THE RESULTS of a recent survey delivered some encouraging news about the state of the Roma community in Slovakia, suggesting that not all Roma are facing a rapidly declining quality of life.
According to the survey, as many as 60 percent of Roma people are integrated into the Slovak majority, and share a more or less similar quality of life. The Instutute for Public Affiars, the Presov Regional Centre for Roma Issues and S.P.A.C.E. (the Centre for Analysis of Social Policy Institute) conducted the survey, which was sponsored by the cabinet's office for the Roma community, the Canadian Development Agency and the World Bank.
The cabinet's appointee for the Roma community, Klára Orgovánová, ordered the survey to gain a realistic picture of the structure and lifestyle of the Roma community to help define priorities of local and governmental policies.
The sociologists have found that the situation where Roma live in unbearable conditions in rural communities and devastated central city zones is not as threatening as was expected.
Slovakia ranks high among European countries with a significant Roma population. As a group, they are the second largest minority following the Hungarian community. However, official statistics based on the latest census figures show just 89,000 Roma living in Slovakia, far fewer than the 320,000 identified in the latest study, suggesting that the census figure does not include Roma whose standard of living is comparable to that of the majority population.
During the course of one year, the sociologists mapped Roma settlements and their living conditions throughout Slovakia. While the survey indicated that 60 percent of Roma live reasonably well, integrated into Slovak society, it found 46 settlements with 6,500 inhabitants living in extremely poor conditions.
"These people have nothing except electricity. In 12 settlements, they even lack that," Orgovánová said.
The poorest Roma live without gas, drinking water, and without a sewage system.
"There are no asphalt roads to connect them to the world," she added.
Sociologist Iveta Radičová, of the S.P.A.C.E. foundation, said that their efforts uncovered one family living in a bunker, forgotten by all, and another family in a trailer in the forest, several kilometres from the village.
Most of the poorest settlements, those with wooden or cardboard shacks, are in the Košice and Prešov regions. Radičová underscored that it is an urgent task "not to let these people die".
In regards to urban centres, Roma live in 168 ghettos inside towns or villages, 338 settlements at the periphery of towns, and 281 settlements a fair distance from a municipality and many times separated from it by natural or artificial barriers such as streams, roads or railways.
Of the Roma living in ghettos and at the periphery, 91 percent have electricity, 59 percent can use gas, 57 percent have access to clean drinking water, and 19 percent use a sewage system.
Almost one-third of the dwellings in Roma settlements were built illegally, with shacks being the biggest portion. The highest percentage (around 49) of illegal buildings was erected in settlements located outside a town or a village. The survey found that the typical Roma home houses seven people.
According to Orgovánová, the most important achievement of the survey is that the living standards in the various Roma settlements throughout Slovakia have been identified.
"We will be able to specify how much a change in quality of life would cost," Orgovánová told The Slovak Spectator.
She believes that the survey results will help diffuse the stereotype of Roma as outcasts.
"Not all Roma abuse the social system and refuse to work or send their children to schools," she said.
Orgovánová proposes intensive communication with town mayors on solutions to Roma settlements, which, she says, should be solved at the local and community levels.
However, the cabinet appointee does not think that the situation in the worst settlements will improve soon.
Although municipalities get their share of state-collected tax from Roma settlements, local government has been inactive [in helping the Roma] for years, Orgovánová said.
She insists that efficient assistance to Roma has to be coordinated involving ministries, local governments and non-governmental organisations. However, local government has the final word over whether it accepts assistance or not, she added.
In any case, the survey contrasts sharply with the findings recently published by the International Organization for Migration (IMO), which suggested that the situation of Slovak Roma has been rapidly worsening and is close to a humanitarian disaster.
The IMO had been monitoring the situation in eastern Slovakia at the initiative of the Czech government, which at one time expressed fears of an incursion of Slovak Roma into the country.
The new Czech Ambassador to Slovakia Vladimír Galuška said he sees no problem with Roma migration to his country, and according to him, omens on the possible exodus of the Roma have not materialised. Thus, the governmental commission established especially to handle this situation has been scrapped.
The IMO report says that the desperate situation in which the Slovak Roma find themselves make it impossible for them to travel to neighbouring Czech Republic.
The IMO report goes on to describe cases in which hungry Roma children were found eating grass and a man sold his wife into prostitution to pay his debt to a local usurer.
The report also warns about the worsening health of Roma, most of whom do not have enough money to pay the compulsory Sk20 for doctor's visits or medical prescriptions.
11. Oct 2004 at 0:00 | Soňa Balážová