Monday, September 13, 2010



'We are not ethnic garbage,' says Macedonian Roma minister

10.09.2010 @ 09:29 CET

"We are not Gypsies, we are Roma," and "Hitler is back" read the banners held by more than a hundred Macedonian Roma protesting on Monday in front of the European Commission representation and the French embassy in Skopje.

They demanded that the European Union stop the expulsion of Roma from France, and the resignation of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Young Roma protesters in the streets of Skopje (Photo: Dnevnik)

Protesters were received by the French Ambassador in Skopje Jean-Claude Schlumberger who defended his country by saying that people returned voluntarily and with financial assistance.

This did not convince the protesters. "We ask for an end to the collective punishment of Roma people and to their stigmatization," said Azrijan Memedov from Roma Veritas, a non-governmental organisation.

"What is of most serious concern is that this may bring a general sense of xenophobia and racism, which may bear racial or ethnic-based violence. This is already the case in several countries such as Hungary or Slovakia," explained Alexandra Bojadzieva from the Initiative for Social Change.

As sign of support for the demonstration, the main Macedonian daily, Dnevnik, replaced its editorial with an open letter written by Nezdet Mustafa, president of the United Party for Emancipation of the Roma and minister in the Macedonian government, addressed to Mr Sarkozy.

"All European citizens have the same rights. No one can be expelled because he is Roma. This sends a message that Roma are ethnic garbage and the smell of racism in Europe," wrote Mr Mustafa.

The Roma in Macedonia are not happy with their position in society, yet they consider it to be better than in other South East European countries.

Ashmet Elezovski, secretary of the European Roma Forum based in Strasbourg, and activist in the Macedonian NGO National Roma Centrum, said the Roma have fought for their rights since the country's independence in 1991. They have participated actively in politics and are proportionally represented in political life. Their language is an optional part of the curriculum of elementary schools.

Officially, of Macedonia's two million inhabitants, 54,000 are of Roma origin. They have five political parties, one minister in the government, one deputy minister and one deputy in the parliament. Since 2004, Macedonia has a Roma strategy, which was discussed and adopted by parliament and is considered an important political document for helping to improve the minority's situation.

Yet, Mr Elezovski complained that the Roma problem is treated only as a social issue. "As long as this is the case, the situation cannot get better. The Roma problem is political," he pointed out, underlining that many Roma are jobless and poor.

Unofficial figures suggest there are more than 130,000 Roma living in Macedonia, said Mr Elezovski, who said they often declare themselves as Egyptians, Albanians or Turks, probably hoping to improve their social status. "We can't blame them for that," he added.

Nevertheless, Mr Elezovski expressed satisfaction with the growing number of properly educated Roma in the last four years, which now stands at 30 percent of the Roma population. "There are more Roma students and more and more pupils in elementary schools as well," he said.

But the situation has deteriorated with the growth of economic problems in Macedonia. "As prices of food go up, the living standard is going down and this is our biggest concern," the activist complained. He explains that for any schoolchild, parents have to pay 3000 denars (€50) to buy basic school materials themselves. "This is impossible when they earn or get from social assistance only 1500 to 4000 denars per month," Mr Elezovski said.

The following testimony, given to the Macedonian daily Nova Makedonija, is a good example of the Roma's distressing social situation.

"I would like to participate in a TV show "Moment of Truth" to earn some money and build a room or two to live. I will confess there with how many women I have slept. I'll tell the truth and they will give me the money, but I don't know how to get there," Sebastijan was quoted as saying. He lives in the first and so far the only Roma municipality in the world, the Skopje suburb Suto Orizari. The letter, however, didn't help him.

The state releases money to improve the lot of the Roma, but funds are scarce and unevenly distributed. In the framework of the "Roma Decade", money was earmarked for seminars and NGO training. Still, ministries do not use the budget for this purpose and fail to implement the planned projects. Therefore, precious little assistance effectively reaches Roma homes.

Mr Elezovski is convinced this will lead to more and more Roma emigrating to the rest of Europe.

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