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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia July 27, 2004 � It bordered on hysteria and smacked of xenophobia. Now it looks like pure paranoia.
The European Union's historic enlargement into eastern Europe triggered fears in the West that Gypsies might leave their shabby homes in the East for jobs or government handouts in richer corners of the EU.
"Grateful Gypsies set to flee their homes," one newspaper warned in Britain, where the prospect of an exodus was particularly worrisome. "Gypsies, you can't come," declared another.
But nearly three months after the May 1 expansion, officials say few have left for wealthier western Europe. In fact, some say EU membership gives them a new incentive to stay put.
Gypsies, also known as Roma, total 1 million in four of the EU's new member states the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia experts say.
Although Poland, with 39 million people, is by far the largest newcomer nation, it has the smallest Gypsy community at about 35,000 people. Roman Kwiatkowski, who heads a national Roma association, said there are no signs that Gypsies have left since May 1.
"Poland is a full EU member now, and that increased the attractiveness of the country," Kwiatkowski said.
Even in Slovakia, where Roma make up about 8 percent of the country's 5.4 million people, experts say only a few hundred have left behind shabby, segregated settlements without running water or sewage systems.
They include about 100 men who, according to the mayor of the eastern Slovakia village of Bystrany, left for seasonal work in England.
A second group had planned to join them, but now appear to be balking at the high cost of living in Britain and the relatively small amounts of cash the first group managed to send home.
"It's not all so rosy as they had thought," said the mayor, Radoslav Scuka. "They are happier than living just on social welfare, but they expected more."
One explanation for the lack of an exodus is that only a few of the 15 pre-expansion EU countries have agreed to open their job markets to newcomer citizens.
Only Sweden gives them unconditional access to jobs and welfare. Britain and Ireland have opened their labor markets but imposed restrictions on access to welfare benefits.
Ivan Vesely, a Roma activist in the Czech Republic, estimated that no more than 100 Czech Gypsies have left to seek work in Britain since enlargement, and "most of them already returned home" without success.
An inability to speak English is a hindrance, Vesely said. Slovak experts say others have difficulty scraping together enough cash to make the trip, or simply don't have the will to move elsewhere.
Small groups in the Czech Republic have begun taking English courses with the goal of eventually getting jobs in Britain, he said, "But it takes time to learn a foreign language."
Ludmila Sandorova, whose husband was among the Gypsies who left Slovakia's Bystrany for Britain, said he recently sent her 5,000 koruna ($155).
"He called me saying he makes 150 pounds ($280) a week," Sandorova told the Sme newspaper. "He has to live on a hundred the rest he puts away for us."
"If I had known he'd make so little," she said, "I'd never have let him go to England."
Associated Press reporters Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic and Monika Scislowska in Poland contributed to this story.