The position of Roma minorities across Europe is more precarious than ever, a report due out tomorrow warns, painting a disturbing picture of poverty, exclusion and rights abuses in both western and eastern Europe.
The report by Amnesty International will call on governments across Europe to address the problems of the estimated 10 to 12 million Roma living on the continent, which Amnesty calls "one of Europe's largest and most disadvantaged minorities".
Roma communities tend to score lower on all key indicators than the rest of the population, drawing less income and with higher unemployment, and with worse access to healthcare and public services.
"These are not simply consequences of poverty; they are the result of widespread, often systematic, discrimination and other human rights violations," says the report. "They are, in particular, the result of prejudice – of centuries of societal, institutional and individual acts of discrimination, that have pushed the great majority of Roma to the very margins of society – and which are keeping them there."
The social and economic exclusion of Roma communities sometimes pushes them into criminal lifestyles. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has called Roma "a source of criminality" and encouraged the deportation of Roma to Romania, while in Bulgaria Roma have been attacked in several cities over the past year.
Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, said: "Whereas previously only marginal far-right groups would stand on anti-Roma platforms, now more mainstream politicians are playing this card." He added that the European Commission has recently encouraged all EU member states to draw up 10-year strategies for the integration of their Roma communities, but that "legislation alone is not enough".
Amnesty's report reveals some shocking figures. In Ireland, the life expectancy of male Travellers is 15 years lower than the national average. In Moldova, 59 per cent of Roma live in absolute poverty, while in Slovakia more than two-thirds of Roma children are in institutional care. Despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that Roma children should not be educated separately or in schools for children with special needs, this continues to happen in many countries, notably in the Czech Republic.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: "It's time Europe woke up and put a full stop to persecution of these marginalised communities."
On a monthly basis there are new trouble spots in various European cities. Currently in Belgrade around 1,000 Roma are awaiting eviction from a temporary settlement in the outskirts of the Serbian capital to make way for a road infrastructure project.
"It's quite difficult for people to believe that eviction from a temporary settlement can leave people worse off," says Sian Jones, Amnesty's Balkans researcher. "But these are often people without proper documentation ... and they are often sent back to parts of southern Serbia where they may have nowhere to live and little chance of work."
Some say it is not only governments that have to change. "The Roma minorities also need to be more practical, pragmatic and coherent and ensure that they are viable partners for states to work with," says Mr Gergely. Communities also need to be more open to discussing and debating controversial issues such as child marriages and child begging, he says, but insists perceptions about the extent and nature of these phenomena are often warped.
"In a lot of countries, Roma become a scapegoat for other problems," he says. "We should be focusing on improving people's education, access to public services and freedom of movement."