Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
Wronging the Roma
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the reality

Catherine Lovatt

Ten years of transition have seen vast improvements in Romania's human rights record. Minority groups are now allowed political representation and a voice in the development of Romania. The largest minority, the Hungarians, are members of the coalition government. However, whilst Romania claims to abide by the Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Roma population is still subject to human rights abuses. Many Romanians regard the Roma as uncivilised, untrustworthy instigators of crime, and the discrimination and hatred this has brought has led to many Roma wanting to leave the country.

Amnesty International reports that every twenty-one seconds there is a new refugee. Human rights abuses are often the catalyst for people seeking asylum. Political, religious, ethnic and cultural persecution can propel an individual or group to leave their own country to find protection and safety in another society. Ultimately, the abuse of basic human rights (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement) today will create the refugees of tomorrow. Protection for refugees seeking asylum are guided by various international declarations and by the laws of the particular country involved. The UDHR establishes every person's basic rights in Article 14. Here it states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." However, this does not guarantee that individuals will be granted asylum if they apply and the principle has never been accepted as binding. The link between refugee and human rights can be seen in the principle of non-refoulment, incorporated into international treaties such as the CPT. The principle of non-refoulment prohibits the return of an individual to a country where they will receive torture and inhuman punishment. This term is binding on all states whether they have agreed to any of the treaties regulating refugee and human rights law or not.

On 8 December 1998, 103 Romanian Roma were reported to have entered Britain illegally, concealed in a freight truck. One of the Roma told the Independent newspaper that the Romanian police were "coming to our homes and beating us up. They burned our school and our church. They hate gypsies." Of the 103 refugees, the men were detained and the women and children were housed in a former hospital in Dartford.

The abuse of Roma human rights in Romania have forced many to seek refuge in another country. However, the Roma lifestyle does not help instil a positive image in the minds of Romanians. The marginalisation of Roma to the edge of society has been repeated throughout history. High levels of illiteracy and poor living conditions have led many Roma into positions of unskilled labour. Economic and political restructuring in the past decade have left many Romanian Roma without employment encouraging them to work on the black market or to turn to crime for survival.

The economic and political instability in Romania has affected living conditions for the Roma. Since 1989 they have experienced increasing violence and discrimination. In a report on the Prevention of Violence and Discrimination Against Roma in Central and Eastern Europe (March 1997), it was suggested that "Both direct and indirect forms of discrimination are in part caused by the deep rooted negative attitudes held by the majority of the population."

Romanian institutions are not alien to the influence of the negative attitude towards Romanian Roma. The legal system is testimony to this. The police deliberately raid Roma homes inflicting severe injuries. When Roma are victims of crime their complaints are less frequently registered or investigated. They are more likely to be held in detention for actions for which non-Roma would be released. Persecution of this kind has prompted some Roma to leave Romania.

Criticisms over Romanian treatment of the Roma have been forthcoming from various international organisations such as Amnesty International and the UNHCR. Resolving minority and humans rights issues are recognised by the Romanian government as a priority for achieving entry into the European Union. To this end the Romanian Government Department for the Protection of National Minorities was established to address minority issues and concerns. On a non-governmental level various NGOs exist in Romania helping to prevent persecution and prejudice of minority groups.

Romania is attempting to resolve problems of Roma abuse and to integrate the Roma into Romanian society. Programmes to improve Roma education and employment are in place. However, the fundamental problem remains with the prejudicial attitude of both the Romanians and Roma, and their very different approaches to existence. Reform can ease the situation but as long as their strong prejudice remains, Roma will continue to be persecuted and forced to seek refuge in countries such as Germany and Britain.

Catherine Lovatt, 1 November 1999



This week's theme Refugees and Migration

A New Europe Deserves a New Asylum Policy

Asylum in Hungary

Life in a Czech Refugee Camp

Roma Leaving

Hungary's '56ers


Interview with Marta Meszaros


Hungary's Most Wanted Man Finally Captured

Czech Lustration


EU Hopes


Poland's Moved and Missing


(Baltic news on holiday)


Frana Sramek's Leto on Stage

Central European
Culture in the UK

Cultural Round-up from Poland

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