Vilnius Gypsies to be re-settled... again

  • 2008-04-23
  • By Yuri Sugis

Roma, also known as Gypsies, face well-documented discrimination

VILNIUS - An influential Vilnius City Council member has called on parliament to put Vilnius Gypsies in trailer homes and move them out of the nation's capital to various regions around the country.
City Council member and chairman of the parliamentary environment committee Audrius Butkiavicius said the Gypsy settlement in Vilnius is "the largest drug market in the country." The politician wants to create a public fund to finance the purchase of trailer homes for Gypsies that would serve as a form of social housing for the ethnic minority.

Butkiavicius estimated that the city would need 150 such trailers 's approximately equal to the number of Gypsy families living in Vilnius. By dispersing the Gypsies around Lithuania, Butkiavicius hopes to eliminate the existing clan-like structure of the Gypsy community.
"This clan has informal leadership and a drug-dealing structure responsible for imports and distribution of narcotics all over Lithuania," said Butkiavicius.
He estimated that the resettlement would cost around 4.5 million litas.
To install the trailer homes, municipalities in Lithuania would need about 42 hectares of land. While the idea of re-settling Gypsies has been discussed in the past, sociologists question the logic of offering trailer homes for Gypsies.

"Why not give them normal municipal housing?" said Tadas Leonchikas of the Lithuanian Social Research Institute. He added that people unwilling to pay utility bills might also be given the opportunity to live on homesteads in the countryside.

Leonchikas invited the City Council to re-visit a municipal integration program for Roma that seems to have been abandoned. According to Leonchikas, Vilnius Gypsies will not change their lifestyle unless assistance is given to the community from the city.
The largest Roma settlement in Lithuania is based at Kirtimai, on the outskirts of Vilnius. The Kirtimai "tabor" is a closed and somewhat mysterious community of about 80 families. Of its 350 members, 127 are children.
To say that Kirtimai Roma live in poverty would be an understatement. Roma at Kirtimai live in cardboard houses without any modern conveniences, except electricity. But paying electricity bills represents a significant burden to the Roma 'smost of whom rely on child support payments from the state as their only official source of income. Kirtimai families owe the municipal electric utility an estimated 100,000 litas.

The city of Vilnius is trying to help the Kirtimai Roma. Using EU funding, the city built a cultural center at Kirtimai complete with a bathhouse and a laundry facility. Adult Roma are encouraged to attend courses of the Lithuanian language, and the city pays for meals for Roma children.
The Roma children attend a school in neighboring Nauininkai, but most of them eventually drop out. Kirtimai Roma cite discrimination as the primary reason for abandoning school. Close to 100 percent of Kirtimai Roma are illiterate.

A lack of academic credentials prevents Roma from getting high-paying jobs, while many are unwilling to accept low-paying positions based on hard physical labor.
The vicious circle is completed when a Roma shows up at a local unemployment department to claim financial support. In most cases, such claims are rejected because Roma typically don't have any record of official employment and therefore are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
This brings theRoma back to the "tabor," where for many families the only way to make a living is to sell drugs. Police raids into the "tabor" are unproductive despite a myriad of administrative protocols and official warnings to drug-pushers.

In 2007, local police issued over 600 administrative protocols to Kirtimai Roma. About 85 percent of Kirtimai inhabitants have a criminal record. Many Kirtimai Roma are foreign citizens or un-documented aliens, making it difficult to identify their true origin.
In the past, the city of Vilnius has attempted to find a solution to the problem. The new vice-mayor of Vilnius, Algirdas Paleckis, has suggested re-settling the Roma to areas outside of the greater Vilnius area, but the idea failed to win support in theRoma community.

Now Paleckis is promoting another concept 's building social housing next to the "tabor" and letting the Roma raise cattle or cultivate crops in order to support themselves without breaking the law. Time will show whether this approach will bring positive results for Kirtimai Roma.