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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 91-92, April - August 2003, p. 425-427

Welcome address

On the occasion of the Expert Consultation

on the Human Rights situation of 

Roma/Gypsies in Europe*.


H. E. Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary, Pontifical Council for the

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,

It is a privilege and honour for me to welcome you this morning, on behalf of the Holy See, to this important Consultation of Experts on the Human Rights situation of Roma/Gypsies in Europe, organized by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

My participation at this meeting is also related to the scope of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, of which I am the Secretary. I take this opportunity to extend to you the greetings of our President, Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao. Msgr. Anthony Chirayath of our Council is here as an Expert, who will follow your consultation during the day together with Dr. Giorgio Filibeck, Expert on human rights, as you know.

Our Dicastery, created by Pope Paul VI in 1970, is concerned also with the human and pastoral promotion of Roma/Gypsies in the Universal Church. It studies, promotes and co-ordinates pastoral activities in favour of them through a network of Church organisations and NGOs. It is preparing now for V World Congress of the Pastoral Care of Roma/Gypsies to be held, in Budapest, in July this year.

The Congress will be dedicated to the study of the conditions of Roma/Gypsies, in order to offer them a better pastoral care. Besides, there will be an evaluation of the opportunities and means with which to solicit the States and International Organisations for a greater commitment in the application of laws concerning Roma/Gypsies. Their promotion is possible and can be achieved only by defending their human dignity and rights. So this important Consultation of Experts on the Human Rights situation of Roma/Gypsies in Europe is relevant and in accordance with the need of the moment, also from our point of view.

The opening statement by Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights, “in absentia”, illustrates in any case very clearly the importance, the urgency and the scope of this meeting of experts.

It is estimated that there are nine million (according to some others, 12 million) Roma/Gypsies in Europe, of whom five million live in the candidate countries seeking to join the European Union. In some countries they form the biggest ethnic minority. One of the unifying factors is the Romany language, spoken in more than 50 dialects, though we know that in the mosaic of Roma/Gypsy groups, not all readily understand one another.

The fall of the Communist regimes brought new opportunities to all citizens, including Roma/Gypsies. For the first time in decades the minorities could express their ethnic identity, participate freely in the civil society and undertake economic activities previously forbidden. In some countries Roma/Gypsies formed political parties, created civic associations and Roma/Gypsy NGOs.

However, wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia have left several hundred thousand Roma/Gypsies in squalid refugee camps, living in poverty, cut off from their traditional homes and sources of income. The goal now for Roma/Gypsies is to unite to other citizens and to rise in society without losing Romany identity. While stable societies may want them to “assimilate”, that will not solve their problems and raises questions of their fundamental human rights.

In the past some governments tried to assimilate them into the majority society and to eliminate their ethnic differences. They gave the Roma/Gypsies basic social services, ensuring them a roof, food and employment. While this policy had some positive results, such as better education and greater access to employment, it did not help in general in the emancipation of Roma/Gypsies from poverty and discrimination.

Though democracy has brought advancement, in a certain sense, to many former Communist bloc countries, we note that Roma/Gypsies have been largely left out. Thousands have made their way to Western Europe, and most have been turned away, shunted into refugee camps and eventually deported. Even when that is not their fate, they unfortunately tend to be at the bottom of society. In many countries they face heavy discrimination when seeking jobs, not to mention going to restaurants. Many have been attacked by police and even neo-Nazis. Their children are often consigned to special schools for disabled learners and frequently fall into the vicious circle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, petty crime and drug abuse. Their population is growing rapidly, even if less than in the past, with the young born into societies of deepening poverty, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe.

According to the recently published “The Roma Human Development Report”, entitled “Avoiding the Dependency Trap”, nearly half of the Roma/Gypsies surveyed in five countries (Bulgaria, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) are unemployed and close to one person in six is “constantly starving”. Only six out of ten households have running water, and fewer than half have toilets in their homes. Only a third of Roma surveyed completed primary school, only six percent completed secondary school, and one per cent attended university.

According to Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP Administrator, “Across Central and Eastern Europe, a disturbingly high share of Roma populations – in some cases as high as 70 percent - derive their incomes primarily from state transfers such as child allowances, unemployment benefit and pensions.” They need instead to be provided with active opportunities to enjoy good health, receive an adequate education, and earn sufficient income through productive employment.

This important study shows that the Roma/Gypsies want to integrate productively into the countries in which they live without losing their distinctive cultural identities, and outlines a number of concrete proposals on how this can be better achieved. Above all, it insists that “integration” does not have to mean “assimilation” – but it will require affected governments, and the international community, to redouble and reshape their efforts to address the broader development needs faced by Roma communities.

In line with the promotion of these communities, we should note that in May last year, thirty European organisations met in Lodz (Poland) to set up a continent-wide organisation that could give the Roma/Gypsies a strong voice in advancing their causes: housing, jobs and education.

It is my sincere wish that this Consultation of Experts on the Human Rights Situation of Roma/Gypsies would contribute greatly to ameliorate the situation of our Roma brothers and sisters who constitute an important ethnic minority in the countries members of the Council of Europe. This amelioration will be in some way, a reparation for the persecutions and genocide they suffered terribly in the past, and the discrimination of the present. Thank you and may your work be fruitful. 

*This Consultation of Experts on the Human Rights situation of Roma/Gypsies in Europe was organised by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, in Rome, in the premises of Casa “Bonus Pastor” (Via Aurelia 208), on March 3, 2003.