The long, hot Czech summer

07 November 1997

At the end of this summer, the Czech Republic was shocked by the massive departure of Czech Roma for Canada. Travel agencies reported that flights to Toronto and Vancouver were booking up months ahead, and the Canadian Embassies in Prague and Vienna received thousands of calls inquiring about entry procedure for Czech citizens. While initial predictions that half of all Czech Roma would leave proved hysterical, between one and two hundred people are being accepted per week as eligible to be heard by the Refugee Division; the numbers seem to have peaked towards the end of September, when flights booked at the end of August came through. Figures from the start of October suggest that about 1300 Czech Roma are presently either in the asylum procedure, or are waiting to have their applications forwarded by the Canadian Immigration Board, a border authority, to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which reviews claims for asylum. To these should be added an unknown number of people who went to Canada and have already left, either by their own choice or because they were denied access to the asylum procedure. Of those claims heard so far (23 at the last count), however, over 90% have resulted in a positive decision. The Refugee Division of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board has there fore judged that at least some Roma in the Czech Republic face conditions serious enough to qualify them for refugee status.

REVELATION: THERE ARE PLACES WHERE ROMA LIVE WITHOUT FEAR

The current crisis started in the first week of August, when an edition of the weekly documentary program "Through Our Own Eyes" shown on the private television channel TV Nova was devoted to the conditions of Czech Roma living in Canada. The programme included testimony of Roma seeking asylum in Canada, describing their pleasure at being in a country where they were not subjected to systematic discrimination and fear of attack. The effect of the programme was to suggest that Canada, a place of extraordinary respect for human rights and of financial security, was waiting for Czech Roma with open arms. The programme finished with one Czech Romani woman saying "All you Gypsies in the Czech Republic, get over here!" Many viewers felt that the only possible aim of the programme was to incite Czech Roma to mass emigration. In the view of Roma leader Ondřej Giňa, "The whole programme was more like an advert for a travel agency than a documentary." The Council for Radio and Television Broadcast condemned the programme at its first meeting in August after it was aired.

The hysteria generated by the programme has its background in the floods which hit the Czech Republic in July. In the northeastern Czech city of Ostrava, which has a large Romani population; a group of Roma temporarily re-housed in university accommodation did highly publicised dam age to the accommodation, and were moved out. Inflammatory stories, mainly without any factual basis, then circulated in the press, describing looting Roma wandering the devastated streets of Moravia. These were given absolute priority in the press over the widespread efforts of Romani organisations from Moravia and from Bohemia to help both Romani and non-Romani victims of the floods. When the waters receded, the local authorities in Ostrava, drawing on the popular feelings aroused by the inflammatory press coverage, attempted to provide Romani victims with temporary housing in Heřmanice, a suburb on the edge of the city which already has a mainly Romani population. The Roma already living there reacted unfavourably to the idea that their quarter was to be made into a Romani ghetto, while Roma from the flood-damaged quarter of Hrušov who were being moved into Heřmanice, expressed fears that their temporary accommodation in prefab cells would turn out to be permanent.

Czech Roma have good reason to fear policies of ghettoisation. The Civil Democratic Party (ODS), the largest party in the ruling coalition, has unofficially considered such 'solutions to the Romani problem' at least since a meeting in the Bohemian town of Kladno last autumn, whose minutes were leaked to Romani organisations. Further evidence for such fears was provided in July by the public statement by the ODS senator and mayor of Prague 4, Zdeněk Klausner, in which he suggested that problems of criminality in his district could be solved by moving Roma out of the city altogether. Deputy mayor of Ostrava, Radoslav Štědroň of the ODS, reacted to criticism of his own ghetto-creating policy in Ostrava by saying, "Most Roma don't know how to behave and the town hall must find some way to deal with them; what Klausner suggested seems to me a sensible solution." In addition, previous experience has shown that municipalities are incompetent or unwilling to re-house Roma who have suffered accidental damage to their houses: a well-publicised example was a building occupied by Roma in Kosmonosy, near to the Central Bohemian town of Mladá Boleslav, which burnt down last Autumn. The large number of families who lost their housing have waited in vain to be re-housed, despite initial promises from the local authorities.

The homeless Roma in Ostrava had every reason to expect the same, especially when the mayor of Slezská Ostrava, Justina Turčíková, asked how long the temporary accommodation would last, could only say, "We hope it won't last more than a few months, but it doesn't only depend on us – we're trying to get flats from other districts of the city." In Mladá Boleslav too, financial responsibility has been repeatedly shifted from one administration to another.

Romani leaders have claimed that the Nova programme, which tempted Roma to take part in an exodus, was produced and shown with the tacit support of parts of the Czech government, who would like very much to encourage emigration of Roma from the Czech Republic. Liana Janáčková, mayor of the Marianské Hory district of Ostrava, herself confirmed on television on August 12 that she intended to suggest that Roma who wanted to move to Canada receive two thirds of the money for their flight, provided that they return the rights of tenancy to their flats and cancel their official residence. In this way, two birds could be killed with one stone: flats would be freed for people who had lost their houses in the floods, and at the same time Ostrava would solve some of its race problems. Newspapers reported similar policies in the West Bohemian town of Tachov (where, how ever, it was the local Roma community that suggested the policy), while pubs and housing estates in many parts of the country featured supposedly comic collection bowls "to send our Romani fellow-citizens to Canada." Janáčková's statements make her wider segregationist intentions clear: "This is how I see it: there are two groups living here, Roma and whites, and the situation doesn't suit either of them. They don't want to live together.

Why shouldn't one of the groups make a friendly gesture towards the other? This is not a racist act. On the contrary, we want to help the Roma. If they don't want to live here, it is a friendly gesture for the administration to help them. We are contributing two-thirds of their ticket. To pay the whole amount would be immoral." Janáčková's deputy, Jiři Jezerský made less effort to fake friendly intentions: "They're mostly problem families," he said, "which terrorise other people. Roma don't respect the night-time ban on noise, they encourage their children to rob cars, they spit on people and throw rubbish in places other than rubbish bins, thereby constantly increasing the threat of rats and fleas."

Viktor Dobal, Deputy Minister without Portfolio, who shares responsibility for minority questions, condemned the actions of municipalities supporting emigration of Roma, as did Jan Ruml, Minister of the Interior, who added that people supporting such policies had no place in the ODS. With the scandal mounting, Ostrava council met on August 15 and refused Janáčková's suggested policy. A meeting of the national party on August 18 led to generalised condemnation of racism and rejection of racism within the party, but neither Janáčková nor Klausner were mentioned by name, and no action has been taken against them.

The extreme-right Republican Party immediately expressed its pleasure at the prospect that Czech Roma would emigrate. Parliamentary leader of the Republicans, Jan Vik, said they were "delighted that in the blood of this ethnic group its nomadic past had reawakened, a nomadic past which, unfortunately, led long ago to their arrival in our land." Vik effectively articulated the views of many Czechs, denying that the majority of Czech Roma belong to communities which have been settled for centuries, have affective attachment to the territory of former Czechoslovakia, and have no effective nomadic tradition. Vik went on to say that "TV Nova should repeat its programme many times, and as soon as possible." It emerged on August 25 that the Republicans had been so impressed with Janáčková's proposed solution to the 'Romani problem' that they had asked her to stand as a Republican in the next local elections.

Like most other Romani leaders, Karel Holomek, president of the Federation of Roma in Moravia, immediately opposed the emigration, saying that Roma, who are generally without English language skills, have unrealistic expectations of Canada. Ondřej Giňa said that 30 to 40% of the Romani community in Rokycany, west of Prague, were considering emigrating, and cited one seventeen-member family who were selling the house they had been building for ten years to pay for air tickets. This particular family are the only Roma in a West Bohemian village, and, according to Gina, they face particular discrimination and pressure. Miroslav Holub, President of the Democratic Association of Roma in Ostrava, suggested that of the 16,000 Roma living in Ostrava, 5000 planned to go to Canada. Asked for reasons, he accepted that many had been influenced by TV Nova, but that the fundamental reason was the racial discrimination and unacceptable living conditions in the Czech Republic.

GOVERNMENT GAMBIT

Prime Minister Václav Klaus's initial reaction was to make light of the rumours of large-scale Romani emigration to Canada. "I can't imagine Canada will wish to accept something like this," he said, and he went on to warn the Romani community not to take part in "these silly little games". This response was immediately shown to be inadequate, as the flight of Roma from the Czech Republic attracted world attention, and it emerged that some Roma had already been granted asylum in Canada. Klaus then agreed to meet with leaders of the Romani community, and at a press conference held on August 14, after the meeting, his tone was quite different; he assured Czech Roma that he took their problems seriously, expressed his pleasure that the meeting with the six Romani leaders had taken place, and his wish that it had taken place earlier. He stressed the need to work on the concrete questions of education, employment, housing, day-to-day discrimination and racist violence; he said that he and the Roma had very similar opinions about all these things.

Emil Ščuka, President of the Romani Civic Initiative, also spoke at the press conference, urging Czech Roma not to leave the country, but to stay and sort out the problems there. The press conference was clearly a damage limitation exercise, in which a common line was presented in an attempt to reduce the hysteria surrounding the issue. Klaus also proposed the creation of a new inter-ministry secretariat to deal with Romani issues specifically.

By holding the press conference on the morning of August 14, Prime Minister Klaus stole the thunder from a long-prepared press conference to publicise an interdepartmental "Report on the Situation of Roma in the Czech Republic". This had been prepared during the first half of this year by the governmental advisory body, the Council of Nationalities, headed by Pavel Bratinka, Czech Minister without Portfolio. A preliminary version had been made available for comment to NGOs at the start of August, before the Council itself met to discuss it and to present it to the press on August 14. When, a few hours before the Council press conference, Klaus held his own press conference, he criticised the report, claiming that he had already read it and found it lacking in concrete suggestions. Klaus had, of course, effectively undermined the presentation of the Council for Nationalities' document later that day, particularly as Bratinka did not then present the press with copies of the report. This meant that there was general acceptance of Klaus's claims that it lacked concrete proposals.

Klaus, in fact, was being either deceitful or ignorant: the report not only contained tens of specific recommendations to different ministries, but also took a very critical stance on the government's previous failure to honour commitments and promises, insisting on the state's responsibility to provide Roma with equal opportunities and protection from discrimination.

It went on to call on the government not to look for excuses for failure to do so in the nature and behaviour of the Romani community. Klaus's rejection of the report therefore seemed to be a time-buying move; by the time the new version of the report was presented to government, the worst of the emigration crisis would be over, and it would be easier to reject individual recommendations. To make it look as if something was being done, however, Klaus announced that a new committee would be set up.

A slightly revised version of the report presented on September 10 by the Council for Nationalities was rejected by cabinet. According to Prime Minister Klaus, the reason for this was the failure to make concrete suggestions. Minister Bratinka has gone on record as saying it was really rejected for being too critical of the government, while his Deputy, Viktor Dobal, threatened to resign over the issue, saying that he no longer believed the government was serious about Romani issues. Then, on September 17, Prime Minister Klaus announced that an Interdepartmental Commission for Romani Minority Affairs was indeed to be set up, containing members of different ministries concerned with the 'Romani Problem', along with representatives of the Romani community. Despite original rumours that the head of the committee would be a Rom, it turns out to be Bratinka himself: the same man will, therefore, be head of the advisory Council of Nationalities, head of the Commission for Romani Minority Affairs, and Minister responsible for both these bodies! It is unclear in what way the new Commission will add to the roles of the old Council, which will continue to exist. On the other hand, it does appear that the executive deputy chairperson, who will have an important role in the commission, will be from the Romani community. None of the members of the Commission have yet been announced. The government points out that in establishing such a commission to concentrate entirely on Romani affairs, it is responding to long standing demands from the Romani community.

Indeed, if the commission has any executive powers, it will be welcomed. It is, however, more realistic to see this as a good example of how much easier it is to set up a new committee than actually to deal with problems that have already been clearly diagnosed by the committee's predecessor.

ENTER EUROPE

In the midst of all this, on August 27 and 28, two rapporteurs for the Council of Europe Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly visited the Czech Republic to monitor the obligations and commitments of the Czech Republic as a member state of the Council of Europe. Mr. Erik Jürgens of the Socialist Group and Mr. Juris Sinka of the European Democratic Group had five main briefs in the area of human rights, including the monitoring of the Citizenship Law – widely held to have had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Roma in the Czech Republic – and the assessment of measures to reduce discrimination against Roma. Their visit included meetings with various government representatives, including the aforementioned Pavel Bratinka. They also met with the Vice-Chairman of the Constitutional Court, a Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some Romani activists, and representatives of the Tolerance Foundation's Article 8 Project, who presented their continuing concerns about the Citizenship Law, the proposed amendment to the Criminal Code provision governing judicial expulsion, and the new Aliens Law.

An "Account of the Rapporteurs' Visit to the Czech Republic" was made public several weeks after the visit. In it, the rapporteurs explain, "as we had asked for the possibility of addressing the problem of the Roma population, we visited, upon the suggestion of some members of the [Czech Parliamentary] Delegation, the region of Most and in particular the Chanov area." Chanov is a housing estate on the periphery of the northern Czech city of Most. Like other North Bohemian towns, Most suffers high unemployment, a high incidence of unemployment-related social problems, and a long tradition of active racism. One result of this racism is the existence of the more-or-less segregated district of Chanov, which has all the features typical of a deprived urban district magnified by the particular exclusion of the Roma in the Czech Republic. Chanov has acquired the mythical status, within both the Romani and the non-Romani communities, as a place where Roma live exactly the way Gypsies are rumoured to. One Romani activist calls Chanov, "a racist's wet dream." At the same time, Chanov does, now, have a decent basic school. This school is one of only a handful in the country which have government-supported schemes designed for Romani children. The government has, in the last few years, repeatedly refused to com ply with demands that such successful experiments be rendered into systematic policy. Chanov, therefore, could be used to present to the rapporteurs a quite atypical example of the contrast between a problematic Romani community and a benevolent state.

So who were the "members of the Delegation" who selected Chanov as a site for the rapporteurs' visit? The first to take the credit was Milan Loukota, a member for the extreme-right Republican Party, who told the Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes during the Chanov visit, "we deliberately chose the out skirts of Most, where we want to show that here there exists a group of Roma who either do not want to adapt, or are incapable of it." Thus the anti European Republicans boasted having determined the programme by which the rapporteurs evaluated the compliance of the Czech Republic with Council of Europe human rights standards. No one from the Parliamentary Delegation commented upon or distanced themselves from the Republican claim.

The rapporteurs' conclusions suggest that the strategy of misrepresentation may have paid off. It is clear that the Citizenship law and the expulsion provisions remain of concern to the Committee, and the Tolerance Foundation's recommendations on the latter are quoted in full in the "Account". Expulsion continues to be applied without adequate consideration of rules on proportionality, without a minimum threshold of seriousness of crimes for which expulsion can be included in the sentence (see Roma Rights, Summer 1997), and without proper safeguards to prevent those with real residence in the Czech Republic being expelled. As a result, the Committee recognises that expulsion continues to be applied to large numbers of Roma who were Czechoslovak citizens before 1993, and have real (but not formal) residence in the Czech Republic. Additionally, the rapporteurs state that they are aware that the situation of Chanov was "in a way, an extreme case." Nonetheless, they make only the most superficial (and inconclusive) references to discrimination in education and none at all to discrimination in housing and employment.

Repeatedly, the report suggests implicitly or expressly that Roma are themselves to blame for their problems: Romani delegates "were invited but did not show up" to the municipal council in Most; and "Roma should participate more actively in civil society and try to influence the decision-making process. They could achieve this through the setting up of organisations or political par ties and by seeking election in parliament and municipal councils." And while the report admits that "the state should spare no efforts in combating any form of racism or discrimination against the Roma minority, notably at the local level" the discussion remains comfortably in the realms of abstraction. The most serious types of discrimination specifically referred to, apart from the citizenship-related issues, are people not sitting next to Roma in buses and teachers not speaking Romani. Astonishingly, racially motivated violent crime is not mentioned once.

The Parliamentary Assembly decided on September 22 to suspend, in the Czech Republic, the monitoring procedure begun in 1995, but to continue dialogue with the Czech authorities on certain points and to re-open the monitoring procedure "if further clarification or enhanced co-operation should seem desirable". This rather strange formulation seems to indicate political good will while suggesting that not everything is all right in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, the entire episode appears to be a missed opportunity to make concrete criticisms of the Czech Republic's very poor record on discrimination.

THE RESPONSE OF THE LIBERAL WEST

Meanwhile, Canada continued to consider imposing visa requirements for Czechs, despite great pressure against such a move from the Czech Republic. On October 8, visas were indeed re-imposed for Czech citizens. There have also been worrying accounts of extraordinary and illegal procedures being applied in Canada specifically against Czech Roma to prevent them gaining access to the asylum procedure. Roma who have returned to the Czech Republic have complained about not being supplied with interpreters, being intimidated by Canadian immigration control and not being given somewhere to live immediately; this last, misplaced, complaint was probably based on misunderstandings of the asylum application procedure generated by the Nova programme. More serious is the fact that Canada seems to have imposed a special delay only upon Czech Roma, making them wait three weeks for initial interviews to allow checks of potential applicants' criminal records; the Roma give permission for the Canadian authorities to look at their otherwise confidential criminal records by signing documents that they don't understand upon arrival in Canada. Such actions are explained by the fact that once a person has been accepted into the Canadian asylum procedure, the threshold for expulsion on grounds of criminality is very high. Prior to admittance, Canadian authorities have more liberty to expel if the individual in question has a criminal record.

Similarly, passengers from Frankfurt have had their passports checked in Toronto before they have even left the plane. When asked why, immigration officials admitted that because Frankfurt was a possible departure point for Czech Roma, the aim was to identify them before they got off the plane to prevent them from entering Canada. Reports suggest that prejudice against Roma has been whipped up already by Czech and other groups in Canada, and the residents of one hostel had to put up with a demonstration outside where skinheads waved banners at cars saying "Hoot if you hate Gypsies". Nevertheless, Canadian television carried pictures of Czech Romani families taking their children for a first day in Canadian school, and interviews with a school head praising the Romani parents for their constructive and serious attitude. As long as these parents know that in the seemingly "advanced and democratic" Czech Republic, the state will segregate their children into special schools, thereby dramatically reducing their children's social and professional possibilities later in life, and will fait to protect their children from racial hatred and violence, the pressure that pushes them to seek asylum elsewhere will remain.

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