Urgent Measures Needed to Address Deep-Seated Racism Issues in Slovakia
26 February 2004
On the evening of Tuesday February 24, 2004, the Slovak government ordered the largest mobilisation of its police and armed forces since 1989, in order to address the problem of spreading riots among Roma in a number of communities in central and eastern Slovakia. Although figures varied according to reports, according to information available as of February 26, on the territories of Kosice, Presov and Banska-Bystrica Counties, approximately 1600 police officers and 650 members of the army had been mobilised, with a further 350 soldiers put on active alert. Minister of the Interior Vladimir Palko was quoted by domestic media as having stated on the evening of February 24, "All police officers have had holidays suspended until further notice. At issue is the largest engagement of police forces since 1989. [...] Yesterday for the first time since 1989 water cannons were deployed and used." Slovak press has been dominated by headlines this week such as "This is War!"
The engagement of supplementary armed forces comes as a response to a series of riots by members of the Slovak Romani community, occurring with increasing intensity over the approximately two weeks since they first began, during which crowds of Roma have looted and damaged food shops. The riots were triggered by changes to the social welfare system in which, from early 2004, the structure of the social welfare system has been changed, with all persons requiring social support receiving less than previously. Many Roma have however been particularly affected by the changes to the social welfare law, however, due to provisions cutting support for families with more than four children. These provisions were apparently specifically adopted to reduce the number of Roma on social welfare. The particular circumstances of the deployment of heightened levels of security forces were calls by prominent Romani activists for statewide protests against the changes to the social welfare system for Wednesday February 25. These were called off late in the afternoon of February 24, apparently due to the threat of violence. In the few municipalities where protests took place on February 25, these transpired peacefully.
The outbreak of rioting by Roma -- and emergency measures adopted by the Slovak government in response to rioting -- must be regarded as a powerful indication of the comprehensive failure to date of Slovak government policy with respect to Roma. Official data for the 3rd quarter of 2003 -- the most such data recent available -- indicates that approximately 87.5% of the Slovak Romani population was unemployed during the period, as compared with an unemployment rate of 14.2% for the population as a whole. Discrimination on the labour market is widespread if not total, and in the recent past, public labour offices have accepted announcements from prospective employers explicitly stating that Roma will not be considered.
ERRC documentation of the schooling of Romani children in Slovakia revealed extreme levels of racial segregation: during the 2002/2003 school year, in many Slovak schools for the mentally disabled, more than half of the students were Romani. In some schools for the mentally disabled, every single pupil was Romani.
Many Roma live in extremely substandard, racially segregated slum settlements. In one famous example, one such settlement -- Patoracka, outside Rudnany -- is located on the grounds of a former mercury mine. Most such slum settlements are characterised by substandard or extremely substandard housing, a prevalence of environmental hazards including toxic waste, rubbish tips, intermingling of waste and drinking water, etc. Romani slums generally are partially or completely lacking in normal infrastructure such as paved roads, electricity, heating, sewage removal and the provision of adequate drinking water, and are frequently excluded from other public services, such as bus or postal services. In the most egregious example, since 1995, the city of Kosice -- Slovakia's second city -- has been by policy progressively evicting Roma from the city centre and re-housing them in a housing estate called Lunik IX. At the same time, it has allocated housing in other housing estates to non-Romani residents of Lunik IX, such that they may move away. In 2002, the last non-Romani individual living in Lunik IX moved out, leaving a pure -- and extremely substandard -- ghetto.
In addition, in 2001, the Slovak government amended the Slovak civil code to weaken the rights of tenants. In the wake of the amendments, there has been a significant rise in the number of forced evictions of Roma in Slovakia. Additional issues prevalent among Roma in Slovakia with respect to housing include homelessness, overcrowding and in some cases severe overcrowding, as well as discrimination in the allocation of state-provided housing, obstruction of land use and/or denial of planning permission.
Anti-Romani sentiment at the local level in Slovakia is very extreme in many municipalities. The year 2003 was marked by a number of efforts by local authorities to derail projects aimed at improving the situation of Roma. These efforts were frequently successful. For example, in the village of Svinia, despite an international project of close to a decade long, involving, among others, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the US-based NGO Habitat for Humanity, the village remains racially segregated as a result of obstruction by the local council and (very many) members of the non-Romani community. On April 1, 2003, the local council adopted Resolution 34/2003 "approving the termination of activities currently being carried out in the village by the organizations Habitat for Humanity and CIDA".
In other instances, local councils of villages have consented to development projects for Roma only if they are in isolated or excluded areas. For example, in September 2003, the mayors of the villages of Letanovce, Hrabusice, Arnutovce, Spisske Tomasovce and Spisske Stvrtok agreed to a development project proposed by the government with European Union funding, only if it were located in the isolated community of Strelniky. Other localities to have planned and/or implemented racially segregated housing projects in recent years include Nitra and Presov.
In some instances, local officials have attempted to strike Roma from the municipal register. For example, on June 28, 2001, the local council of the town of Letanovce adopted Resolution 21/28.6.2001, "terminating the permanent residence of the citizens living in the Gypsy settlement Letanovce from August 1, 2001." Despite the intervention of the Slovak Government's Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, as well as review by a parliamentary committee, the local council refused to rescind the resolution. A court subsequently annulled the act by the Letanovce local council, but as of October 2003, approximately 60 Roma in the Letanovce settlement lacked permanent residence there, despite the fact that many of them were born there. Similarly, in the Vilcurna settlement in Spisska Nova Ves, out of a total number of approximately 1000 local Roma, only 727 persons had legal residence in the village as of the end of 2003.
Finally, the year 2003 was noteworthy for extensive discussions, both domestically and internationally, of allegations that Romani women have in recent years been coercively sterilized by medical professionals in Slovakia, as well as allegations that Roma have been subjected to a range of other abuses in the Slovak health care system, including racial segregation and verbal abuse. Members of the European Parliament on at least two occasions addressed questions related to the issue of coercive sterilizations of Romani women to EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günther Verheugen, and Slovak officials opened investigations into the allegations. On October 29, 2003, the Slovak government issued a "Statement by the Government of the Slovak Republic to the Report on the Developments in Allegations of Forced Sterilisations of Roma Women in the Slovak Republic and on Steps and Measures Adopted". This states: "[...] a thorough investigation of some sterilisations of women, indeed, confirmed procedural shortcomings." Despite this acknowledgement however, the Slovak has not to date indicated that it is prepared to offer redress to victims of coercive sterilizations.
The rioting by Roma in Slovakia of recent weeks has not, however, caused the government or other officials in Slovakia to address significantly the very serious issues related to racism, racial discrimination and systemic human rights abuse in Slovakia. Although the government this week importantly announced measures aimed at ameliorating the impact of changes to the social welfare system, government and local responses were more noteworthy for being primarily about the collective punishment of Roma. They were also dominated at the highest levels by statements blaming Roma themselves for their situation, and focussing on issues related to Slovakia's image abroad.
On the morning of February 25, after refusing to visit affected communities for a number of days, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda finally traveled to eastern Slovakia, where he stated: "This state will defend healthy citizens and their property." He went on to accuse Roma of "speculating" on the social welfare system rather than working.
Responses by local officials and security forces to rioting have been primarily collectively punitive, further deeply alienating Romani communities. For example, in Trebisov, according to official information approximately 400 Roma from a local Romani population of around 5000 rioted in the late evening hours of February 23. According to ERRC field investigation carried out with local partner organisation Center for Roma Rights Slovakia (CRRS), approximately 240 police officers raided the local Romani community for a period of not less than 12 hours beginning in the early morning hours of February 24, during which officers:
- Indiscriminately entered the houses of a very large number of Roma, without showing any form of warrant or other authorization, and often violently kicking in doors;
- Struck violently with truncheons and also kicked a large number of (predominantly male) Romani individuals, in houses, in the open in the settlement, as well as in police custody;
- Deployed electric cattle prods to the head, arms, chest and legs of a number of Romani individuals, including Romani minors. During the action, at least 28 persons were detained and most of these were still in custody as of midday February 25. In addition to a very large number of adult males who alleged that police had physically abused them during the raid on February 24 (and who were in many cases able to show fresh visible linear bruises apparently caused by police truncheons), the ERRC and CRRS also interviewed:
- 16-year-old D.N., a mentally handicapped male Romani youth who, according to his own testimony had been beaten both in his home and in public by officers with truncheons, and had also been subjected to electric shocks to the arms, forehead and stomach from a cattle prod. D.N. had also been detained for approximately two hours, physically abused in custody, and forced to sign a form prior to his release which he neither read nor had read to him, and the contents of which he was ignorant;
- 14-year-old A.B., a Romani girl whom officers reportedly struck in the back with a truncheon;
- 16-year-old J.K., a male Romani youth whom police officers struck in the stomach and sides with truncheons until he vomited.
A number of eyewitnesses interviewed by the ERRC and CRRS alleged that officers were drunk during the raid, many stated that they had used abusive language.
The ERRC and CRRS presented the above information to Director of the Trebisov District Police Directorate Mr Jozef Mlynarik orally during a meeting on February 25, and requested that his office initiate investigation into the actions of police officers on the basis of very compelling indications that police officers had in a number of instances violated their mandate. Director Mlynarik declined to initiate such an
Finally, apparently as a direct response to international criticism of Slovakia's human rights record with respect to Roma, Slovak media reported on the morning of February 26 that the government had announced the intention to spend 50 million Slovak crowns (approximately 1,250,000 Euro) on an image campaign to improve Slovakia's reputation abroad.
There are clear indications that in recent weeks, already very fragile ethnic relations in Slovakia have deteriorated to a serious extent, and anti-Romani sentiment is now at dangerous levels. The tenor and quality of government responses now matter more than ever before. At all levels, Slovak officials must implement measures such that the widening gaps between Romani and non-Romani Slovaks are overcome, and very high levels of anti-Romani sentiment, prevalent in the population at large as well as in the public administration, are diminished.