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Gypsies still facing uphill battle
by Paris Agiomamitis
AthensNews, http://www.athensnews.gr, January 2003
Cretan mayor tries to halt construction of new Roma settlement in his municipality, claiming "they deal drugs."
EVICTIONS or threats of evictions continue to highlight the plight of Greece's heavily stereotyped Roma. On January 26, the incoming mayor of Nea Alikarnassos near Iraklio on Crete, vowed to stop the construction of a new Roma camp, citing "aesthetic" reasons backed up by the claim that "Gypsies deal drugs."
Vangelis Sisamakis ordered the fencing off of 9,000 m2 (2 1/4 acres) of the selected site claiming the land belongs to his municipality. He argued that the proposed camp area is too close to a local sports centre and justified his decision by saying that Iraklio is an Olympic city.
The EU-funded camp is being constructed by the Greek government to relocate roughly 50 Gypsy families from shabby makeshift sheds to a better equipped settlement. "Several Roma feel this is just another example of state prejudice against them," technical consultant Leonidas Dramvakis to the Roma group Elpis, told the Athens News. Dramvakis added that several locals do not approve of the Roma lifestyles, "but this can't be said of all the locals." "I don't deny that I do not want Gypsies in our area," the major was quoted as saying by a Greek daily on January 27. "They can go rent homes in Iraklio and Alikarnassos. I just don't see why they get preferential treatment. If they themselves say they want to be socially integrated, they shouldn't be allowed to choose where to stay," he said. Sisamakis reportedly said it is no concern of his if locals refuse to rent out homes to Gypsies. "That's the state's problem," he said. Elpis says the government has earmarked 800 million drs towards the improvement of Roma living standards at the new settlement. The mayor reportedly said the money does not have to be wasted on camps as the area can serve as a parking lot for the sports centre.
Citing Games to clear out Gypsies
"This is something I'd expect to hear from Zhyrinovsky or Lepen," an indignant Panayiotis Dimitras of Athens-based non-governmental organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), told the Athens News. He added that Sisamakis' election campaign was made on promises to clear out the Roma from his municipality. Dimitras says it is common practice for local officials to cite the Olympic Games to justify the eviction of Roma from areas they have lived in for decades. "The area of Maroussi surrounding the Olympic stadium hosted a significant number of Roma who have now left," he said. GHM has already filed a complaint with the Greek ombudsman and reported the mayor's remarks to the Athens prosecuting magistrate for violating anti-racism laws. A condemnatory report has also been sent to European human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Cretan Prefecture secretary-general Thanassis Karountzos shot down the mayor's claims on January 28, saying the construction of the camp will go ahead as scheduled. "Our country has a plan to integrate Roma, taking into consideration the unique features of their lifestyle," he said. "The government has made its decision and will not be subject to the will of any mayor," Karountzos told the Eleftherotypia newspaper. With Greece currently holding the EU presidency, Karountzos said the last thing he would want is to give the impression that Greek authorities reverse policies regarding the welfare of the Roma.
According to the GHM, Greece is home to between 300,000 and 350,000 Roma. Government estimates say their numbers range between 150,000 and 300,000. Heavily stereotyped by society as "thieves" and "drug pushers," they are frequently subjected to police brutality and social marginalisation. Despite being belatedly granted citizenship in 1979, Roma are frequently barred by local officials from exercising voting rights. According to Theodore Alexandridis of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), Gypsies living in the current Nea Alikarnassos settlement were not allowed to vote in local elections last June because the former mayor refused to register them in municipal rolls.
Racked by high unemployment figures, Gypsies regularly report that local officials deny them licences for street-peddling and vending at markets.
Illiteracy among Greek Roma is estimated at a staggering 80-90 percent. Children who do attend school are often subject to discrimination by teachers and their non-Roma schoolmates. Rights groups say they have received numerous reports of non-Romani parents taking their children out of mixed schools.
Despite government efforts to improve their standards of living, roughly half of the Gypsies still live in deplorable tent settlements with little or no infrastructure. In many cases, communities are denied access to running water and electricity. Alexandridis said he had received reports that the former mayor of Nea Alikarnassos "fined sewage removal trucks for entering the settlement to empty sewage facilities."
Historically, Roma moved into the Greece mainland roughly 600 years ago.
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