We came from one kind of fear to another: Czech and Slovak Romani refugees speak
03 April 1999
The ERRC has interviewed a number of Roma concerning their experiences with the asylum procedures of Canada and the United Kingdom. The following are the testimonies of a few of the Czech and Slovak Roma who told their stories.
Roman Gaži, (33), Hrušov neighbourhood, Ostrava, Czech Republic, February 13, 1999
I went to Canada with my two daughters in October 1997. The neighbourhood here in Hrušov had been flooded out. My flat was destroyed because we live on the ground floor, and everything was a mess. The mayor of the Marianské Hory quarter of Ostrava said bad things about us Roma and the atmosphere was terrible. We received 150,000 crowns (approximately 3950 euros) from the state to cover repairs, and I had some money saved. Also, it was starting to get really dangerous to be a Rom in Ostrava. Lots of people were going, so we went too. It was clear we had no future here.
We bought plane tickets and took a train down to Prague and went to the airport. The customs people took my passport at the airport in Prague and gave it to the pilot. They took everyone's passport. I didn't see mine again for six months. Someone explained it to me that they wouldn't let us into Canada if we said we were emigrating and so they had to take our passports to make sure. Something like that. I didn't understand it, but they had taken everyone's passport, and I had never been on a plane before, so I didn't really know the system.
The plane was full of Roma. I don't think there was anyone on the plane but Roma. It was one of those huge new planes - a Boeing - and there were at least 300 Roma from all over the Czech Republic in it. At the airport in Toronto we requested asylum. They kept me for fourteen hours at the airport while they made us wait for a translator who could speak with us. They interviewed me and asked me to sign some papers. Finally they took us to a hotel.
On November 7, two weeks after I arrived in Toronto, Canada imposed visas on Czech citizens and from that moment I think no other Roma came. I don't know any other Roma who received a visa and I have never heard of any either. I think they imposed visas on us to keep us out. My wife, who stayed in the Czech Republic and planned to come after me didn't get a visa either. I spent three months in the hotel and then I received "landed emigrant" status. I wanted to get the status called "family emigrant", because then I could have got my wife over to Canada, but they wouldn't give it to me. Then I received a new identification card with a photo on it like the ones we have here in the Czech Republic and we moved out of the hotel and into a flat. My daughters started school about two weeks after we arrived and they liked it very much. They learned English fast. I also learned some English.
I loved Canada - I went everywhere. I took a million photographs. I went to Niagara Falls. The Canadians are great people. They have every kind there - Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Indians, Jews. Finally though I had to come back here -- my wife couldnn't get into Canada because she couldn't get a visa. After six months I had saved money, paid for three tickets back, and returned. They gave me my passport back as I was leaving the country. Many people say we don't deserve asylum since we are able to come back here but it is not true. It is terrible here - filth and hatred. 80% of the people here in Hrušov don't have citizenship. But I couldn't leave my wife.
Now here in Hrušov all the gadzhe [non-Roma] are moving out and more Roma are fleeing. The gadzhe get flats in other parts of Ostrava. The Roma don't. Twenty Romani families recently went by bus to Britain to try and start a life there. Hrušov used to be a beautiful neighbourhood, but when they built the highway bridge through here, everything closed down. Then the flood finished it all off. Now people live in condemned buildings. There is no hope for us here. There are only two pubs that any of us know where a Rom can get a drink. Here they give you 2000 or 3000 crowns (approximately 52-80 euros) social support or they offer you a job doing roadwork, which pays worse than the social support. This is their way of trying to get rid of you. I am trained as a digger and we made 7000 or 8000 crowns (approximately 185-210 euros), but now they say there are no jobs. When you go down to a building site looking for any kind of work now, they are not taking Roma. When you show up, they look at you and say, "no". Or sometimes they hire you and then don't pay you and if you try to complain or protest there is no one who is on your side. I would go to Canada again in a second if I could get my whole family into the country. They will abandon us here in this stinking filthy hole at the end of the earth.
Zlatice Balážová (49), Ostrava, Czech Republic, February 14, 1999
I left the Czech Republic with my husband and my youngest daughter Simona to go to Canada in 1997, before they asked for visas. We bought plane tickets and took a train to Prague. From there, we flew to Toronto. There weren't many Roma in the plane. When we arrived in Toronto, we asked to stay. They took us into a room and interviewed us. They asked us why we had come and we told them because of the fear and the discrimination and the skinheads. Then they asked us to sign some papers about emigration and they took us to a hotel. We got a lawyer after that and we met with her several times.
After three months we got a flat and we moved out of the hotel. They told us at the immigration office that we weren't allowed to hit our children in public. We received 1120 dollars per month in social support and out of that we paid 500 dollars a month rent. But we were forbidden from working until we received status, so we couldn't really do anything all day long. I took on work illegally but a few times it turned out badly. For example, I worked for a Polish woman for three days as a cleaner, but when it was time for me to get paid, she told me she wasn't going to give me anything. When I got angry she picked up the phone and said she would call the police and tell them I had been working illegally and then I would be sent straight back to the Czech Republic. So I had to leave without getting paid.
The same thing can happen to you in the Czech Republic. A person receives 2500 or 3000 crowns (approximately 65-80 euros) in social support and there is no way to live on that. Or you can work and make the same amount of money. Your only chance to make enough money to eat and pay rent is to get social support and to work for a private company at the same time. Often though, they decide not to pay you. When that happens, you can report them. But if you report them, you are also reporting yourself for working while receiving unemployment benefits. You can take them down, but you bring yourself down with them.
Our asylum application papers were still being reviewed when my husband and I decided to return to the Czech Republic. We have four children - three of them stayed in Ostrava and we couldn't bring them over because we didn't have enough money for their plane tickets. Most of the Roma we knew in Canada stayed over there - we came back because of the children, but we wouldn't have come back otherwise. I would like to go back to Canada. Now it would cost 4000 crowns (approximately 105 euros) for the visa.
Some people say we left to make money but this is nonsense - we were terrified. 1997 was the worst year for skinheads in Ostrava. You couldn't go out on the street. Thank God I have never been attacked, but my children have been beaten up right here in the centre of town. In 1997 we thought they were just going to start killing us. It has calmed down a little now, but not long ago there was a trial of a skinhead who stabbed and killed a homosexual, and he said at his trial that skinheads in the Czech Republic were willing to die for their ideal of cleansing the country of Gypsies and gays. Canada was different. You could go out on the street - it was peaceful. There are blacks, whites, Somalians, all kinds of people over there. It is a mixed nation. They don't hate each other as much as people do over here.
Ms B.F. (27), Westgate on Sea, United Kingdom, November 28, 1998
I came to England on October 16th, 1997 with my two sons, aged ten and eleven. We came from Brno, in the Czech Republic. We came by bus and ferry to Dover. I applied for asylum, and then the interviews began. Now I don't have a lawyer or anyone to represent me.
The situation in the Czech Republic was dangerous for me and for my children, as it is for most Roma living there. It is not possible to live over there. I had to accompany my children to school. My father was attacked. I was too. I've been attacked by skinheads several times. They threw petrol bombs into our flat. The last time I was attacked, six months after the previous attack, they told me that beating me was not enough and they called me a Gypsy whore.
If I were to go to the doctor after being attacked, and say that I had been attacked by skinheads then he wouldn't examine me. I've got scars on my body and I've had my leg broken by skinheads. We couldn't go out into the street at all. We were living like animals in a cage.
In school, as a child, the teachers and other children caused problems for me and I don't want it to be like that for my children. While I was pregnant with my oldest child, police officers once yelled at me and insulted me. My child wasn't even born yet and already he was being treated badly. I've got problems with my heart and I've been in hospital several times. I had been thinking about leaving the Czech Republic for a few years.
Life is completely different in Britain. I want to stay here. My children enjoy going to school, and they're trying to learn English, as I am. I've got English friends here now. I'm grateful for everything that people have done for me here. I've finally started a normal life.
But I'm still afraid. For example, I wake up in the night, sweating all over, because I dream I'm at home. I wake up and I have to tell myself I'm not there. My son has still got problems with talking. I think he has been psychologically damaged by his experiences in the Czech Republic.
Mr A.B. (35), Westgate on Sea, United Kingdom, November 28, 1998
I came to England from Michalovce, Slovakia, with my wife and three children. My children are twelve, fourteen, and fifteen years old. We came here on October 10, 1997. We travelled for three days to get here. We left Michalovce at 9pm, we were in Bratislava by about 8am, and we waited until 6pm for the bus which went to Britain. We got to Dover at about 2 pm the next day.
When I first arrived in Britain they put me in prison. They put my wife in a hotel and me into Rochester prison. I was there for nearly two months. There were lots of other Roma from the Czech Republic and Slovakia there. I was released on bail and now I have to go to the police station every Friday morning. About three weeks after my wife had made her application for asylum, I arrived there and they put me straight in jail for a second time. I was supposed to be deported. So my wife came to see Giselle who works for GRASP, a charity that helps us, and told her I was being held by the police. Through Giselle we reached my solicitor, and my solicitor sent a fax to the police. That must have had some effect, because they let me out after two hours.
We came to apply for political asylum, because we had been attacked in Slovakia. We were afraid that we would be attacked again. First, about twelve people attacked me, they smashed my head. I didn't know them. They were from the Ku Klux Klan. They had those T-shirts with hoods and some kind of black masks with writing on them. I was bedridden for about three weeks after the attack. My wife called the police and they said she wasn't telling the truth. They told her that I had to go to the police station and make a statement. We didn't go because we were afraid. Skinheads attacked our children once when they were coming home from school. We didn't let them go to school after that. From day to day, we always used to hear about some Romani child getting attacked and beaten.
I used to work as a house painter. I painted houses, rooms, whatever was needed. When the racism started in 1992, Roma were the first to be thrown out of work. My wife also used to work, but when she became ill she had to leave her job. She is sick from fear. When I was attacked and then the children, her health got worse.
But here in England all of that wasn't enough of a reason to get asylum. Maybe the officials didn't believe me. They refused me asylum and permission to stay. I have been refused asylum once before, which is why on my application I am listed as a dependent of my wife. Now I've heard we are in a fast procedure, which I think is their way of trying to get rid of us.
Mr M. D. (32), Westgate on Sea, United Kingdom, November 28, 1998
I came to England from the Czech Republic for the first time on October 21, 1997, with my youngest son, who is epileptic. In the school my son went to, the Czech children had to arrive at 8am and the Romani children fifteen minutes later so that they wouldn't meet in the corridors and there wouldn't be any fights. The buildings were separated. On the one hand, a nice building for the Czech children, and in front of it some low buildings for the Gypsy children. I think they were storehouses before. My son had good marks. He had some problems with maths, and his writing wasn't very neat, but he was good. His English teacher said he had good pronunciation. We've been in England for a total of ten months and he hasn't been to school once, because none of the schools can find room for him.
The Immigration Office detained me on arrival in Dover and wanted to put my son into a children's home. At my request, they sent him instead to live with my brother, who lives in London. I was in the detention centre for one month and twelve days, and during this time my son had four epileptic fits. Eventually I was released on bail. I kept to all the bail conditions and after four months I was granted temporary admission to the United Kingdom. However, on July 17, 1998, I returned to the Czech Republic. My mother was critically ill and also there had been elections during this time, so I thought things would be better because the government had changed.
Nothing was any better however. While we were back in the Czech Republic, some people burnt our front door. My wife was putting the children to bed and I was watching the television. Suddenly I smelt something burning. At first I thought my wife had forgotten something on the stove, so I went towards the kitchen. But as I crossed the corridor, I felt heat coming from the front door, and I saw it was on fire. So I got some water and put the fire out. Then I looked out the window and I saw two men running away. I recognised them, I've seen them before. I called the police. They came and took notes and said, "If we find anything, we'll give you a report; if we don't find anything, sorry, but there's nothing we can do."
I came back here to Britain on September 28, 1998, with my wife and all three children. The Home Office granted us temporary admission until we had our first interview. Following our first interview, my wife was granted temporary admission for one year. They refused me admission and detained me in Tinsley House Detention Centre. They kept me there for one month and five days, during which time my son was again ill.
I was released on Friday November 20th. On the day of my release, the judge raised my bail from 1,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds. The Home Office hadn't been able to get a certain report on the criminal records of foreign citizens, so they presumed I was a criminal and increased my bail.
In the Czech Republic, when we used public transport, sometimes people would spit on my wife, and on my children. I have been beaten up several times by skinheads on the bus. Once I was coming back from my mother's, who is ill, and they beat me up on the platform. If you go to the police, they make a report, or don't make a report, and they say they'll look into it later. If you go to the doctor, he'll examine you, but if you ask for a report, he'll say, "Sorry, but I can't give you that, because I don't want problems with the police and I don't want problems with the skinheads."
But then you come here and all they want is medical reports, police reports. When the judge reviewing asylum applications has looked through the other evidence, he asks, "And do you have any proof, Mr D.?" I don't, because the doctor and the police didn't give me any documents. The Immigration Officer says "Mr D., you came here for economic reasons." I had a job, I had my own flat, I had my own car, and now what have I got? Did I have to bring my wage slip to show how much I earned and prove that I fled out of fear?
We came from one kind of fear to another. There, it is physical fear, because you get attacked. Here, it is psychological fear because you go to a hearing and you don't know if you'll get locked up or not. I've got to go now on November 27th for another interview, but they could lock me up again.