Roma under fire in crisis-hit EU: Council of Europe chief

Europe's Roma are paying a high price amid the spiralling economic crisis, the head of the Council of Europe said Tuesday, warning that many more were likely to head westward as conditions deteriorate in the East.

"Minorities in Europe are coming under a lot more pressure than they have in a long time," Thorbjoern Jagland said in an interview with AFP ahead of an address at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

"The tensions are really growing," he said, speaking in his native Norwegian.

"Many more Roma will be coming westward because the situation is so dire where they live" in the East, he said, pointing out that "when times are rough, it is the minorities who often suffer the most from economic hardship."

At the same time, the Roma are often used as scapegoats in countries facing crisis, with other inhabitants blaming them for taking low-wage jobs or receiving benefits.

The situation is worst in countries where the majority of Roma live, such as Romania and Bulgaria, said Jagland, who is also the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that hands out the prestigious peace prize.

Romania has the biggest Roma minority in Europe with 620,000 people, according to the latest official census -- more than two million, according to NGOs -- while as many as 700,000 Roma live in Bulgaria.

Most live in poverty and suffer severe discrimination in the employment and health care sectors.

"When you see the conditions Roma are living in here in Western Europe -- and they say that it is better than where they came from -- you start getting an idea of what conditions are like back home," Jagland said.

But tensions are also growing in Western countries, which increasingly are becoming unwilling hosts for impoverished Roma seeking a better life.

And when EU migration rules are relaxed on January 1, 2014, many more are likely to make the trip, Jagland said.

"I think there is reason now to send out a warning to all countries in Europe about what they have in store," he said, cautioning that "this situation with the Roma can become very uncomfortable in Europe."

The 47-member state Council of Europe has noted growing tensions in a number of German cities and in France, where nearly 12,000 ethnic Roma were evicted from makeshift camps last year.

Jagland stressed the need for Western countries to prepare for an influx of Roma and to improve conditions for those already in those countries, but lamented that many seem reluctant to do so.

He said despite the glaring needs of Roma both in eastern and western Europe, governments were barely tapping into the funds the European Commission makes available to help such populations.

"This should be a political priority, but countries are not using the funds available. I don't know why. Probably because it is not very popular to do things for the Roma," he said.

Not all is bleak however. Jagland emphasised that Spain was a good example of how a country can successfully integrate Roma.

"The Roma there are accepted as regular citizens. The children go to school. They are involved in cultural life," he said, pointing out that Roma did not seem to be disproportionately affected by Spain's deep economic crisis.

That is not the case in many other countries, he said, cautioning that Europe seems to be headed towards a new period "of inherited prejudices that come to the surface in a hateful way when social conditions deteriorate."