Apartheid in the heart of Europe

In recent weeks, the British media have been overrun with scare stories of an imminent influx of Roma - or gypsy - peoples from central Europe. It is claimed that once the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland join the European Union on 1 May, hundreds of thousands of their poorest will take advantage of the right to move freely and will "swamp our shores" in search of a better life.

In Slovakia, spokesmen for the Roma are quick to point out that the rising hysteria is based on a number of misconceptions. The first is that the Roma are nomadic, as in western Europe. The reverse is the case: most communities here have been stationary for centuries and see themselves as citizens of their country, despite being culturally distinct. Another mistake is to think of the Roma as homogeneous. Although it is widely agreed that their common origins lie in the Punjab and that they moved westwards about 1000AD, they now identify strongly with the various countries and regions they settled in.

What the Roma want is a job in the place where they live, as I was told in no uncertain terms by Milan Kroscen, vajda (deputy leader) of the Roma community of Letanovce, where 800 people live in 96 ramshackle huts. "I have no intention of leaving Slovakia," he said. "I cannot afford it. All I want is a job, just like I had under communism."

The Roma in his hillside settlement share one pump for water between them; the water source is polluted. They have no electricity or gas; and heating, in what was proving to be a bitterly cold January, comes from wood stolen from the nearby national park. When night falls, a few families light candles, the poorer ones preferring to save money by sitting in the dark. A packet of four candles costs 18 Slovak koruny (35p).

Their plight is echoed among the country's 600,000 Roma - about 10 per cent of the population - living under the Thatcherite government of President Rudolf Schuster.

With my interpreter, Erika Godliva, smoothing the way, I was invited into Milan's two-roomed house. "I used to work on the railways and in construction but I lost my job after independence," Milan said. "I have looked all over Slovakia for a job. There is 100 per cent unemployment here. Don't say we are lazy cheats. We would all take any job that was going, but the Slovaks hate us." Most of the men in his settlement are forced on to welfare, where an adult gets 1,450 koruny a month (£29) - not enough to live on. "We have to steal wood to stay alive, I admit it," said Milan.

At school, Roma children suffer from Slovakia's system of educational apartheid. Each one of them in Letanovce - 151 in all - is assigned to the community's special school for the "mentally handicapped" on the basis of having performed poorly in linguistically and culturally biased IQ tests. Up to 75 per cent of Roma children across the country attend such schools.

Healthcare is a problem, too. Doctors and ambulances refuse to visit the settlement. Godliva said that Roma women were being targeted for sterilisation. "Research shows that this has been inflicted on about 80 women in six hospitals, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. They were forced to sign documents they didn't understand. It occurred in places with the highest density of Roma," she said.

Ivan Korcok, Slovakia's minister for Europe, told me that no such programme had ever been instituted by the government.

In order for the country to join the EU it has had to satisfy a number of criteria concerning human and minority rights. On paper, it has done this, but a glimpse of the lives of its Roma people leads me to suspect that these reforms are cosmetic.