The small village of Ostrovany in Eastern Slovakia uses a concrete wall to separate a Roma settlement from the rest of the population. The local council agreed to build the wall in 2008 as a response to complaints of criminal activity emerging from the Roma population. The gray concrete wall, which cost 13,000 euros of public funds, is L-shaped, 150 meters long and 2.2 meters high. The proposal for the wall apparently was supported by the Roma representative on the local council, and it was intended to become part of a complex that would include a kindergarten, primary school and community center. It does not seem as if these features were ever built, and currently the wall stands as a concrete slab of exclusion.
The Roma of Ostrovany make up 2/3 of the village population. They live in huts and shelters built illegitimately on private land without permission. People live without running water, gas or sewage connections. Roma make up around 350,000 of the population of Slovakia, or about 7% of the population. They have shorter life expectancy, are more likely to be unemployed, and have higher infant mortality rates.
The non-Roma villagers claim that the wall prevents the Roma children from stealing from their gardens. In 2008, an inhabitant of the Roma settlement murdered a shop assistant in the village. During the summer of 2009, two Roma boys assaulted a 65 year old man who lost an eye, among other injuries. Since these incidents, protests against “the Gypsy terror” ensued. On the other hand, the Roma in the village claim that the wall turns their settlement into a zoo. They compare the wall to the Berlin wall, stating that it doesn’t help anyone and should be taken down.
Activists groups for Roma rights are outraged, calling Major Cyril Revak a racist. Representatives from the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities says that the wall does not solve the issue, and that local authorities should try to work with social workers to ease problems. They feel that the wall should be classified as discrimination. Reporters from the Roma Media Center (MECEM) attack the inactivity of politicians, and claim that the wall is an example of the “collective guilt principle.” Similarly, the Institute of Roma Public Policy says that the wall makes all inhabitants of the settlement into thieves. One sarcastic representative from the organization asks what happens now? Can they cross it? Can they leave?
Mayor Cyril Revak of the Ostrovany village feels pressure from both sides. On the one hand, the citizens of nearby houses complain of criminal activity. On the other hand, the Roma citizens feel humiliated by the wall. He rejects accusations of discrimination, segregation, and racism, claiming that he only accepts criticism for the use of public funds for private property. Previously there were fences in place, but they have deteriorated and so the wall was built as a replacement.
Personally, I am cautious to call the Roma people themselves problematic, but I do think that their illegally built huts are problematic, and the issue is certainly not limited to Slovakia. In January of this year, the Bourgas Municipality in Bulgaria ordered a settlement in the city of Slaveikov to be flattened. The settlement consisted of 20 shacks/shelters near a railway line. In 2009 the same village was ordered to be destroyed, but the Roma rebuilt their settlement in the area once again. Debates about Roma communities often end up in heated arguments. On a school trip to Budapest, my classmates and I listened to an employee of the Foreign Ministry speak of “The Roma Problem.” He was quickly attacked for his use of language, and the argument erupted into a long and uncomfortable discussion over terminology.
I do not consider myself sufficiently educated or informed on Roma communities and I do not wish to make bold statements. However, there was a problem in the village of Ostrovany, and I do not think it was effectively addressed by building a concrete wall. Possibly this money would be better spent on guards, social workers, a community center, or some sort of educational use. I agree with the representative from the Institute of Roma Public Policy- how far will an action such as this go? Will their freedom of movement be restricted? To me, the building of a wall seems dangerously close to creating a ghetto. I do not think it is right for public funds to be used in this way, and if people want a fence around their garden to keep children out, they should build it themselves on their own property. Albeit idealistic, I believe in educational campaigns and social work, and it seems as though the government of the village took hasty action to build this wall without trying other more inclusive programs first. Hopefully other locations around Europe find better solutions than just razing communities or building a wall to keep the Roma out of sight and out of mind.