Monday, August 10, 2009



Europe’s Roma suffer as downturn bites
By Jan Cienski in Velka Lomnica, Slovakia, and Thomas Escritt in Budapest

Published: August 9 2009 22:31 | Last updated: August 9 2009 22:31

Dionyz Sahi escaped the worst neighbourhood in Slovakia’s second city of Kosice and a lifetime of unemployment thanks to a programme set up by US Steel to hire members of the Roma minority. But his escape route from poverty is now closed as a result of the global economic crisis.

“We’re not in a hiring mode any more, we’re in a reduction mode,” says George Babcoke, president of US Steel Kosice, a subsidiary of the American company and the largest investor in the eastern part of Slovakia.

The economic slump has hit Europe’s estimated 8m Roma, widely seen as the continent’s most economically vulnerable population, particularly hard. Many gypsies have long had trouble finding work in the formal economy and have been among the first to lose their jobs during the crisis.

“Roma are the last hired and the first fired,” says Rob Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest. “There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the economic crisis has affected the Roma dis­proportionately, but employment levels always were low for this group.”

The effect of the crisis can been seen in the village of Velka Lomnica, in northern Slovakia. There, with the vivid green plains butting up against the snow-capped Tatra mountains, about 1,000 Roma live in abject poverty. Women lean out of windowless openings in a crumbling, three-storey block of flats, while most people live in hand-built shanties not designed for harsh Slovak winters.

The nearby Whirlpool plant was forced to sack workers this year as demand for its washing machines dried up and some of those who lost their jobs live in the village. Mirko, a Roma man, says his monthly income has dropped from €650 ($922, £553) to the €130 he gets from government social support. “We eat differently now. Meat and fruit are things of the past,” he says. “People were envious of me when I had a job but now we can’t even afford second-hand clothing.”

Another former Whirlpool employee says he has been calling around the country to look for another job.

“I called for a job in Bratislava but they told me: ‘If you’re a Rom, don’t bother showing up’,” he says.

As the crisis bites, Roma are finding it harder to compete for jobs, with employers being choosier than they were a year or two ago during the height of the boom.

In Hungary, where the economic crisis has exacerbated an existing problem of deindustrialisation in the poor north-eastern part of the country, unemployment has become a particularly acute problem for Roma.

Hit hard by the country's worst recession since the transition from communism, Hungarians are increasingly turning to Jobbik, a far-right party that blames gypsies for rising crime. In recent months, there have been attacks on Roma settlements, including several murders.

Romania, with its much larger and better-integrated gypsy population, has had less of the violent conflict seen in Hungary in the past year, but it may have a full-blown social crisis to contend with if the trickle of Romanians returning home from Italy and Spain becomes a flood as the construction industry in southern Europe goes sour.

In the Czech Republic, the atmosphere for gypsies has become so poisonous that hundreds have applied for refugee status in Canada, prompting Ottawa to re­impose visa requirements on Czech travellers.

As the region struggles to extricate itself from an unexpectedly sharp economic downturn, it will probably be some time before any of his fellow Roma are able to follow Mr Sahi out of poverty. Getting the job in 2003 enabled Mr Sahi to escape Lunik IX, a grim Roma housing estate on Kosice’s outskirts. “I had never had a job before,” he says. “When I got that first cheque and took my kids shopping for toys, then I understood it was happiness to have a job.”

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