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Slovakia seeks help on Roma issue

By CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney

Hundreds of thousands of Roma are dispersed throughout Europe.

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Slovakia's treatment of the Roma coming under closer scrutiny
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Mikulas Dzurinda

SVINIA, Slovakia (CNN) -- At first glance, the village of Svinia in eastern Slovakia is a tranquil rural setting. But a closer look reveals quite a different picture.

Not far from the comfortable red-roofed homes, on the outskirts of the village, is a Roma settlement. Like most Roma in Slovakia, they're on the fringes of society.

The settlement is home to 650 Roma. There is no running water, electricity or gas -- and it is absolutely filthy.

Ivan Cervenak is 49 and unemployed. He and his wife have 11 children. Nine of them live in a damp, cramped room. Recent welfare reform has seen his benefits slashed. He, like many Roma, depends on state handouts.

"How can we live in this country normally when there are no jobs," he says. "To survive, the Roma have two possibilities -- either move away or steal. Worst of all, we are doing criminal things and stealing food for our children, but we don't want this."

That image of thievery and lawlessness has partly contributed to the isolation of the Roma within Slovakia. Roma children attend segregated schools, including schools for the mentally disadvantaged.

"Those are places that only Romani children are placed, and they graduate effectively uneducated," says Claude Kahn of the Roma Rights Center.

"You've seen Svinia. People cannot move into what's known as white Svinia. They are living by mandate out in that field. That's pretty extreme racial segregation."

Slovakia's government knows that with EU membership comes closer scrutiny of its handling of the Roma issue.

"We are of course not happy that there are people living in Slovakia whose living standard is so low and who not only appear but really are so poor," says Ludovit Kanik, Slovakia's minister of labor, social affairs and family.

But Slovakia's new welfare reforms mean that benefits are now directly tied to those actively seeking work or seeking further education.

The government says high unemployment among the Roma is because they are not skilled and have little education. While Slovakia's unemployment rate is below the EU average, among the Roma it is higher than 80 percent.

"As far as cutting benefits is concerned, the actual volume of the money put into this has not been cut as drastically as it may seem," says Kanik. "What has changed is the structure of these benefits."

This means people like Ivan Cervenak who live off welfare have seen their monthly allowance drastically reduced -- in some cases by as much as 50 percent.

The government says it's doing what it can, but it's not just their problem.

"I think that we do our best, but we need understanding. We need help. And I guess that issue, this question is not only a question for Slovakia but a broader wider problem," says Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.

Hundreds of thousands of Roma are dispersed throughout Europe. In Slovakia, they make up 10 percent of the population.

On May 1, Europe's Roma will become the continent's largest and most disadvantaged minority.

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