Rehousing Romania's Roma signals swing to extremes

Fri Jun 29, 2012 4:42pm EDT
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By Radu Marinas

BAIA MARE, Romania (Reuters) - Building a wall that closes in a Roma neighborhood and rehousing families in a dilapidated communist-era office block have earned Catalin Chereches accusations of racism.

But the actions have also helped the mayor of the northern Romanian town of Baia Mare to become the country's most popular local politician and shown how central Europe's lackluster economies and widespread poverty can trigger radical solutions.

Chereches, 33, an urbane Vienna-educated economist, says he is trying to improve the lot of Baia Mare's impoverished Roma. Rights groups counter that he is enclosing the population in ghettos and making the situation worse.

He says living conditions have improved by moving families away from a slum where naked children play in the dust with stray dogs and cats. But it still keeps Roma separate from other people and lacks space and bathrooms.

"It's clear, conditions there are not similar to the Hilton or Marriott. But this doesn't mean this is not a step forward towards their civilization and emancipation," Chereches told Reuters in his tidy and modest office.

Roma is a term for various groups who have migrated across Europe for centuries and are now the biggest ethnic minority in the European Union, most of them from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. There are an estimated 10 million across Europe and one in five lives in Romania.

The vast majority live on the margins of society in abject poverty, which makes them easy targets in troubled times, and pro-democracy groups say post-communist governments in the region have not done enough to improve their plight.

"Moving people belonging to a single ethnic group together is called ethnic separation," said Robert Vaszi, director of Roma rights group Asociatia Sanse Egale.   Continued...

Ethnic Roma children play on the wall that surround a Roma neighbourhood in Romania's northern town of Baia Mare, 550 km (341 miles) northwest of Bucharest, June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel