This is not my first visit in Greece. Consequently, after having visited settlements in Thessaloniki, Patras and Athens, I believe that I gathered a critical mass of first hand material, enabling me to formulate a realistic assessment of the situation of the Roma in Greece. Below I will express my thoughts, based on my own direct observations and on conversations I had with Roma. The fact that many of these conversations took place in the Romani language made the Roma feel more comfortable and enabled them to express their views more coherently.
The most depressing experience was in the squalid settlements in Patras: the days before yesterday’s visit, two newly born Roma, aged 15 days and 2 months, died from the cold, while I saw with my own eyes Roma bitten by rats, including the representative of the Riganokampos settlement. Patras also had though two welcome surprises in store for me. First, the enthusiastic concern of the representative of the Prefectural Self-Administration: had they been listened to earlier on, the deaths and the bites would have been prevented. Secondly, the positive and constructive approach of the Governing Authorities of the University of Patras, to both the short-term need to deal with the squalid living conditions of the Roma who have squatted –illegally- on University ground, as well as the development of research projects on Roma education, in cooperation with experienced academic institutions of Europe, and respecting the prevailing international standards. On the contrary, I was particularly puzzled by the almost ice cold indifferent attitude of the advisor to the Minister of Interior on Romani issues, who met with me in Athens, as a representative of the state.
It does not take an expert to attest that the conditions that most of the tent-dwelling Roma live are appalling. With no access to running water and electricity, nonexistent sewage facilities and usually situated in degraded areas, the settlements are usually a collection of impromptu lodgings made of wooden planks and nylon. These sheds constitute the only homes that many Roma have known in their life. As if the terrible living conditions were not enough, the tent-dwelling Roma live under the constant fear of eviction since they usually occupy land belonging to the state or private individuals. Despite the existence of a court decision to the effect that no eviction of Roma dwellers can take place if a suitable place for relocation has not been found, I was informed that a number of municipalities have proceeded to evict the Roma. Being aware that their actions are closely monitored by NGOs and the Ombudsman’s office, they tend to disguise their attempts to evict the Roma as “cleaning operations”, notwithstanding the fact that such operation have resulted in the leveling of huts and the destruction of the livelihood of Romani families living in those huts.
The issue of health is intrinsically connected to that of housing. Most settlements are to be found in the vicinity of garbage dumps and their inhabitants are consequently exposed to a host of infections and germs. Moreover, as the lack of running water and electricity precludes even the most rudimentary form of hygiene, it is no wonder that health is in short supply among the tent dwelling Roma whose average life expectancy is much lower than that of the ethnic Greeks. As it was pointed out to me by many Roma, another aggravating factor is the inadequate access of Roma to health care, as they feel both discriminated against by doctors and medical staff and often are not covered by the social security system, due to the lack of the even the most basic legal documents such as I.D. cards.
Whereas the vast majority of ethnic Greeks can read or write, the vast majority of the Roma (and especially of the older generations) cannot. It is only recently that the Greek State has implemented educational programs specifically for Roma schoolchildren. Attendance might indeed have soared from 25% to 75% as state authorities assert, yet this percentage appears to refer to the number of Roma schoolchildren registered at school and not those actually attending school throughout the year. Most Roma schoolchildren from the age of 12 and onwards usually drop out of school as they have to work alongside their parents in order to supplement their family’s income. In any case, it is unrealistic to expect that a tent-dwelling Roma schoolchild living in Aspropyrgos, Riganokampos or Halastra would be able to complete the 9-year mandatory school period. Another issue concerns the quality of education being provided. It was reported to me that many teachers readily issue graduation certificates to Roma schoolchildren in order not to have them at the same class the next year. Moreover, the governmental educational programs have failed to take into account the fact that, for many Roma, Greek is not their mother tongue and that consequently the educational methods and material employed (designed with an ethnic Greek speaker in mind) can only be of marginal efficacy. Finally, the issue of teaching of the Romani language has never been seriously considered.
The events of Nea Kios in 2000 amply demonstrate that strong anti-Romani sentiments are lurking. There, the local municipal authority declared that “it would not tolerate the presence of Roma within its jurisdiction” for reasons all too known to those who harbor anti-Romani feelings: “the Roma are dirty, they are criminals and are damaging to the image of our town”. It is regrettable that the Greek state itself espouses similar racist stereotypes. Thus, a 1983 “Sanitary Regulation” treats the Roma as a health hazard, precluding the setting up of settlements for itinerant Roma close to aqueducts, wells and irrigation points. It also stipulates that settlements should be set up at a good distance from the nearest dwellings, presumably in order not to “offend the taste” of the average Greek citizens
The Roma to whom I spoke were quite reticent when it came to talking about their relations with the police. While initially assuring me that they faced no particular problems, they gradually opened up and told me that they are routinely pulled over when they are driving in their cars (more regularly than ethnic Greeks) and that the police officers often verbally insult them by making derogatory references to their ethnicity. Minor physical abuse (e.g. slaps, kicks) is widespread and taken for granted by the Roma themselves. Incidents where more serious ill-treatment if not torture has taken place have been reported whereas in certain cases the abusive use of firearms by police officers has led to extra-judicial killings of Roma. Whereas such incidents constitute a worldwide phenomenon, the reluctance of the both the Greek police and the Greek judiciary to punish the perpetrators as well as the existence of an obsolete legal framework regulating the use of firearms by police officers –dating from the period of German occupation!- and their inadequate training cultivates a feeling of impunity among a fraction of the Greek police. The recent acquittal of a police officer charged with torture by the Court when both the Sworn Administrative Inquiry and the Prosecutorial Investigation had concluded that he was the instigator of acts of ill-treatment is clearly deplorable, as are last year’s courts’ refusal to even hold public hearings in two cases of killings of Roma by police in situations that no one can accept legitimate defense. I hope that the Greek judiciary will not tread the same path in the case of Marinos Christopoulos. Not a few times the Roma with whom I discussed threatened to take law in their hands, a threat I consider by no means idle.
Most of the Roma living today in Greece were conferred the Greek nationality in the 1970s if not the 1980’s; until then, they were regarded as “aliens of Gypsy descent”, were issued with special documents from the Aliens’ Department, documents that had to be renewed every two years. Even today however, a small number of Roma (of Muslim religion) continue to be stateless, while a larger number of Roma are citizens in only but name, as they lack birth certificates and I.D. cards. This creates numerous obstacles in their relations with the state authorities, such as the non-granting of social security benefits, which for many Roma families is a substantial source of income.
It need not be said that the chances of a young Rom, lacking even the most basic writing / reading skills, finding employment within an increasingly competitive labor market are virtually nonexistent. If one adds to the above the prevailing stereotypes concerning the indolence of the Roma, it will be only the “bravest” employer who will ever think of employing a Roma. In the public sector, the possession of a junior high graduation certificate is a usual precondition for employment, thus excluding practically all the adult Roma.
I cannot help underline that many Roma in Greece live in much worse conditions than any Roma in Bulgaria, the country I live in and which is more affluent than Greece. Due to the chronic neglect of its Roma community throughout the years, the Greek State has to initiate and urgently and effectively implement some bold measures in order to integrate the Roma into mainstream Greek society. Generous quota systems and other positive discrimination measures should be implemented with a view to lifting the numerous handicaps that the Roma community of Greece faces. After talking to state officials, I realized on the one hand that the Greek state does have the will to spend considerable sums in order to ameliorate the life of its Roma citizens. If these sums are used wisely, and always in cooperation with the Roma concerned, then soon many of the pressing needs the Roma face will disappear. On the other hand however, I did not fail to notice an increased reluctance on the part of the Greek state to acknowledge that the Roma constitute a different ethnic group and not merely a social one. While I understand that the issue of national and ethnic minorities is a very sensitive one in Greece, the impression that I gathered was that the Greek state is bent on assimilating and not integrating its Roma citizens to the mainstream Greek society. Such an assimilationist policy is not in accordance with the prevailing interpretations of a multicultural and democratic society.