One of the largest Roma settlements in Europe is on the outskirts of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Last summer I visited Sutka, as it’s generally known, with a friend who wanted to attend a Roma wedding for her book on global marriage traditions.

On the morning of our trip, I asked the owner of our pension in Skopje to ring a taxi.

“Why the [expletive] would you want to go there?” he asked when I told him where we were going.

At the first newspaper I worked for in Prague, we frequently covered the discrimination and mistreatment of Europe’s roughly 10 million Roma, including the inhumane practice of forced sterilization of Roma women. So the pension owner’s response wasn’t a shock. Anti-Roma sentiment is alarmingly widespread in Europe.

“Can you please make the call?” I replied. But I regretted not speaking up after meeting  the pension’s sole front desk attendant that afternoon. She was Roma, Sutka born and raised.

That experience came back to me after reading a new report by the European Union, UN Development Program (UNDP) and World Bank on the plight of Europe’s Roma. Based on interviews with over 22,000 Roma in 11 European Union states (the UNDP also interviewed Roma in non-EU Balkan countries), the survey’s findings are a sobering look at the discrimination and socio-economic exclusion facing the continent’s largest minority.

According to the report, the first of several to follow, roughly 30 percent of Roma are unemployed, and 90 percent are impoverished. Nearly 50 percent live in homes without indoor toilets or other basic amenities. One in five Roma lacks health insurance.

Sadly, this probably won’t come as a surprise to followers of TOL’s reporting over the years. But the EU, UNDP and World Bank rightly note that reliable scientific data on Roma are scarce. Their findings, the agencies say, are a call to action on Roma integration.

Over two days in Sutka, I certainly glimpsed the desperate conditions in Europe’s Roma communities. Litter filled the roads and pedestrian areas in the town of roughly 50,000 people. Much of the housing was fabricated from sheet metal and plastics. Interpreting for UN workers two weeks earlier, our Macedonian fixer told us, he’d mistaken a 13-year-old boy for a child – patting his head earnestly – because he was waist tall.

And yet Sutka complicates the victimization narrative that dominates much of the reporting on Roma issues. Kozi, a municipal official who was working on a voter drive during Macedonia’s June parliamentary elections, toured us around town for hours and explained the elaborate Roma marital traditions in rich detail. A fruit vendor we met spoke proudly of helping his daughters emigrate to Germany. And during a visit to a dress shop, the employees invited my friend to an upcoming wedding and fitted her for a dress for the event – a red number with violet chiffon. I didn’t attend the wedding, but it was evidently a blast.

Picture of a homeless Roma family from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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