Roma leaders from a dozen countries gathered in Budapest yesterday to demand a better deal for Europe's most persecuted people and mobilise international opinion behind a proposal to devote 10 years to reversing their entrenched poverty and isolation in the margins of society.
The biggest meeting ever of Roma leaders and activists from central Europe and the Balkans is being held less than a year before five million Gypsies become citizens of the European Union, a factor that is concentrating minds in Brussels and elsewhere on how to deal with what is arguably the worst human rights problem in Europe.
The World Bank, one of the sponsors of the conference, released the results of a three-year study of the disastrous living conditions endured by seven million Roma in eastern Europe.
Their infant mortality rate is double the national norm, life expectancy 15 years less than the regional average, poverty up to 10 times the average. And in Bulgaria, for example, nine out of 10 Roma have no more than primary schooling, if any education at all, the study found.
"You cannot have in a society inequality of the type that exists with the Roma in Europe," the head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, said.
"It's destabilising. But more than that, it's wrong."
Countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic which are among the eight new members joining the EU next May have been under strong pressure from Brussels to devise and implement policies aimed at integrating their large Roma minorities.
But although their governments have promised funds and programmes, the situation is worsening rather than getting better, activists and experts at the conference said.
"Roma are being pushed to the margins of society more than ever before," said Gabriela Hrabanova, a Czech Roma.
Media stereotyping and daily humiliations meant that the Roma were routinely perceived as "poor, stupid, cheats and liars".
Not least of the problems bedevilling policy-makers is the absence of reliable data on the Roma communities, because governments falsify information or refuse to collect it.
In the Czech Republic, for example, there are officially 12,000 Roma, but the real figure is reckoned to be closer to 300,000.
Bulgaria adopted exemplary policies in 1999, a speaker pointed out, but pays only lip service to them.
Bulgaria had good Roma policies, but lacked the political will to implement them, said Rumyan Russinov, a young Bulgarian Roma.
Hungarians, said another Roma, knew more about Mongolian history than they knew about their Roma neighbours.
Of Europe's estimated nine million Roma, seven million live in eastern Europe and about five million in the countries joining the EU next year.
That will make them the EU's biggest ethnic minority and free to move anywhere in the EU within a few years.
It was George Soros, the billionaire American-Hungarian philanthropist who co-hosted the meeting, who called for the 10 years from 2005 to be declared Europe's Roma decade, with a concerted campaign of funds and programmes to reverse centuries of exclusion, discrimination and persecution.
Brussels appears to be ready to develop concerted policies and funding for a decade of campaigning. But the commissioner for social affairs, Anna Diamantopoulou, had pointed words for Roma clan leaders.
It was intolerable, she said, that Roma girls should be bought and sold as brides in contemporary Europe, and it was similarly unacceptable that Roma children should be traded as adults for cheap labour.
"When fundamental human rights and certain past traditions collide, it is the traditions that must adapt and human rights that must prevail," she said.
Such traditions would not survive in a Europe that was wealthy and trying to improve the lot of the Roma.
The most urgent need, according to many Roma leaders, is for the segregation in schools, which recalls the injustices of the American south during the 1950s, to be ended.
The plight of the Roma is perhaps worst in Romania which, with more than two million, has the biggest Roma population in Europe.
They endured 500 years of slavery and then mass murder in the Holocaust, but the Romanian state has never voiced its remorse or regret.