On the fringes of society

Anna Polokova, former director and producer of program Roma Speak at Czech Radio, recently moved her Czech-Roma family to a more stable life in Canada following threats of violence and assaults on her and her family.

Her son Marek was attacked several years ago, but although the defendants were found guilty, threats still continued to inundate Polokova’s family life. When her daughter, Helenka, was targeted at a shop and verbally abused by passers-by, Anna quickly reacted by moving away with her family.

Human rights activist Gwendolyn Albert commented, “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Anna…it would have been very difficult to leave. She was always so vocal about sticking it out and persevering. But they broke her.”

“They”, were wing political parties and extremists who have increasingly intimidated Roma communities. According to Albert, 90 percent of the white Czech population are culpable; they would rather not live alongside a Romany family.

Discrimination has grown and spilled over into increasing violence in the Czech Republic. A two year old girl of Romany descent was the victim of a fire at her family home after Molotov cocktails were thrown into the house. She suffered burns to 80 percent of her body.

Growing tension has driven Romany families, like Anna Polokova’s, to seek asylum in Canada. But Canada’s recent re-introduction of visas has curbed the facility. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney reported that the Czech Republic was “not an island of persecution” causing debate among activists. Albert said, “His comments are unhelpful…he said that the Czech Republic does not discriminate. This is a laughable assertion.”

This echoes the controversy surrounding a 2004 British case concerning UK immigration control at Prague airport. Immigration officers knew they were stationed at the airport to stop asylum seekers travelling to the UK, and most were Roma. The House of Lords concluded it was unlawful for a public authority to carry out any act which constitutes discrimination.

Just this summer, 65 men, women and children of Romany background were forced to leave South Belfast due to increasing racist intimidation.

Thomas Acton, Professor of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich commented, “Barriers on the free movement of people must be resisted by every means possible. It may even be the crack in the dam which finally leads to the overwhelming of the moral legitimacy of European nationalisms and racisms.”

After the November 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia and the downfall of the communist regime, economic disruption produced mass unemployment and social unrest. Beforehand Roma communities had their economic position elevated under communism. There is a perception that Roma have squandered any opportunity given to them previously such as housing.

But amendments to Czech citizenship law indirectly discriminated against the Roma minority; placing them on the fringes of society. The common Czech perception is that Romany families choose a life of crime and unsanitary living conditions. Thus, marginalisation of the Roma community continued to spread to all aspects of their lives. It has been reported that Czech pubs previously put up signs saying, “No dogs or gypsies”.

Such discrimination led to mass emigration whereby the Canadian government, in 1997, reintroduced visas. Their reasoning directly mirrors the present situation. The Canadian Immigration system could not handle the large intake of Czech claims.

Czech mind-set emerges today as a mixture of pride, resentment and discrimination, which socially disables Roma communities. Marta, a 77-year-old Czech local who declined to give her full name said, “Give them the visas and let them go!”

But, Stepan Chudik said he was constantly discriminated against by employers, making his financial situation difficult. “You are controlled everywhere”, he commented, “I want to feel human, that people don’t look down on me”.

Mr Chudik, of Litvinov, refers to constant discrimination he has encountered which has forced him out of work, into the now infamous housing estate of Litvinov and seriously considering emigration.

Litvinov’s Janov housing estate, where rows of dilapidated blocks of flats are home to a community of just a handful of the Czech Republic’s 200,000 Romany people, was the backdrop to a violent eruption, in November last year. Some 1000 police officers were deployed to control a Neo-Nazi rampage through the estate, causing consternation and anger among inhabitants.

After the uproar, many Roma families were reported to have left the community, but, since Canada’s re-imposition of visas this July; this is no longer a means of escape. And one might ask whether fleeing is the solution?

Martin Martinek from the Council of the Government for Roma Community Affairs added, “It’s not a solution for the Czech Republic and it can’t be. How can you live in the EU, together with twenty-seven other countries, while you can’t even cope with your own? …that is a question that I am asking myself.”

The treatment of minorities is pertinent after the issue of minority protection under Human Rights law, applicable to the Czech Republic since its induction into the EU from May 1 2004; Europe is, in itself, a community of minorities in the most fundamental sense.


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