European Commissioner for Education and Culture Androulla Vassiliou has sharply criticised the authorities in the Slovak city of Košice for constructing a wall to segregate the city's Roma community.
In a letter to the city's Mayor, Richard Raši, the commissioner says she was disappointed to read reports about the wall in Košice Zapad, the western suburb of Košice.
Košice is the biggest city in Eastern Slovakia, and is this year European Capital of Culture together with the French city of Marseille.
“I strongly believe that the construction of physical barriers represents a breach with the values on which our European Union is founded, notably respect for human dignity and human rights, including those of people belonging to minorities”, the commissioner said in a statement.
According to Vassiliou, the building of a wall to segregate populations “is also at odds with the very raison d’être of the title of European Capital of Culture”, which seeks to highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures and to promote deeper mutual understanding between European citizens.
As European Capital of Culture, Košice committed to involve minorities in its programming and to include specific events concentrating on Roma culture. "This was one of the main elements that determined the selection of the city for the 2013 title and one that must be implemented as planned in the bid," Vassiliou said.
In reply to the commissioner, the Mayor Raši said that the wall had been constructed illegally and was an "unpleasant surprise" for him. He said that the wall was initiated by the authorities of the suburb of Košice Západ, which is under the control of former mayor of the city, Rudolf Bauer.
Commissioner Vassiliou is now insisting that the authorities of Košice remove the wall without delay.
This is not the first time that local authorities in Eastern Europe have erected walls to segregate the Roma population. In October 1999, the Czech Republic gained unwanted international attention when a northern Bohemian municipality went forward with its plans to build a reinforced concrete wall separating the Roma inhabitants of a housing complex from their non-Roma neighbours.
Although plans for the wall were submitted to the central government a year prior to its construction, it took the exhortation of the European Commission in its 1999 pre-accession report to force the government to act on the issue.
International media have also reported about walls to segregate from Roma population in Ostrovany, in Eastern Slovakia.
The Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority, EU figures show. The European Commission estimates the Roma population in the EU at 11 million, with their origins tracing back to mediaeval India.
Census statistics show that 535,000 Roma live in Romania, 370,000 in Bulgaria, 205,000 in Hungary, 89,000 in Slovakia and 108,000 in Serbia. Some 200,000 Roma are estimated to live in the Czech Republic and Greece, while 500,000 live in Turkey.
Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement.