The Roma: living on the periphery
The Roma community's biggest problem is unemployment, which is exacerbated by social marginalisation.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 10/04/12
Turkey's Roma community continues to face substantial problems with employment, housing, education, poverty, health services and deeply rooted prejudices, according to community activists.
Low rates of school attendance and high illiteracy contribute to economic and social marginalisation. [Ali Mezarcioglu]
Although there are no discriminatory laws against the Roma thanks to a series of EU harmonisation reforms, Turkey's estimated three million Roma lie on the periphery of society and the economy.
Ali Mezarcioglu, a Roma sociologist and editor of cingeneyiz.org -- an organisation promoting Roma interests, says recent government policies, including a 2010 "Roma Opening," have better integrated the group and improved their socio-economic situation.
Pointing to programmes initiated by the ministry of labour and social security to integrate the community into the labour market, Mezarcioglu says thousands of Roma have received employment, "although the current need is much bigger."
"The Roma people are supporting all such positive steps because their foremost problem is employment," Mezarcioglu told SES Türkiye.
Elmas Arus, a film director and chairwoman of the Zero Discrimination Association, says the "Roma Opening" was a significant step.
"For the first time, this community gathered with government officials and their problems became visible to the greater public," she told SES Türkiye.
Arus says the initiative contributed to the Roma organising to address common problems.
"Before the opening, there were handful associations defending their cause, while now they have formed 130 associations with 11 federations," she explained.
Activists say that the Roma community continues to face discrimination as in Europe, but not the open hostility and violent attacks as in some countries.
"One reason for this is that Turkish society does not see Roma people as a nation, but instead as a socio-cultural community which lies at the bottom of the societal layer," Arus explained.
Mezarcioglu agreed, saying that despite prejudices and misconceptions, "this environment hasn’t resulted in any hate against them.
Nothing epitomises the Roma's troubles more than the story of Sulukule in Istanbul, one of the oldest Roma settlements in the world, which was largely destroyed in the name of urban renewal in the late 2000s.
As underlined by local activist Hacer Foggo, who belongs to the Sulukule Platform community group, the Roma were not consulted in the preparation or decision-making process that ultimately pushed their community out.
Foggo explained that since Roma do not earn a fixed income they couldn’t afford to pay for government housing. Residents were evicted, forced to sell their homes at discounted prices to private investors who have since made substantial profits, he said.
"It is said to be millions of lira [in profit]," Foggo said, acknowledging that the district is losing its original residents and social fabric.
After the eviction, residents were pushed outside the city where they suffered "social trauma" and economic isolation.
"There is a significant unemployment problem among Roma people in Turkey. Just in Sulukule district, before the urban renewal projects, 3,500 out of 5,500 had been employed in the entertainment centers like music halls, but after those projects kicked the people out all these people had to move far away from this district so they lost their jobs," explained Sukru Punduk, the head of Sulukule Roma Cultural association.
Erdogan Dalkiran, who runs a shoeshine stand, is one musician who lost his job when his home and the music halls in Sulukule were demolished.
"They demolished our houses, even mine, and they inserted a totally new generation here," he said. "The people of Sulukule were convinced to give up their houses because they are not well educated people. It is easier to convince them compared to the educated people," he said, adding that now many people are jobless.