Slovakia's Roma face new alienation: being walled away

Across the country, communities are building walls nominally to stop crime, but effectively they isolate the Roma, or gypsy, minority.

Petr Josek/Reuters/File
A Slovak Roma child walks home from school in the village of Strane pod Tatrami, near the town of Kezmarok, east of central Slovakia in September 2010.

The record of using walls to quell tensions between antagonists is not a good one – whether in Northern Ireland, Iraq, or the present-day West Bank. And in this region, which once sat behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the Holocaust firsthand, walls and fences come with their own connotations.

But walls are being erected across Slovakia in a new phenomenon highlighting an age-old problem: tensions between the predominantly Slav majority and the Roma, or gypsy, minority.

Plavecký Štvrtok, located just 20-odd miles north of the capital, Bratislava, is a clear example. Some 700 Roma live in a ramshackle settlement on the outskirts of this small Slovakian village. But even as they comprise about one-third of the community's population, they are separated from the rest of town by a series of walls and fences.

Across Slovakia, some 14 walls have been erected since 2008 segregating Roma communities from everybody else. And they are not solely the province of tiny villages. Early last month, one such wall was even erected between two public housing complexes in the country’s second largest city, Košice – not the best publicity for a city which was named a European Capital of Culture for this year.

Plavecký Štvrtok’s walls are not nearly as imposing as some elsewhere in the country, the poster-child of which is in Ostrovany, where the stark 150-meter-long barrier has drawn comparisons to the Berlin Wall. Still, Plavecký Štvrtok – whose name that translates as “Swimming Thursday” – serves as a sort of microcosm of the complex social, political, and economic forces that drive tensions between the Roma community and others.

On many fronts, the picture is even clearer given the village’s small size. Whereas Roma ghettos in larger cities are often comprised of rundown public housing projects, the Plavecký Štvrtok settlement is little more than a series of self-constructed shanties, lacking  running water, sewage, or heating.

Much like elsewhere in Slovakia, the walls here were ostensibly constructed as deterrent to crime in the areas abutting the Roma settlement, but have not had their intended effect.

“Things are worse,” says Mayor Ivan Slezák.

Roma in Slovakia

Across much of Europe, Roma are perceived as an undesirable underclass. In Central and Eastern Europe, feelings are particularly strong as poverty is deeper and ethnic Roma populations are much larger.

Some 70 percent of Slovakia’s working-age Roma males are unemployed, according to the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). Census data is considered questionable, but a recent government study found that between 6 and 8 percent of Slovakia’s population is Roma, among the highest proportions in Europe.

Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director at the ERRC, says that in recent years the discussion of Roma issues has increasingly moved away from socio-economic issues and towards being “securitized.”

“There is a link made between the Roma community and criminality,” he says, something that contributes to the “simplistic approach” that sees walls as guarantors of security.

Anti-Roma rhetoric, formerly reserved to right-wing groups, has become increasingly mainstream across the Continent, he added, pointing to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in particular.   

A troubled village

Unlike the public funds spent elsewhere, in Plavecký Štvrtok town officials granted permission to construct the walls and fences, but it was done on private property and using private money. Now, Roma are forced to circumnavigate a nearby neighborhood to reach a grocery store and medical clinic. Children linger near a major road rather than the smaller lanes that weave their way through houses.

“There are also a lot of old people and they are not strong enough to make it to the shop or health center now,” says Jana Zemanová, a resident of the Roma settlement. “The wall is no good.”

While the wall may be the most physical manifestation of larger problems, there are many more in Plavecký Štvrtok, including trends that parallel the so-called “white flight” from many American inner cities in the second half of the past century. As the proportion of Roma in the public schools increased, other children increasingly began attending school in other nearby towns. The general achievement level of students declined, thus driving more children to other schools. The domino effects are evident as future generations are unlikely to feel ties with the rest of the community.  

“The life of these teenagers is transferred to the other towns and villages, and that's why we don't have any young people here,” Mayor Slezák says. “We even tried to organize a dance club, but nobody came because they don't know anybody else there.”

The Roma settlement sits over several natural gas pipelines, and national authorities cite safety concerns as they push Slezák to relocate it. Where those 700 Roma are supposed to live, and why nearby homes owned by non-Roma do not need to be relocated, is less clear. While the settlement has been there for decades, almost all members of the Roma community lack formal deeds to the land they live on, complicating any effort to fight back. Such problems are common in informal settlements across the world, such as Brazil’s favelas.

“We lived here 300 years ago,” says one Roma woman who refused to give her name. “We grew up here and we won't move.”

The mayor has his own set of complications to deal with. Slezák says he has no single leadership representative in the Roma community whom he can consult – a situation made even more difficult by the four distinct clans that populate the settlement. Furthermore, each election cycle sees new national governments launch their own studies, then initiate policies just in time to be voted out of office and start the process over again, he says.

“Trends reflect the governments’ inability to implement their own policies,” the ERRC’s Mr. Gergely says. “At the end of the day it comes down to political will.”

Artistic protest

Where political will has failed, some artists and musicians are seeking to pick up the slack. Not unlike the American Civil Rights Movement, the cultural community has taken up the issue – including Tomáš Rafa, a Slovak-born artist now based in Warsaw. He is leading a project to paint the walls that set apart Roma communities as a means of protest that also beautifies these stark structures.

While the threat of legal action – specifically, charges of destruction of public property – prevents the naming of exactly who paints the walls, Rafa films the happenings and posts them online. The project’s name, the Walls of Sports, and its gestation began as a way to mock the ostensible rationale of a wall constructed in the eastern Slovak town of Michalovce. Authorities claimed the wall was needed to delineate a clear area for young people to play sports.

“The town proposed that children play sports by this wall of segregation,” Mr. Rafa says.

In response, Rafa collected a group of Roma children and played a soccer game on the grounds. He continued with the painting and video project – which, when it targeted the wall in Ostrovany in particular, “generated some big discussion." A flood of anonymous volunteers offered to take part in the actual painting of the wall, and the effort earned praise from international human rights groups.

Back in Plavecký Štvrtok, Roma widow and mother of three Nadežda Huberová offers a more succinct take: “We are angry, and feel isolated.”

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