Gypsies 'under threat' from racist upsurge

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The Independent Online
GYPSIES from the 12 European Union states, as well as Romania and the former Yugoslavia, ended the first-ever European Gypsy Congress during the weekend with a warning of the dangers of an upsurge in racism.

At what they called a 'watershed' four-day convention in Seville, Gypsy delegates expressed fears that a new spread of fascism could present a serious threat to their communities. They recalled that 500,000 Gypsies are believed to have been exterminated by the Nazis.

The upsurge in racism became a leitmotif of a conference called mainly to improve the education of Gypsies and their social conditions via EU bodies. If there was something incongruous about 250 Gypsy delegates, immaculately dressed in suits, ties or conservative skirts, patiently listening on headphones to endless speeches, it was only because of the very stereotype which the congress was aiming to overcome.

The potential contradiction in trying to integrate Gypsies while preserving their identity was highlighted by an incident at the congress hall's doors. A group of poor Gypsies, the women in traditional brightly-coloured dresses, tried to gain access to protest against their conditions in makeshift shanty homes known here as chabolas.

A Socialist MEP, Juan de Dios Ramirez, and other delegates forcibly removed them. 'Here's your photograph,' Mr de Dios Ramirez, pointing to a Gypsy in a blue suit, told photographers. 'A Gypsy philologist. Not the old image of misery.'

Spain's Queen Sofia had opened the congress last week, delighting delegates by laughing and posing with groups of them. 'Ole, pretty queen,' they shouted after her opening speech. The Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, got a more subdued reception when he closed the conference on Saturday. Admitting that Gypsies are marginalised and often discriminated against, Mr Gonzalez said: 'To those of us who are not Gypsies, it's difficult to realise how offensive we can sometimes be.'

There have been dramatic cases of anti-Gypsy prejudice in Spain in recent years. Exactly three years before the Seville conference began, seven Gypsy homes were burnt down in the town of Mancha Real, 180 miles south of Madrid, after a murder for which Gypsies were convicted.

There are 3-4 million Gypsies in the EU member-countries, including 600,000 to 900,000 in Spain, half of them in Andalusia. Experts estimate two-thirds of adult Gypsies cannot read or write. The congress proposed Gypsies should be added to the European Human Rights Convention's list of national minorities. It suggested the setting up of a European Gypsy Centre where Gypsies could take their grievances.