While Europe tries to unite amid ethnic fighting, gypsies remain the neighbours no one wants
She cries. Renata has a tale of daily cruelties and casual violence to tell, and tears prick her eyes as it unfolds. "The policemen were sitting in their car, shouting abuse," she remembers. "They said I was a whore looking for business on the road. The teachers and pupils at my daughter's school said the same thing to her. She shaved her body all over, trying to change her skin. She was eight."

Stepanka, the eldest daughter, was bullied so badly that she needed psychiatric help. The windows of the family restaurant were broken and it was forced out of business. Renata was ostracised by the village, spat at in the street, scared out of work and threatened with rape. Her Czech husband, Stepan, lost several jobs because of his wife's darker colour.

Such stories are commonplace in Europe. As Renata talks, with her daughters absorbed in the delights of a London burger bar, she could be a refugee from anywhere. There are many in the city, and their suffering has been so intense that Renata's story may even sound tame. But it is different, because she is.

War and persecution have not driven her out of a homeland, because she does not have one. Renata belongs to an ancient race with no country of its own, no allies and nowhere to run. Her Carmen looks are the kind that have excited poets, racists and murderers. The gypsies of central and eastern Europe are fleeing persecution again, and nobody wants to take them in.

"Roma people across central and eastern Europe face levels of poverty, discrimination and exclusion which are almost indescribable," says a report to be published on Thursday by the Refugee Council, which describes how they are forced to settle in poor housing, refused jobs, denied education and attacked in the street. "They suffer racist violence with nauseating frequency."

Such treatment is ignored or even encouraged by state authorities, but is not serious enough to persuade the Home Office here to let them in.

The report, Unwanted Journey, concentrates on the experience of those living in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, has also drawn attention to the current plight of the Roma in Kosovo.

The 60,000 or so gypsies there say they feel "caught between the hammer and the anvil". They are accused of collaborating with the Serbian army and attacked by returning Albanians, but denied access to Yugoslavia. The European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest claims there have been killings, abductions, torture, expulsions and the burning of homes.

Stepan and Renata left the Czech Republic and drove across Europe with their son and two daughters in the winter of 1997, declaring themselves asylum seekers when they emerged from the Channel Tunnel. They were part of a movement that has seen 2,000 gypsies - or Roma - seek refugee status in Britain over the past two years.

Applications by Czech citizens more than doubled from 240 to 515 last year, while those of Slovakian citizens almost trebled from 305 to 835. There were only 60 requests from Romanian citizens in 1997, but more than a thousand in 1998. Almost all were Romany - and hardly any were accepted by the Home Office.

It is impossible to know how many more have come from Bulgaria, Poland, Albania, Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, because the ethnicity of asylum seekers is not recorded. Others may be here illegally.

The Refugee Council report accuses the British government of breaching the European Convention on Human Rights in its treatment of Roma asylum seekers. It regrets the way ministers have condemned Roma en masse as bogus refugees, attacks the policy of detaining male heads of families to deter further immigration, and claims the UK's policy has been "racist and discriminatory in outcome, if not intent". The Home Office declined to answer the accusations on Friday.

The Roma have suffered persecution for 1,000 years, since they left northern India and entered mainland Europe through trading routes. They were taken into slavery in Romania, driven off the land of countless rulers, and Henry VIII made it a capital offence simply to be a gypsy. At least 500,000 were killed by the Nazis, although the true figure may have been in excess of two million.

There are four main groups among the 200,000 people who call themselves gypsies in the British Isles, each with its own language or dialect: the Romanichals of England, the Kale of Wales, the Minceir of Ireland and the Nachins of Scotland. The latter pair are believed to be descended from Roma and the Celtic travellers who were here before them.

"We see the central European Roma as our brothers," says Charles Smith, chairman of the British Gypsy Council, which is helping refugees. "We can make ourselves understood to each other in international Romani. But they are different. The ideal for an English gypsy is to have your own bit of land, and the family can come and go. Somewhere you can return to after travelling around to work on the farms, or going to horse fairs. But travelling about isn't their ideal - a Mercedes and a nice apartment is what they want. They haven't got the fear of being assimilated that we have."

Maybe it is just too late for fear. Communist countries pursued aggressive policies of assimilation after the war. Schools were segregated and cash offered to Roma women to be sterilised. Unemployment and racist violence increased dramatically after the Czech Velvet Revolution.

The half a million Roma in Slovakia are confined to isolated and poor rural settlements or derelict urban estates. Romania has 2.5 million Roma, the largest group in Europe, and they suffer the most in that country's devastated economy. Tens of thousands attempted to resettle in Germany in 1992, but most were sent back.

In the summer of 1997 a documentary about Roma exiles in Britain was broadcast on Czech television. The Council of Europe has described the programme as "a spark that ignited an accumulation of ready-to-detonate emotional explosive".

Several hundred Roma arrived at Dover in the following months, and more arrived in October 1998, stoking fears of a large-scale gypsy invasion. British ministers appeared on Czech television, telling Roma that they would not be welcome.

The huge numbers predicted then did not arrive, but some desperate souls have ignored the message. There are about a thousand Roma asylum seekers living near the Kent ports, where there have been physical attacks on them and regular marches by the National Front.

"Kent is very dangerous," says Vojtech Sliska of the Roma Refugee Organisation. "There is open hostility. They feel much more secure in London." He believes around 120 Roma men are still in detention centres.

As for Renata, her application for asylum was accepted on appeal, as 70 per cent of those by Roma have been, but the case is still unresolved. In the meantime the family has a flat in Orpington, Kent, and Stepan is trying to find work as a driver.

The couple is grateful for the help they have found here. Renata says she came to Britain because its people were "tolerant and correct" - they drove straight through Germany and France, fearing racism.

They are learning English and want to stay. "It is peaceful. No one is swearing at us. The children are happy, they study well. No one is spoiling our fresh air. We just wish more people at home knew what a tolerant country this is."

WORDS OF HATE

"The only way to deal with gypsies is with the long whip and the small yard." Jan Slota, Slovak National Party

"The police came and took out some Roma boys. They arrested them and stuffed them in the boot of the police car. The police beat up this boy." Andrea Rasova, lawyer, Bratislava

"The attack happened in broad daylight, lots of people around in a main street. Nobody helped me. The skinheads started by calling me `black' and then they threw me on the ground ... my broken teeth were in my mouth. Then I got another well-aimed kick in my face. It cracked my skull. I was very lucky to live." Tibor, Czech Republic

"We are not seen as human. It's not just skinheads who hate the Roma. Skinheads do the dirty work for everyone else." Jozef, Czech Roma asylum seeker

"They don't want to work, they're all thieves, they don't want to live like most people ... Romanians are not racists." Deputy mayor of Heudin, Transylvania

"Roma are beaten up - the police are the worst - and spat at. I worry about my family. Why else would I feel willing to risk everything to get out of here?" Roma businessman, Bucharest

"You won't be welcome and we will deal strictly and quickly with you so we can return you." Mike O'Brien, Minister for Immigration, on Czech TV (quoted by Refugee Council)

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