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Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009
Tuesday, March 04, 2008

By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law

U.S. Embassy in Athens Organizes Conference on Romani Issues

On February 29, Helsinki Commission staff participated in a conference on Romani issues organized by the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, primarily for human rights officers from U.S. Embassies in Europe. The conference was designed to improve understanding of Romani minority concerns, and to allow human rights officers to share information and ideas related to their congressionally mandated human rights reporting obligations.

The conference underscored the strong interest of the United States in the situation of Romani minority communities throughout the OSCE region and provided a useful opportunity for human rights officers to improve their knowledge of this minority group’s history and experiences. Roma now constitute the largest ethnic minority in the European Union.

The conference was opened by the United States Ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard. Andrzej Mirga, the senior advisor for Romani issues with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Warsaw) and Helsinki Commission staff served as speakers during the morning session. Panayote Dimitras of the Greek Helsinki Monitor spoke during a working lunch. In the afternoon, Embassy officials from various posts led “best practices” discussion groups – although it proved more difficult to identify such practices than one might have hoped.

Commission Staff Visit Romani Shanty Towns

On the margins of the conference, Commission staff held meetings on Romani issues with representatives of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Division for International Human Rights, Refugees, and Immigration; the Ombudsman for Human Rights; the Ministry of Interior; and the Ministry of Education. In addition, staff visited several Romani shanty towns in the Athens region, including the infamous Aspropyrgos camp.

Greece does not recognize any groups as “minorities” other than those few formally recognized under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (primarily the Muslims of Western Thrace). Accordingly, Roma are not considered an ethnic minority but a “socially vulnerable group.”

It is estimated that there are roughly 150,000-300,000 Roma in Greece, out of a population of 11-million-plus. This population largely consists of indigenous Greek Roma, but also includes some Roma who have migrated from Albania in recent years. Greece does not count people according to ethnic affiliation or identity on its national census.

Roma in Greece face problems similar to those faced by Roma in other countries. In recent years, Romani plaintiffs have successfully brought cases against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights, including for ill-treatment or excessive use of force by the police. Non-governmental organizations have also been particularly concerned by the deplorable conditions in some Romani shanty towns and the lack of equal access to education and the ability of Roma to obtain documents. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has also expressed concern about forced evictions of Roma.

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin and Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter participated in a Helsinki Commission delegation to Greece in early 1998, and met with (among others) Romani representatives.

Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair

Greece is slated to serve as Chair of the OSCE in 2009; Kazakhstan has been selected to serve in that position in 2010.

Finland serves as the current OSCE Chair-in-Office. At his inaugural address to the OSCE Permanent Council in January, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva stated, “More can be done also to fight discrimination against Roma and Sinti. I count on all participating States to renew their commitment to implementing the recommendations in the OSCE Action Plan of 2003.” Finland plans to schedule one of this year’s three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings on Romani human rights issues.

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He stressed the need for governments and NGOs to coordinate in ensuring the care and safety of child refugees to avoid a crisis of missing children similar to the one that occurred in Europe in 2015. He said, “Not only do we need to ensure that children are safe and taken care of, but we must be able to reunite them with family after the war if possible.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) expressed his alarm over the humanitarian crisis occurring in Ukraine and condemned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s disregard for human life and spirit. “This flow of refugees caused by Putin’s war will cause us and require us to oversee as closely as possible the welfare of the women and children [to protect them from] people who have about the same consciousness and concern for others and human spirit as Vladimir Putin,” he said.  Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) advocated for further military support for Ukraine so that Ukraine can reclaim its territory and refugees can return home safely. “Evicting the murderous Putin from Ukraine is the only way to help Ukrainian civilians and allow refugees to return to Ukraine,” he said.  Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE Parliamentary Special Representative on Human Trafficking issues, thanked the witnesses for their leadership in the fight against human trafficking and called for increased international cooperation in protecting women and children from traffickers. Senior Official and Principal Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department Dr. Kari Johnstone described the dire situation refugees face as they flee. Many are further endangered and exposed to human trafficking by extenuating circumstances, such as being unable to access information in their language or belonging to an already marginalized group such as Roma. Dr. Johnstone emphasized the need for trauma-informed, age-appropriate, gender-sensitive approaches to support refugees. Making sure refugees have access to appropriate work, housing, and schooling helps to keep refugees out of vulnerable situations and prevent trafficking. “While there’s no simple solution, working together…we are hopeful that we will be able to at least reduce the impact of this war,” Dr. Johnstone said. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, advisor on anti-trafficking issues at ODIHR, called for unity on all fronts to combat human trafficking and asked for continued support from Congress in strengthening ODIHR’s work on anti-human trafficking in Ukraine. She also stressed the importance of implementing strong national referral mechanisms to better identify and assist victims of human trafficking “If you want to prevent trafficking of Ukrainian women and children, we need to unite to address demand on policy, legislative, and practical levels,” she said. Mykola Kuleba, director of the NGO Save Ukraine, shared a firsthand account of the horrific conditions on the ground in Ukraine that he has witnessed while evacuating children from the war zone, emphasizing that the first step to protect Ukrainian refugees is to help Ukraine defend itself so its people don’t become refugees. He also highlighted the need for more humanitarian assistance, including food, water, and medicine. “Millions of Ukrainian children are now refugees wandering around the world.  The world must help this great democratic country that has faced unprecedented evil.  Each of you has the ability to aid in the rescue.  Each of you can resist this evil,” Kuleba said. Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund, described the importance of disrupting the human trafficking market on the demand side by deterring potential buyers and attacking traffickers’ ability to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable populations. He also discussed how traffickers use social media to lure victims through advertisements for housing and employment for refugees. “You cannot have a human trafficking victim,” he said, “without a human trafficker.” Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how best to distribute information on preventing human trafficking to refugees, to how government and NGO efforts can be coordinated to most effectively deliver assistance and provide protection for vulnerable populations. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Remembers Late Chairman Alcee Hastings

    WASHINGTON—On the anniversary of the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee Hastings of Florida, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Alcee Hastings was a giant in foreign affairs, knowledgeable on all issues relating to security in Europe. As the only American to serve as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, he led that organization in cementing its members’ commitment to peace, security and human rights. Wherever he traveled on OSCE business, he was universally respected and liked. A year after his passing, he remains a revered figure and world-renowned leader.”

  • Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PROTECTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKING Thursday, April 7, 2022 10:30 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s massive invasion on February 24, the largest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War. Given Ukraine’s exit restrictions on males from 18-60, the vast majority of those leaving are women and children. Most cross the Ukrainian border without resources or a place to go, making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking. Reports indicate that traffickers already are trolling border areas trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment. Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to such predators, and they need not only to be safely evacuated from Ukraine, but also securely tracked and transferred into national child protection systems so they do not fall prey to human traffickers or otherwise disappear. Witnesses will examine efforts by frontline states, the international community, NGOs, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to prevent refugees from becoming victims of human traffickers, to coordinate the reception and transfer of unaccompanied minors, to conduct awareness-raising and prevention programs near the border, and to provide security to protect refugees. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: Dr. Kari Johnstone, Senior Official, U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Panel 2: Ms. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, Anti-Trafficking Advisor, OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights Mr. Mykola Kuleba, Director of Save Ukraine and former Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Nic McKinley, Founder and CEO, DeliverFund

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