Roma of Europe: Second-class citizens?

A room is filled with gypsies: young men as well as tired mothers holding wailing children. A heavily built Croatian policeman stands proudly, guarding the door as if it is his national duty to secure the containment of the Roma.

"What did all of these people do?" I ask the guard, bemused at the sheer number of them packed into the tiny room.

"Very bad," he says solemnly, waving his finger from side to side. "They pushed an old man over and tried to take his money."

Looking in through the gap between the door and the guard in front of it, it was hard to imagine the mothers, children and older men being a part of whatever the alleged crime was.

"A 'round-up'," our translator explains; "a favourite activity of the bored Croatian police, more interested in beating gypsy 'suspects' than fighting the endemic gun crime of Zagreb's organised Mafia gangs…" The explanation is cut short by the smashing noise of the policeman's rubber baton over the room's radiator as the adults fall silent and the children scream louder still.

Roma infants are frequently separated at the age of entry into primary education and, in the Czech Republic particularly, are sent to institutions described as "Roma schools."

The problem has become such in the Czech Republic recently that parents, concerned about the quality of education available to their eminently capable children, have gone to the European Court of Human Rights in order to officially challenge the Government which backs the segregation.

Most of the educational problems for young Roma in Eastern Europe stem from the cultural differences, primarily because they are regarded and treated as small adults within their communities.

The child has full adult rights as a member of gypsy society and can participate in all family and community discussions.

"In education, they feel they should have a say in what happens," Czech journalist Kara Reisen explains. "They are not used to asking for permission. If a child wants to talk in class or leave the class, they do as they would do at home. Immediately, conflicts arise between the Roma child and the school. The resulting effect is commonly that the child does not want to go to school anymore because they are led to believe that "the teacher hates me, she doesn't like Roma"."

More often than not both the teacher and the child is right. "The teacher is behaving according to the norms of their own society, but they don't know the culture of each others' societies. The teacher and the child do not know how to recognise the conflict and realise they are on parallel tracks. The teacher believes that the child is unmanageable and sends the child to 'special education classes' and so the child's fate is sealed," Kara sighs. As a consequence, the teacher concludes that there will always be problems with Roma children.

"After a few failures, the teacher will generally give up. In this situation, two types of personalities emerge: The inactive, passive child and the aggressive angry one," adds Kara. "Both types of child represent serious problems within our society."

Out on the streets, in the city centre, young Roma boys stand for hours obediently pumping the bustling and scorching walkways with traditional gypsy ballads from their hand organs in a desperate attempt to provide income to take to their parents.

While it is true some gypsy children are obliged to form organised pickpocket gangs by their elders, others prefer to earn their money honestly, operating in the face of adversity: being spat on and sworn at by passers by. "Don't you know these are Roma?," one man asked me, scowling and shaking his head as I went to take a photograph of a Roma busker: "They are very bad!"

Incredibly, this attitude is as rife among the more liberal and radical youth of the country as it is among the older generations.

Croatia and the Czech Republic are by no means the sole perpetrators of this open, racial segregation. The problem is also common in Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and even the war-wracked and deeply divided province of Kosovo.

Prague's Roma population is equal in number to Zagreb's as is the scale of resentment from the "decent, hardworking citizens having to share our country with them" as an otherwise friendly Czech bartender once told me. Where the Czech Republic demonstrates the educational divide, Greece continues to be a consistent origin of disturbing stories of violent racial attacks on young Roma gypsies.

Vienna was the setting last year for the annual meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose aims are: "to consolidate the 56 European, Asian and North American member states common values and help in building fully democratic civil societies based on the rule of law; to prevent local conflicts, restore stability and bring peace to war-torn areas; to overcome real and perceived security deficits and to avoid the creation of new political, economic or social divisions."

At the meeting, Greek's delegate said: "Last year, when I spoke on the subject of Roma I made two main points. Firstly, that the situation of the Roma is unsatisfactory and unacceptable and secondly that the Greek government is determined to do everything in its power to remedy the situation…

"[This year] I wish I was in a position to say that it has changed dramatically for the better."

While the stirrings of a change in official outlook is illustrated by such statements, the older generation of Roma have become resigned to the idea they will always live as second class citizens in the countries in which they are trying to raise their children.

Despite the slow, almost imperceptible, reduction of outright racial hatred it will be many years more before the harsh imbalances in mainstream Eastern European society's perception of the Roma are addressed and the attitude needed to correct those imbalances is installed.