Vilnius integration policy threatens to leave Roma homeless
By Eligija Barkutė
Sept. 14, 2018
VILNIUS – The mother smiles nervously while looking at her two little sons, romping in their yard wearing only briefs. Their house – wooden shabby hut, covered in cardboard sheets and even in fragments of former furniture, trying to hide the holes in the wall desperately, lies in the middle of a Roma ghetto here that may be gone in less than a month.
On a brightly blue annex, the white number, written in a spray paint, numbers the family’s house, which does not officially exist because it is not registered. The word on the street is that the town hall will raze all the illegal huts by the end of September, said Rada, a 42-year-old unemployed mother of four, who declined to give her full name because she fears for her and her family’s safety.
„If it turns out to be true and they do not offer me suitable social housing, I will be left on the street with all of my children,” she said.
Rada walks round her yard with a long, neatly tied hair, wearing a long summer dress. She is one of some 2000 Lithuanian Roma and lives in a Roma ghetto, in the southern outskirts of Vilnius, where is the largest Roma concentration in the Baltic States.
Two years ago there were registered approximately half a thousand of people, but the ghetto is shrinking fast and now there live just over two hundred.
Wearing her long, pitch-black hair neatly tied, Rada wore a long summer dress while doing chores in her crowded backyard. She belongs among some 2000 Lithuanian Roma, one tenth of which remain living in the ghetto located in the southern outskirts of Vilnius.
Authorities argue that the law requires them to tear down illegal buildings. And besides that they are trying to integrate the Roma into society by offering them social housing. But critics counter that this integration plan threatens to leave many ghetto inhabitants homeless.
Roma are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group who live primarily in Europe and originate mostly from the northern India. It is the largest ethnic minority in Europe – 10-12 million Roma people are estimated living on the continent. Yet, most Roma are undereducated, underemployed and live on the margins of society.
Governments across Europe try to get rid of Roma camps. In late July, authorities in Rome ordered to clear a Roma camp inhabited by nearly 400 people in defiance of a ruling by Europe’s human rights court.
Inhabitants of the Vilnius ghetto are likely to face similar fate. Even though the huge poverty is prevalent here, there is no water in the houses, and electricity is not available in all of them, poor huts there are homes of Roma people, who spent there all of their life.
Locals say that the real movements about demolishing their houses started about 2 years ago, along with the town-hall program titled “Roma integration into society”.
Under the plan, the city offers Roma from the ghetto social housing or a compensation of 78.80 euro per month for each person to rent the housing from the private sector. However, social housing is scarce in Vilnius. Some Roma families have been waiting for a subsidized city flat or room for more than 10 years.
Olga, a mother of five, who also did not want her full name published in order to keep her family safe, has been living in the ghetto since her birth. The family lives in a one-room hut with a hole, covered in curtains, for a door.
The size of Olga’s family should place her high up on the list but after waiting for eight years, her family ranks 369th. Her neighbors who do not have a multi-child family and are not disabled rank even lower – they have no priority.
Nijolė, who declined to give her full name, is a 64-year-old pensioner who lives in the ghetto with her adult son for more than 30 years. She does not fit any criteria to be placed high up on the list and has been standing in the queue for years.
She lives on 100 euros per month in a hut with no electricity. “My roof is leaking, wind blows through my windows,” she said. “Do you think I want to live this way?” she asks with the fear in her eyes, waiting for a court verdict. If she had money, she said, she would long be out of here.
But the question is whether she would be welcome to move somewhere else. Most landlords refuse to rent to Roma families because of stereotypes that they are potential drug dealers and criminals, said Monika Jankauskaitė, a social worker who has worked in the ghetto for two years.
„A lot of people in the city are scared of them and do not want to have such neighbors,” she said. “That’s why after two years of real struggle we cannot find the housing for two of my supervising families living there“.
Due to discrimination some Roma are frightened too to move out and live separately from their big families, surrounded by strangers.
Zoluška, who also wished her full name not published because she worries about her son’s safety, still lives in the ghetto. She said she refused the offer to move out into a dormitory room with her little son because of the fear to be beaten up by neighbors just because she is a “gypsy”.
However, Gintautas Paluckas, the vice mayor of Vilnius, insists that the program runs smoothly. He said that 50 Roma asked to move from the ghetto, 20 of which are already housed in the city.
But it is unclear what this number means. It could only represent a handful of families with many children because each person is counted separately even if they belong to the same family.
He denies the rumors spreading among the Roma, that the ghetto will be wiped off the ground in the autumn. “Things are not so dramatically fast,“ he says.
The program ends by the end of the next year. Gintautas Paluckas said he could not predict whether all ghetto residents would be moved out by then. Instead, the program’s goal was to relocate only 30 families, he said.
“If we will rush and hurry up the work, we should achieve our goals till the end of the program,” he said.
Rada was told that her hut will be demolished soon, but she does not know when. “I have already signed some kind of papers even though I cannot read nor write,” she said in a soft whisper.
She also had to tell her kids what lies ahead. When she recently told them about the upcoming move, they bombarded her with questions. “They couldn’t stop asking me why,” she said. “They still cannot believe that the home where they were growing up will not exist anymore.”