Mass Exodus of Roma to Canada

15 August 1997

The European Roma Rights Center urges Prime Minister Václav Klaus and other Czech officials to condemn recent statements of municipal authorities seeking to encourage a mass exodus of Roma to Canada. The Czech government should make clear that Roma are fully welcome to remain in the country by taking concrete actions to guarantee their physical security and improve their livelihood.

A programme aired in early August on a private television channel depicted Canada as a haven where, in contrast to their treatment in the Czech Republic, Roma were assured financial security and protected from systematic discrimination and physical attack. In the days following the broadcast, numerous Roma in the Czech Republic have contacted the Canadian Embassy to inquire about the possibility of relocation.

Since the programme's airing, some local government officials have issued inflammatory declarations encouraging, and promising to provide incentives for, Roma to leave the country. Liana Janáčková, mayor of the Marianské hory district in the northern Moravian town of Ostrava, reportedly suggested that Roma who move to Canada would receive payment for two-thirds the cost of their flights, on the condition that they abandon their flats and return their licenses of tenancy. The mayor described this suggestion as "a friendly gesture" to "help" Roma who "don't want to live here." The mayor is further reported to have said that, in Ostrava, there are two groups -- "Roma" and "whites" -- who cannot live together, and that the local administration should not refrain from helping one group -- Roma -- find a solution. Press reports indicate that similar policies were pursued in the western Bohemian town of Tachov.Such expressions display, at best, extraordinary insensitivity and an endorsement of segregation which is at odds with the stated policies of the Czech government. They are particularly troubling in light of reports that, as recently as early August, authorities in Ostrava were considering re-locating to a predominantly Roma quarter of the city Roma whose housing had been damaged by heavy flooding. The reports from Ostrava, combined with the repeated prior failure of municipalities to provide adequate replacement housing for Roma who have suffered accidental damage to their homes, give cause for concern that some officials might be exploiting a natural disaster to "ghetto-ise" the Roma population.

In recent years, the human rights situation of Roma in the Czech Republic has remained precarious. Thousands of Roma have been effectively stripped of their citizenship by a law adopted at the time of the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia. Roma have been the repeated targets of skinhead violence. Yet, prosecutors and courts have turned a blind eye to evidence of racial motivation, dragged out legal proceedings for years, and, perversely, used against Roma the very provisions of the criminal code which were designed to punish and deter anti-Roma crime. Moreover, as Prime Minister Klaus acknowledged on August 14, Roma face a daunting array of discriminatory practices in education, employment, housing and everyday existence.

The ERRC notes that some senior government officials have taken issue with statements of municipal authorities supporting Roma emigration. We applaud such efforts and ask the Czech government at its highest levels unequivocally to condemn any statements or policies which encourage, or provide incentives for, Roma to leave the Czech Republic. We further request that the government make clear that Roma are welcome and should remain in the Czech Republic, that those who have been made homeless by the recent flooding will be provided with adequate housing, and that their fate will not be used as an excuse for policies promoting segregation. Finally, the continuing public hostility towards Roma evidenced by the statements in Ostrava and Tachov underlines the need for Czech authorities to redouble their efforts in prosecuting racially-motivated crime, guaranteeing equal rights to citizenship, and eradicating discrimination in all areas of public life.


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