Report on the Field Research into the Housing Situation of Roma in the Village of Svinia, Slovakia

07 February 2004

Alexander Mušinka1

In June 2003, the European Roma Rights Center, in partnership with the Bratislava-based Milan Šimečka Foundation and in co-operation with the Geneva-based Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions, began a one-year project entitled "Defending Roma Housing Rights in Slovakia". The Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Embassy in Slovakia has been providing funding for the project. The project encompasses comprehensive field and legal research, strategic litigation, the production and dissemination of a housing rights training manual for activists and a training workshop for Romani activists in the area of housing rights. This report constitutes one of a series of field reports, produced by a team of independent researchers,that highlight the very serious housing situation of Roma in Slovakia.

Question: "What are the worst words a Roma can say to you?"
Answer: "Good morning, neighbour!
- Popular joke in Slovakia

Background on the Housing Situation of Roma in the Village of Svinia

The village of Svinia is located 8 kilometres to the east of Prešov. According to the Slovak government, Roma constitute 27.1 percent of the total population in the municipality.2 According to unofficial estimates, however, the Roma are 648 people or around 73 percent of the village population.

Roma inhabit a compact area at one end of the village in the direction of the neighbouring town of Lažany. This area is generally called "the hamlet" or "the Gypsy hamlet". The area has an extention of about 2 hectares, upon which currently stand four non-standard housing blocks, each with eight flats, more than 40 municipal "portacabins", 24 "portacabins" from the Canadian-Slovak Project Svinia3 - known as "Dutch cabins", and about 20 mud dwellings, all inhabited by Roma. Houses in the hamlet do not have access to running water. A well serving this purpose is situated directly in the hamlet. Project Svinia repaired and cleaned up that well. Another well is located in a nearby field, the outflow from which is directed to the hamlet via a gravity-driven pipe and a local stream. Neither the drinking water and sewage systems nor the drainage for surface- and rainwater function close to adequately. The rest of the municipal infrastructure is minimal. Unlike the non-Romani part of the village, the hamlet has no gas supply. In order to heat their homes, the Roma use exclusively solid fuel gathered illegally from the nearby woods.

At the end of the 1980s, four two-storey housing blocks were built in the lower part of the hamlet (eight low-standard flats to every block). Two hamlets were located in the village at this time - the so-called "upper" and "lower" hamlets. When the housing blocks were built, the upper hamlet was torn down. Even though these flats have only been used for a few years, they are completely devastated. There is no running water and sewage infrastructure, electricity, windows or doors. The housing blocks have been connected to the local water infrastructure and take water from two local wells, specially made in proximity to this housing. However, the ground is swampy and does not serve as the best of water sources. Apart from this, above the hamlet there is an agricultural field in which local farmers regularly dump dung and dung water from their cowsheds. All of these chemical and biological contaminants immediately end up in the surface water, and from there they enter the wells.

Large capacity cesspool sumps connected to the housing faced a number of problems also. These were built in such a way that their upper boundary was higher than the local terrain and were constructed extremely unprofessionally. Thus, following heavy rains, the ground water and surface water flood the capacity of the sumps, and they discharge their contents into a public area.

Despite the fact that the village is the official owner of the flats, it has done nothing to maintain them and never invests any money in their repair or renovation. The only work done was after devastating floods in 1998, when the doors were changed and the buildings were disinfected and painted. All these activities, however, were undertaken in the context of repairing the flood damage and were funded from external sources (i.e. with funds designated for repairing flood damage).

In the mid-1990s, the village changed the lease contracts for the four housing blocks and released Romani residents from the duty of paying rent. Although, in some respects, the new contract is more beneficial for the residents, in others it is not, because it no longer obliges the village to maintain the housing.

Segregated from Birth to Grave

Roma from Svinia are forced to carry out every possible social activity separately from non-Roma in the village. For example, of the two bars in the village, Roma are accepted only in one (Pohostinstvo u Filipa).

A similar situation is also to be found in the local primary school, where Romani pupils are placed in separate classes, all of which are located in a separate building. The local kindergarten (located in the local authorities' office building) has never been attended by any Romani children. Roma are also separated from non-Roma in the school canteen. In the canteen, Romani children are accepted on the condition that they occupy a separate area in the dining hall and use their own cutlery and crockery.

The classrooms for Romani children in grades one to four are located in the primary school building known as "By the Bus Stop". The rest of the all-Romani classes are located in an old building known as "The Palace". The non-Romani classrooms (known as "Classrooms for the Whites") are located in a new building. With the exception of two classes, which are all-Romani and thus also separated from the rest, all students in the new building are non-Romani. Separation is justified with the argument that the Romani children have worse results than the other children, and should be sent to classes with a special teaching regime, which would allow the children to focus on one part of the syllabus rather than the whole of it. In reality, the special classes for the Romani children have no special programme, and teachers do not use any special educational materials for such a programme, or for pupils with special educational needs.4

Non-Romani and Romani children attend "their own" separate after-school clubs. The after-school clubs were introduced by Project Svinia, which was allowed to establish them by the village authorities only on condition that Roma would stay separate from non-Roma. According to the school management, if the Roma had not been placed separately, the parents of the non-Romani pupils would have withdrawn their children from the club and the canteen, and quite possibly from the school itself.

The Roma are not welcomed by the majority in the local church, nor even in the local graveyard; in the latter they have a separate area. The one common space in which Roma and non-Roma are found together is that of the local shops. Even here, however, there is an attempt to separate the two communities by building a shop in the hamlet itself. Planning permission for this shop has been recently approved by the village council.

Housing Segregation of Roma

The Romani hamlet is completely segregated and, to date, no Roma in Svinia have obtained housing outside the hamlet. The local non-Roma have publicly declared on several occasions that they would not sell land to the Roma, even if the Roma were to pay them astronomical sums. Many Roma would buy houses outside the hamlet if they had financial opportunity. As far as non-Roma are concerned, however, the purchase of empty or old uninhabited houses in the village by local Roma is totally out of the question. This opinion is apparently shared by some local officials, too. For example, a local councillor, Mr Milan Kandra, in a meeting held on December 19, 2002 between councillors of the village of Svinia, the organisers of Project Svinia and the US foundation Habitat for Humanity International, stated: "We have never negotiated on this subject [Roma buying empty houses in the village]. We never even spoke about it, but I can say that this kind of solution in Svinia is 98 percent impossible." 5

Mr Kandra's statement was confirmed in practice. In 2002, as part of Project Svinia, we, the partners implementing the project, initiated the purchase of an abandoned house situated in the middle of the village. The non-Romani owners of the house agreed to sell it, only when they were assured that the property would not be owned by Roma but by the organisations implementing Project Svinia. The owners' consent to sell the house was conditional on the inclusion of a clause in the sales contract stating that the property would not be resold to Roma. This clause was eventually dropped after the real estate agent mediating the deal cautioned the owners that such a clause would be in contravention of Slovak law.

A similar situation confronted us when we attempted to obtain planning permission for the building of a new house on a piece of land we purchased. In the process of applying for permission, we were required to obtain the opinions of the neighbours with whom our land borders. One neighbour initially hesitated but then agreed. The second neighbour, however, wrote that he had nothing against the building of the house as long as no Roma would live there. This caused some considerable measure of anxiety in the environmental department at the Prešov District Council, which at that time was responsible for the granting of planning permission, because they considered the opinion of the second neighbour to be disagreement with the construction. Only following our warning, that the ethnicity of the potential tenant cannot have anything to do with the character of the building, did they realise their "incorrect and stereotypical mistake", and planning permission was granted.

The greatest stir was caused by the fact that, after the purchase and reconstruction of the house - the whole of which we managed almost exclusively with the help of the local Romani community - we moved in a young Romani family (Mr Jozef and Ms Veronika Kalej, a married couple with a daughter), who were supposed to look after the house and act as caretakers. This fact generated an aggressive reaction on the part of the local non-Romani community, manifested in verbal attacks on the Romani family. Among the less offensive of these verbal insults were as follows: "No one would ever have thought we'd see Gypsies living in white Svinia" and "No normal white person would ever pay a few thousand crowns so that they could buy this house and fill it with Gypsies". In addition, the Romani family were targetted by vandals who smashed the windowpanes with stones on several occasions, kicked in the doors or smashed up the garden. After a few months, however, the attacks stopped, and the local non-Romani community reconciled itself with the presence of the Romani family.

Buying land and subsequently building a new house on it is - apart from the resistance on the part of the non-Roma - made even more complicated, by the fact that almost no member of the Romani population is capable of dealing with all the administrative procedures required for the legal construction of a new house, i.e. obtaining planning permission, architectural plans, neighbours' opinions, local council opinions, etc.

Refusal to Register Roma as Locally Resident

Obtaining permission for long-term or temporary accommodation for Roma from other villages is practically impossible. Many Roma from outside Svinia, who have married Roma from Svinia or who are in common-law marriages with Roma from Svinia and who wish to register in the village, have been unable to do so. In several cases in the past, the village council granted permanent residence to some Roma just before local elections, in an apparent effort to win the support of Romani voters. Other Roma were allegedly "rewarded" with permanent residence in exchange for their support in the elections. However, many are simply unable to obtain local residence permits, despite long-term factual permanent residence.

The Case of Mr P.K. and His Family

Mr P.K. was born in 1976 in the village of Svinia, where he is registered as a permanent resident. His wife, Ms J.K., was born in 1977 in Jarovnice, where she is still registered as a permanent resident, in spite of the fact that she has made several attempts to change her registration to Svinia, where she has been living since 1993. They have six children, all of whom are registered in the village of Jarovnice. Mr P.K. has reportedly tried several times to register his children in the village of Svinia, but has been refused by the Svinia village council. According to Mr P.K., the council refused their registration on the basis that they are registered in the village of their mother and nothing can change that fact. The situation did not change even after all the school-age children were enrolled at the Svinia primary school.

Lack of permanent residence in Svinia of Ms J.K. and her children causes serious inconvenience for the family, because the village of Svinia is located in the district of Prešov, whereas the village of Jarovnice is located in the district of Sabinov. This means that all official administration connected to the system of state social benefits, records of unemployment, benefits for the children, etc., is dealt with in the jurisdictions of two districts. Moreover, Ms J.K. cannot take part in village affairs (e.g. she does not have the right to vote), despite living in Svinia, because she still has permanent residence in another village.6

The Case of the Family of Mr I.Č. and Ms Ž.P.

Mr I.Č. was born in Svinia in 1936. At present he is one of the oldest members of the Romani community in the village. He has 11 children with his first wife and another four with his second one. Ms M.P., Mr Č.'s second common-law wife, has lived in Svinia for more than 20 years, but has not managed to obtain permanent residence.

Like her mother, Ms M.P.'s daughter, 20-year-old Ms Ž.Č., hasn't been able to obtain permanent residence in the village, even though she already has two children born in Svinia, in 2000 and 2001.

The applications for temporary accommodation in the village of Svinia, filed in 2003 by Ms M.P. and Ms Ž.Č., were rejected on July 25, 2003 by the local council. The local council did not provide any reasons for the rejection.7

The Case of Sisters Ms Z.Č. and Ms B.Č.

Sisters Ms Z.Č. (born in 1981) and Ms B.Č. (born in 1980) come from Hermanovce, also in the Prešov region, where they still hold their permanent residence. Both sisters married their current husbands in Svinia and were officially wedded there. Ms B.Č. and her husband Mr K.Č. married in 2001 and have two children - A., born in 2001, and S., born in 2003; Ms Z.Č. and Mr K.Č. were married in 2000 and also have two children - Z., born in 1997, and K., born in 2000.

The application of Ms Z.Č., was rejected by the local council on July 25, 2003, without any reasons for the rejection stated in the council's decision7.

Ms B.Č. applied for permanent residence on September 29, 2003. Her application was rejected by the local council on October 6, 2003. No reasons for the rejection were listed in the local council's decision.8

The Cases of Mr Ĺ .M. and Mr R.T.

Mr Ĺ .M., born in 1965 in Stará Lesná, in the district of Kežmarok, has been living for several decades in the village of Svinia together with his wife, Ms A.M. (born in 1966). They brought up all of their seven children in the village. In spite of this, Mr Ĺ .M. has not been able to become a permanent resident in the village of Svinia. Mr R.T., born in 1974, has faced a similar situation. He is permanently registered in the village of Richnava, in the Košice region, and although he has been living in Svinia since 1993 with his partner Ms A.K., with whom he has four children, he is still not granted permanent residence. Mr Ĺ .M. reportedly last applied for permanent residence in 1998 and was rejected. Mr R.T. has made only oral requests for permanent residence. In 1998, the municipality provided both families with temporary portacabins, due to the fact that their housing was destroyed by floods of the summer of 1998. Despite the fact that the local government actually provided the housing in which they live, it insists on refusing Mr Ĺ .M and Mr R.T. permanent residence.

Due to the fact that Mr Ĺ .M. doesn't have permanent residence in Svinia, he is not registered as unemployed at the employment office and does not receive unemployment benefits. It is not realistic for him to travel at least two times a month from Svinia to Kežmarok in order to sign in the Employment Office. Identical is the case of Mr R.T., who has permanent residence in the Košice region.

The refusal of the village council to grant permanent residence to Roma is attributed by local Roma to the current mayor's desire to please non-Romani voters, to whom she promised, during her election campaign in 2001, to check the influx of "foreign Roma" while in office.

Project Svinia: A Blocked Attempt to Ensure Adequate Housing

Probably the most compelling example of Svinia local authorities' ill will where housing for Roma is concerned, are the events surrounding the initiative to build housing for the Roma in the BorovĂ˝ kút area of the village. In 1998, Canadian Professor David Z. Scheffel from the University College of the Caribou (British Columbia, Canada) initiated the community development project entitled Project Svinia. The US-based non-governmental organisation Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) was among the partners working on the project from the beginning. This organisation offered the village of Svinia the possibility of building 20 to 30 family houses for local Roma. The one condition that HFHI imposed was that the village provide land for the project. The village first proposed that the land would be provided within the municipal boundaries of Svinia, but geographically much nearer to the neighbouring village of Chminianská Nová Ves. The land was also half-owned by the neighbouring village. After initial bargaining, the village of Svinia decided to buy the land from Chminianská Nová Ves. An agreement was reached immediately and a price was agreed. However, when the neighbouring village council became aware of what the land would be used for, it refused to sell the land to the Svinia village council.

In July 1998, heavy floods in the village of Svinia almost completely destroyed the original Romani hamlet, which was located in close proximity to the stream. The village was thus obliged to resolve the acute condition of housing for the Roma. Paradoxically, it was exactly this flood that forced the competent organs to engage themselves in attempting to resolve the disastrous situation in the local Romani hamlet. Immediately after the flooding, the competent organs finally cleaned up the hamlet of the communal waste that had been accumulating there for several years, owing to the fact that there had been no refuse collection service. Forty "portacabins" were built following the flood, in which village authorities "temporarily" housed disabled Roma. These Roma live in the temporary housing as of the date of this publication. In addition, with funds from the Dutch government, Project Svinia provided a further 24 "portacabins", now home to 11 families.

After the floods of 1998, the village received considerable financial means for the solution of the housing situation of the Roma. In addition to other funds, the Czech Republic provided approximately 2,000,000 Slovak crowns (roughly equal to euro 45,000). The then-village council planned to use these finances (and did use them in considerable measure), among other things, for buying land in order to build housing for the local Romani community. On October 23, 1998, the village council carried out a survey among the village population regarding the location of the land to be bought for houses for the Roma. For the purpose of the survey, 207 questionnaires were prepared - one for every household, that is, one for each house with an official house number. By these means, local Roma were effectively excluded from the survey, because the houses in the Romani hamlet, where the prevailing part of the Roma in the village live, are not officially registered. The only Romani housing registered were four housing blocks, comprising 32 flats. Therefore, only 32 Romani households were counted for the purposes of the survey. The number of the non-Romani households was 175. About 80 percent (159 votes) of the respondents approved the construction of Romani housing in the Borový Kút  area.

In the course of the negotiations for the purchase of the land, it became obvious that the building of 20-30 houses would not be enough to solve the housing problems of the Roma in the village. The village council then turned to the state for assistance to build more housing; it planned, with the help of state funds, to build a further 70 family homes. At this point the Ministry of Construction and Public Works made public an offer to the village to request special funding with which to build the so-called "social housing". Such a grant may make up to 80 percent of the required capital in such a project, the remaining 20 percent being co-financed by the village or, alternatively, by a third party. The Ministry of Construction and Public Works requested from the Department of Environment of the county office both planning permission and construction permission.

A parallel development - the inclusion of Project Svinia in the 2001 Phare Project of the Slovak government on building infrastructure for Romani hamlets - ensured 1.5 million euro, with which the Slovak government planned to not only build infrastructure for the new Roma housing area, but also plumbing and sewers for the whole village. The village also managed to obtain ownership of the land. Since the land was registered for agricultural purposes, however, it was necessary to include it in the urban plan. A spatial plan for the new hamlet was both drafted and open for public discussion.

On August 4, 2001 dissatisfied councillors of the then village council initiated a local referendum as to whether the village should continue at all with the preparation of the construction. The results of the referendum showed that 71.5 percent percent voted for the continuation of the project and around 28 percent voted against it. The preparation work of the construction was continued in spite of a very tumultuous public meeting, dominated by anti-Romani sentiments expressed by most of the non-Roma present.

In December 2001, a new local council and mayor were elected in the village of Svinia. The new council was apparently against continuing the construction projects. This attitude was demonstrated by the decision No. 11/2003 of the new council, which canceled the previous council decisions approving the construction of a Romani settlement in the area of Borový Kút  (No. 145/98) and the provision of infrastructure in the new settlement. Shortly before the approval of the Phare 2001 project, the village council changed the placement of the construction, thus violating the conditions of the Phare project. This resulted in the exclusion of the Svinia project from the Phare project.9 Since the Svinia project was excluded from the Phare project, it was not possible to apply for the government money either. When the local council took the decision to change the locality of the construction of Romani housing, it had reportedly been aware that it would lose the funds both from the Phare project and from the government. In this way, the village of Svinia terminated the building of the new locality for local Roma and made it impossible for them to obtain adequate housing. Apart from this, the village - which has an annual budget of around 4 million Slovak crowns (approximately 95,240 euro) - lost 150 million Slovak crowns (approximately 3,571,430 euro) of potential grant money,10 with which it could have resolved the most burning issues facing the village - including sewage removal, public water supply, a new urban plan of the village, solution of the Romani housing question, etc.

Moreover, on March 28, 2003 the local council adopted a resolution to terminate the activities carried out in the village by HFHI and by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), effective from April 1, 2003.

The village council has also refused to work with other NGOs that have offered help to the village in solving the problems facing the Roma. For example, the council has repeatedly refused an offer from HFHI to continue with those activities already started in the village directed towards the possibility of constructing some family houses for local Romani families.

A similar situation confronted the Slovak non-governmental organisation Environmental Training Project (ETP), which wanted to include the village of Svinia in its project Your Spiš. This project had already been set up in various other parts of the Spiš region.11

It is difficult to capture in words the senseless waste of time, energy and hope resulting from the cancellation of Project Svinia by the local council in Svinia, after five years of efforts by locals, with international assistance, to improve the situation of Roma in Svinia.

Endnotes

  1. Alexander Mušinka works as a researcher at the Philosophical Faculty of Prešov University in Prešov, Slovakia. He is a coordinator of the Canadian-Slovak “Project Svinia”, within which he also coordinates work of the Regional Center for the Roma Activities in Prešov. He specialises in inter-ethnic relations in Slovakia, within the European context, concerning Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Romani communities.
  2. See “Zoznam obcí v zmysle sčítania ľudu z mája 2002, v ktorých občania Slovenskej republiky patriaci k rómskej národnostnej menšine tvoria od 10,0%-20% obyvateľstva”, available at: http://www.vlada.gov.sk/romovia/.
  3. Project Svinia was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency in partnership with US-based non-governmental organisation Habitat for Humanity International.
  4. Not a single teacher of the school has taken a course in special teaching. Out of 36 classes in this school, of which 26 classes are Romani and 10 are non-Romani, there are 24 so-called “Special classes” in which teaching is undertaken according to special-school methodologies and syllabuses intended to be taught by those trained in special education. Until recently, the teachers teaching these special classes had had no teacher training, and their qualifications were for pre-school education.
  5. Archive KcpRO, minutes from a meeting of project workers from Project Svinia, from Habitat for Humanity International and a representative of the village council, December 19, 2002.
  6. I obtained all this information from personal conversations with Mr P.K and Ms J.K. At the time of writing, the situation in this family had changed, and after long disagreements, the couple finally separated. J.K. moved back to her family in Jarovnice and P.K. stayed in Svinia. Some of the children stayed with their father, and some went with their mother. It is hard to say how long this separation will stand.
  7. See Village of Svinia, Village Council, 082 32, No.: 35/2003, Eighth session of the Village Council of Svinia, July 25, 2003, 19:00. (Document is on file with the author.)
  8. See Village of Svinia, Village Council, 082 32, No: 41/2003, Ninth session of the Svinia Village Council, held on the September 26, 2003, at 19.00 in the Kultúrny Dom in Svinia, Svinia October 6, 2003. (Document is on file with the author.)
  9. Choosing a new locality for the housing project, meant that there would have to be a new technical evaluation of the site, new property would have to be bought, and possibilities for funding would have to be recalculated.
  10. This calculation has been made by the architects who were employed by the village to amend the urban plan. The sum comprised the 63 mln SKK (approximately 1.5 million euro) from the Phare project; funding from the Ministry of Construction and Regional Development for about 100-110 new social houses at the amount of about 460 million  SKK (approximately 1,095,238 euro), 132 million SKK (approximately 3,142,857 euro) from the HFHI and additional 18 million SKK (428,571 euro) for a new school, kindergarten and a church.
  11. More information on this project is available at: www.etp.sk.

 

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