1997. Many of the measures referred to in the document were to be implemented immediately. Thus, the setting up of five temporary but adequately equipped settlements in various localities around Greece was to have been completed before the end of 1996, while Romani schoolchildren throughout Greece were to be provided with a "card for itinerant students" from September 1996 onwards. Other measures, to be implemented over a longer period, included carrying out a study on the housing needs of the Romani population and making proposals for the permanent solution to their housing problems; conducting a similar study and accompanying proposals on the educational needs of Romani schoolchildren; and organising seminars with a view to introducing teaching staff to the principles of intercultural education. One of the measures in the field of education envisaged the production of school material in Romani.

As can be inferred, the objective of the measures was not to provide a permanent solution to the many problems that the Roma of Greece face but rather to prepare the ground for the eventual implementation of a more comprehensive policy. The measures to be implemented immediately were of an essentially remedial character and aimed at addressing urgent needs. In addition, there were no provisions concerning affirmative action to redress historic harms. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Roma faced such pressing needs that the inclusion of, for example, a quota system concerning the admission of Romani students to university would probably have sounded like mockery of those living in improvised nylon shanties in destitute settlements. It should also be noted that one of the measures concerned the establishment of advisory centres in Romani camps, where Roma would be able, among other things, to obtain legal advice about their rights.

Evaluation of the 1996 Framework Programme

The 1996 Programme looks impressive on paper, but in practice it failed to meet many of its aims. Of the measures that were to have been implemented "immediately" (i.e., in 1996), practically none were actually completed within the designated time frame. According to the Government's Implementation Review for the Years 1996-1999, no relocation of Romani settlements had taken place as of the end of 1999, even of the five settlements that were to have been relocated "immediately21". It would be only in 2000 that the first Romani community, the one that until then was living in Evosmos and then on the banks of the Gallikos river, would be finally moved to a fully equipped settlement in the former military camp of Ghonou at Thessaloniki. The government had, up to that date, set eleven different deadlines for the completion of the relocation, but none had been honoured22. Interestingly, the relocation of the Evosmos/Gallikos Roma, Greece's largest destitute community, was not included in the 1996 program, but resulted from intense NGO pressure, reinforced by the Greek Ombudsman's intervention.

According to the same Implementation Review, only minor infrastructure works had been carried out in various localities by the end of 1999. In fact, of all the measures announced in 1996, the only ones which had been completed were the study of the housing needs of the Roma, the education programme (including the issuing of 2500 cards for itinerant students by 1999), a vocational training programme and the creation of eight advisory centres (providing counselling on health, education, housing and employment issues)for the support of Roma and two for the support of Romani children. Concerning the education programme formulated and implemented by the University of Ioannina, it should be noted that all the classes (including preparatory "booster" classes) take place in Greek, despite the fact that the 1996 programme envisaged the production of school material in Romani, giving rise to hopes that education in Romani would become part of the school curriculum.

Even though the government could well argue that the project was ambitious (and it undoubtedly was) and that, consequently, not all of the authorities involved were able to keep up the pace set by the central administration (hence the delays), it took the government four whole years to form the Policy Council for Greek Gypsies, a measure which figured as crucial among the urgent measures set out in the 1996 programme. The Council was set up only in 2000 and not in the form originally envisaged. Rather, it is now a purely inter-ministerial body, under the auspices of the Ministry for the Interior. The body does not include any NGOs dealing with, or established by, tent-dwelling Roma, thus excluding a significant group of Roma in Greece. The only Romani representative, in fact, comes from a Romani organisation promoted by the state23. The settlement of Ghonou and the Policy Council were among the few real additions in the government's second review of its Romani policies included in Greece's state report update, submitted in February 2001 to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Finally, it should be noted that, even if a project is considered as "completed" by the state, reality might be different. Thus, whereas officially the issue of the relocation of the Spata settlement, in October 2000, is considered a success in the government reviews, the new settlement is to be found situated adjacent to a dump of possibly toxic waste. The settlement is five kilometres away from the nearest house. One and a half kilometres of the road connecting the settlement with the rest of the world is in complete disrepair, and the site is in complete isolation from (and out of sight of) all the neighbouring non-Romani municipalities. Roma live in small (25 square metre) pre-fabricated houses, previously used as temporary shelter for earthquake victims, and there is no public transport to and from the city of Spata. The lack of school transport has forced the children of the settlement to drop out of school and the settlement still had not been provided with electricity at the time of writing - June 2001. In fact, the Roma living there do not even have a document showing that they have been placed there by the state and are not mere squatters. It is this kind of settlement that has been labelled as "exemplary" by the Greek state and in which the Roma report to have been told by the authorities that they have to stay "provisionally", for a period that might reach up to twenty years.

The 2001 Plan of Action for the Social Integration of Greek Gypsies

In May 2001, Minister for the Interior Ms Vaso Papandreou, announced a comprehensive Plan of Action for the Roma of Greece. It will be of eight years' duration24 and endowed with a budget of 100-105 billion Greek drachmas (approximately 300 million euros), from both the Third EU Structural Fund and domestic funds. The new programme is the fruit of the various proposals put forward by the responsible ministries and rests essentially on two pillars. The first is termed "infrastructure" and will be allocated 60 billion Greek drachmas (approximately 180 million euros). It addresses primarily the housing problem and includes a number of diverse projects. For example, the programme envisions the purchase of 1500 acres of land by the state on which the 100 new settlements will be built, the building of 4000 new houses, the carrying out of repairs in an already existing 1100-1200 houses, and the creation of 60 organised camping sites for itinerant Roma.

The second pillar, termed "services", will be allocated the remainder of the budget. It consists of programmes to be carried out either by the competent central administration agencies (such as education and vocational training programmes) or by local authorities (e.g. cultural and health programmes). One particular programme is that of vaccinating Roma, an implicit acknowledgement of their poor health as well as of the failure of the state to implement such programmes to date25.

Evaluation of the 2001 Plan of Action

The 2001 Plan appears even more ambitious than its precursor. It is certainly more generously funded and, although it is too early to assess the impact it will have on the Romani community, certain tentative points can be raised.

First of all, the programme rightly accords priority to projects aimed at alleviating the suffering of those Roma living in the most appalling conditions. Additionally, the fact that the figure for the Greek Roma is revised upwards to a figure closer to the NGO estimates is positive (according to the new Plan, there are 250,000-300,000 Roma in Greece). It is also recognised that the Roma of Greece are members of the international Romani community and that their mother tongue is Romani. Among the founding principles of the programme are the respect for the cultural characteristics of Roma, as defined by the latter, and the implementation of measures of positive discrimination as a prerequisite for the enjoyment by Roma of equal rights with the majority. The programme encourages the employment of qualified Romani individuals as mediators between the Romani population and state authorities, as well as the provision of counselling services to Roma, with a view to facilitating their integration. It is rightly pointed out by the drafters of the programme, however, that such measures will not be permanent but will remain in operation until the incorporation of the Roma in the economic, and political structures of Greek society is achieved.

A number of the provisions of the new government programme, however, are worrying. For example, while the distinctive ethno/cultural characteristics of the Romani community are referred to in many provisions of the programme, one of its principles is the avoidance of the use of terms such as "race", "people" or "minority" when referring to the Roma of Greece. According to the programme, the validity of the first two concepts has been challenged by scientists and hence they should not be used while the third term (minority) describes a situation that "…does not exist".26 In other words, the minority status of the Romani community is not recognised, even though all the other usual constituent elements of a minority definition (e.g. culture, language, etc.) are operative and are acknowledged to be so even by the drafters of the programme themselves. In the same vein, although the new programme includes many important provisions in the field of the education of Romani children, the absence of any provisions relating to education in Romani is conspicuous.

Furthermore, the drafters of the programme claim that the Romani community has neither been protected nor persecuted by the Greek state or Greek society in general27. In reality however, Roma in Greece have also been the victims of institutionalised racism. For example, the only legal instrument in which Roma are expressly mentioned is a 1983 ministerial decree, Article 3.1. of which provides that: "The lands for the organised encampments of wandering nomads (Gypsies, etc.) which are to be designated, in accordance with Article 2 of the present decision, must be outside the inhabited areas and in good distance from the approved urban plan or the last consecutive houses28." The Spata settlement was established on the basis of this discriminatory provision. In addition, the image of the "dirty, eyesore Gypsy" is probably what the drafters of the Decree had in mind when drafting Article 3.3. of the same ministerial Decree, which provides that: "The encampment is prohibited near archaeological sites, beaches, landscapes of natural beauty, points visible from main highways or areas which could affect the public health (springs supplying drinking water, etc.)."

Finally, the government's new programme relies heavily on the co-operation of local authorities for its success. This may prove to be its Achilles heel. Given the prevalence of anti-Romani sentiment among ethnic Greeks, it is difficult to see how the Roma will be accepted as equals by local officials who until now have done whatever was in their power to expel them from their municipalities. Will the community leaders of Nea Kios, whose municipal council declared unanimously on May 20, 2000, that "there is no more room for Gypsies in our town" and decided to evict them, ever implement a Roma-related measure under the 2001 Government Programme? If not, how will the central administration react? In any case, the issue of co-operation between the local authorities and central states agencies has been addressed by ECRI, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Specialist Group on Roma/Sinti. These bdies are in agreement that while it might well be that the local authorities are responsible for a particular violation of the rights of the Roma, it is the state that is ultimately responsible for the implementation of its policies29.


  1. Theodoros Alexandridis holds a LLB in English Law and an LLM in International Human Rights Law (pending) from the University of Essex; he is the Roma Project Coordinator of the Athens-based non-governmental organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM).
  2. Konstantinos Tsitselikis, To diethnes kai Europaiko kathestos prostasias ton glossikon dikaiomaton ton mionotiton kai I elliniki ennomi taxi, Athens-Komotini: Ant.N.Sakkoulas Publications, 1996, p. 291.
  3. Efstratios Zenginis, I Musulmani Athinganoi tis Thrakis, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1994, p. 20. On the other hand, it should be noted that Roma from certain localities (e.g. from Mavrothalassa in Serres) appear to have been registered in the local municipality registries and issued with identity cards as early as 1918 (See Dimitris Dousas, Rom ke Filetikes Diakriseis stin Istoria, tin Kinonia, tin Kultura, tin Ekpedevsi ke ta Anthropina Dikeomata, Athens, Gutenberg, 1997, p. 58). They were however the exception, rather than the rule.
  4. Zenginis, Op. cit., p.20.
  5. Ibid., p.21. 
  6. For an illustrative, non-exhaustive summary of Roma rights violations, see European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), Focus: Roma in Greece, Published Materials 1997-2000, Budapest, 2001, or visit the ERRC Website at For related material, see the Greek Helsinki Monitor's special web page at
  7. There are conflicting estimates on the number of Roma in Greece. According to the document setting out the 1996 Framework Programme (p. 1), there are approx 200,000 Roma in Greece. In the document of the 2001 Programme (p. 5), this figure is revised upwards and now stands at 250,000-300,000, closer to the GHM estimate of 300,000-350,000.
  8. European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), Second Report on Greece, Adopted on 10 December 1999. 
  9. ECRI 2nd Report, Op. cit., paragraph 33.
  10. See GHM/MRG-G Press Release, 13/6/2001.
  11. Interview on State Television Station ET-3, October 24, 1998. 
  12. See GHM/MRG-G Press Release, 13/6/2001, at GHM/MRG-G Press Release.
  13. Heraklion (Crete) County Court, Decision no. 975/1999 of 12.11.1999.
  14. Adopted on 16 May 1997, UN doc. E/C.12/1997. The Comment is reproduced in Forced Evictions and Human Rights: A Manual for Action, COHRE, Sources 3, May 1999, at p.10.
  15. ROMEUROPE Programme, Donnees sur la situation des populations Roms/Tsiganes en Europe (Allemagne, Espagne, Grece, Italie, Portugal), Medecins du Monde, June 1999, p.13.
  16. ECRI Second Report on Greece, Op. cit., paragraph 26. 
  17. The text of the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee.
  18. UN CAT session of May 3, 2001.
  19. In their answer to the ECRI Second Report, Greek authorities stressed that "The policies of the Greek government in the fields falling in the purview of the ECRI [...] do not imply adherence by the Greek government to the notion of a multicultural character of the Greek society. This notion, repeatedly mentioned in the report, has in our view not been sufficiently analyzed in all its political and legal implications, and therefore cannot be resorted to lightly." ECRI, 2nd Report on Greece, Op. cit., appended at the end of the Report. It is interesting to note that this statement sharply rebuffs ECRI's only favourable assessment of the policies of the Greek government: "...ECRI is pleased to note the practical manifestations of a higher recognition of the multicultural reality of Greek society." (See, ECRI, 2nd Report on Greece, Op. cit., paragraph 30). At the same time, the state's official education program for the Roma is inspired by the principle of "a unifying cultural code, i.e. a unifying Greek identity" (as stated by the program's director, University of Ioannina Professor Athanasios Gotovos in "Eleftherotypia", June 16, 2001).
  20. The following paragraphs are based upon the official documents setting out the details of the programmes. All translations are unofficial.
  21. All relevant infrastructure works are said to be "underway"; see pages 4-5 of the Implementation Review for 1996-2000.
  22. See Thanassis Triaridis , AIM Athens, 29 August 2000.
  23. See IHF/GHM/MRG-G Report to the OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues, (Excerpts on Roma) Warsaw, 17-27 October 2000, p 12, at IHF/GHM/MRG-G Report.
  24. Government Programme 2001, p.20.
  25. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities reached the same conclusion after observing that the NGO Medecins du Monde has been the main actor in vaccinating Roma in the recent past. See OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area, Released on 7 April 2000, p 121. The excerpts of the Report on the Roma in Greece can be accessed at
  26. Government Programme 2001, p.17.
  27. Government Programme 2001, p.11. 
  28. No. A5/696/25.4-11.5.83 Common ministerial decision of the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Health entitled "Sanitary Provision for the organized relocation of wandering nomads," Government Gazette B' 243.
  29. ECRI 2nd Report on Greece, Op. cit., at paragraph 36; Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area, Op. cit., p.118; and GHM/MRG-G Press Release, 13/6/2001, at ECRI Second Report on Greece.

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