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Slovak Gypsies Move West

July 14, 1999

VELKA IDA, Slovakia (AP) _ Seeking to escape discrimination and dismal living conditions, thousands of Gypsies in Slovakia are making a fresh push to move to the West.

Last year, their country of choice was Britain or Belgium. This year it’s Finland, where more than 1,000 Gypsies, also known as Roma, have sought asylum so far.

Many say they’ll live anywhere but Slovakia, where jobs are scarce, opportunities are limited and the Gypsies live in hovels made of clay, tin sheeting or cardboard.

``It is impossible to live here. They don’t want to give us work because we are Gypsies,″ said Peter Mata, echoing the sentiments of many among the Roma population in Slovakia, which is estimated at 200,000 to 600,000.

Poverty among the Gypsies is a problem throughout Europe. But those living in Slovakia have drawn attention for their particularly grim conditions and their efforts to gain political asylum elsewhere.

As many as 100 Slovak Gypsies were arriving in Finland each day until last week, when the Scandinavian country _ following Britain’s lead _ imposed a visa requirement for all Slovaks.

More than 1,000 Roma have sought permission to remain in Finland. Their applications have been rejected by the government, which says they’re escaping social and economic conditions, not discrimination.

Slovak officials, who say the Roma are giving the Eastern European country a bad name, claim there is no government discrimination and say they have a long-term plan to help the Gypsies economically.

But an international official said earlier this year that the problems the Roma face _ high unemployment, discrimination, a lack of education _ require help from other countries.

Max van der Stoel, the leading minority rights advocate for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the Slovak government would not be able to solve the problem alone.

Velka Ida, a village of 3,500 near Slovakia’s second-largest city Kosice, is typical of many communities where Gypsies live.

Small, crudely built huts line the entrance to the village. Coal stoves stand outside next to tubs used to wash clothes. Trash is scattered everywhere; toilets are nonexistent.

Children run around the smelly neighborhood and play soccer half-clothed. Dogs are their best friends, and a source of warmth in winter.

Nearly 99 percent of Velka Ida’s Gypsies are unemployed. An average family has at least four children; some have more than ten.

Still, most of the ramshackle houses have televisions, and some have videocassette recorders.

Mata, a Gypsy in his 40s, sold his apartment in Kosice and moved to Velka Ida, where he lends money to other Romany at 100 percent commission.

He says he can’t get a job due to discrimination _ but also said he wouldn’t work even if he were offered one.

He heard about Finland from a friend living at the asylum center there and ``getting a lot of money.″ He says he plans to leave Slovakia.

But some of Velka Ida’s Romany said things weren’t so bad.

``Why are the (other) Gypsies complaining?″ asked Jolana, a woman in her 40s who declined to give her last name. ``They get a lot of money from the state as their unemployment benefits and money for their children who are still in school.″

Discrimination against Gypsies is not new. But summer _ when children are out of school _ is a popular time for an exodus, says Emilia Koptova, who works at Dobra Vila Kasai, a nongovernmental organization in Kosice.

``After two months, the families will be able to judge if they are going to get the asylum or not, and if they want to come back,″ she said.

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