RHODES, GREECE September 2001
The Council Europe – set up partly to eradicate genocide and racism – has launched a blistering condemnation on the way Roma gypsies are being treated. They are Europe’s biggest single minority – but, says the Council, subject to violence, racism, and exclusion from society. The European Roma Rights Centre has called it a European apartheid.
The Roma gypsies of Rhodes Island live a short drive along the coastline from the old town. Winding past the yachting marinas, hotels and sand beaches, you come to a junction and a steep unmade road, so rutted that it’s best to leave the car at the top and walk down.
It’s a junk yard, old vehicles, stripped for scrap, and left to rot in the sea air. Among them are shelters, tied with flapping canvas and nailed with old doors and pieces of wood, a dozen or so of them hitched up between the junk, a camp which has been the home for 200 or so people for years.
Children are everywhere, undisciplined, barefoot and naked, and scarred with insect bites and cuts which won’t heal. At first sight, the mothers are a mix of two stereotypes. The colorfully dressed, headscarfed woman gazing over a crystal ball – like in the story books The plaintiff beggar at traffic lights with a child folded over her shoulder, hand out-stretched to receive a coin – an image of modern Europe.
Their ancestors came from what’s now northern India and parts of their language can be traced back to Hindi. Hitler tried to wipe them out, killing at least half a million. The UN says they are Europe’s most urgent human rights problem.
In this camp, they’re Greek and therefore European Union citizens, which is why I was there – because the children don’t go to school and no authority is ensuring they have that right. Nor do they get basic medical care. Just about everyone in the camp is illiterate. Most don’t even papers. In Europe, there are at least eight million – about the same as the population of Sweden – but they live as outcasts of society.
I noticed little Costa when his mother, yanked him off a grubby bed, dumped him on her lap, then let cigarette ash fall on his golden curls. Holding him with one hand, tears streaming down his face, she brought out documents with the other – which she couldn’t read and asked us to help her.
Costa is 13-months old, the youngest of ten children. His mother, whose 39, knew there was something wrong with him, so managed to get him to the local hospital. She left with a hip X-ray, a doctors report and an appointment card to go the children hospital in Athens in April. But she didn’t know how to get there, missed the appointment – that was five months ago. Costa hasn’t seen a doctor since.
My next meeting was at a seaside café with the Mayor of Rhodes. We were meant to talk about the Euro. He was an urbane, cosmopolitan fervent European. But I bought out the X-rays, and by chance the Mayor’s doctor was having a cappuccino at a table near-by, and he came over.
‘There’s no problem with this at all,’ said the doctor. ‘She can take the kid to Athens anytime for the operation. Any time.’
The mayor held up the dog-eared appointment card. ‘This is what is so fantastic about the European Union,’ he gushed. ‘Even these gypsies. They are European citizens. We have to understand they have the same rights as us.’
And what will you do about this child now, I asked.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll fix it,’ he said.
A couple of days later, back in the camp, Costa, still in the same clothes, was in a walker, tied to a post. Other children, pushed him back and forth, twisting his little hips in ways which could only make his problem worse.
A woman picked up a dead rat from the mud outside and tossed it towards the sea. Water sprayed from the single standpipe. That at least was clean because a European Commission directive demands it. But there is no directive compelling member states to ensure that children like Costa get their basic rights.
It’s quite simple. If the parents are unwilling or unable to provide the rights, then the state must intervene to do so.
From the camp, I called Brussels to check what – in the great European vision – could be done for Costa.
‘Nothing’, said a spokesman. ‘The Commission has no jurisdiction.’
‘Not even if children’s rights are at stake,’ I asked naively.
‘We assume that EU member governments respect human rights, he said.
‘So, just to clarify – you have directives on the cleanliness of water and how to sell bananas, but nothing on education, schooling, shelter, is that right?
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That is right.’
A BBC doctor saw Costa’s X-rays in London and said if he didn’t have an operation within weeks he could be crippled for life.
I checked to see if the Mayor had sent someone down to the camp. The police had been. But to tell the gypsies they would have to move in the next few days because bulldozers were coming in to build a yachting marina there.
As for the Mayor – not a word