Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Roma Seek to Flee Czech Republic

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Apr 30 2009 (IPS) - The situation of Roma in the Czech Republic has always been bad, but growing right-wing extremism has taken tensions to new levels, driving many to seek asylum in Canada.

Roma organisations have called on those Roma who feel unsafe in the country to leave. There are up to 300,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic, that has a population of 10 million.

Roma, often also called gypsies, are a people believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

At least 853 mostly ethnic Roma Czech citizens have applied for refugee status in Canada over the last year, and 84 have obtained it. But in only the first two months of 2009, there are already new 570 Czechs, mostly Roma, seeking asylum there.

This is the second wave of Czech Roma seeking to flee to Canada after a similar wave in the late 1990s.

Czech media has claimed that the migrations are economically motivated and promoted by mediators who tell Romanies to exaggerate their experiences of racial discrimination in the Czech Republic and personally profit from their asylum applications.

Canada has asked the Czech government to investigate the allegations as the mediators are allegedly Czech and Slovaks émigrés to Canada.

In statements to the press, Radmila Locher from the Czechs and Slovaks' association in Canada has denied any knowledge of such emigration being organised.

The calls for Roma to leave the country were heightened after some people threw Molotov cocktails on a house inhabited by a Roma family in Vitkov in the north-eastern Czech Republic.

The attack left three injured, including a two-year-old child who suffered 80 percent burns and is in critical condition.

In reaction Roma leaders issued a joint statement calling for the formation of patrols to protect themselves from "terrorist attacks by Czechs," leading to fears of a spiral of violence.

Ivan Vesely, chairman of the Dzeno Association, a Prague-based non- governmental group dealing with Roma issues, told IPS that the intention is only to start a "monitoring patrol, in cooperation with social workers, Roma activists and the police to prevent conflict between Roma and extremists."

The recent attacks were sharply condemned by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus, but the political leaders are accused of having allowed tensions to degenerate for too long.

Politicians may fear a public opinion that tends to be unsympathetic towards the Roma, especially in times of crisis.

"The problem is deep, the majority population is unsatisfied with its personal living conditions, with the crisis, the growing unemployment, and it is trying to find a target in the Roma," Vesely told IPS.

An estimated two-thirds of Czechs see coexistence with Roma as a problem, according to polls, and nowhere has this been more obvious than in the now ill-famed Janov housing estate in Litvinov in the northern Czech Republic, the scene of many clashes between extremists targeting the Roma and the police.

Supporters of the far-right Workers Party have held regular marches in the housing estate, distributing leaflets to non-Roma residents and handing them questionnaires.

Janov, home to about 6,000, has come to epitomise what many see as the misguided Czech integration policy for the Roma: the Litvinov town hall has given up on many of its social responsibilities, instead hastily offering flats to real estate companies that profit from moving poor families from around the country into the estate.

This has created tensions with the original population, which cannot move out because prices of flats in Janov have plummeted.

Extremists have seen an opportunity in Janov to go mainstream, presenting themselves as protectors of the non-Roma inhabitants against Roma crime, and many of the residents are supportive of their actions.

The Czech government has tried to ban the Workers Party to no avail, with the latest attempt being refuted by the country's Supreme Court, citing lack of evidence.

Government officials are becoming worried at the increased activity, organisation and support for extreme-right movements and parties in the country, and Roma organisations feel it is time to join forces and raise public awareness on the issue.

"We have prepared protests in ten Czech cities for May 3, to show to the majority population that we must fight together against neo-Nazism and fascism in the Czech Republic," Vesely told IPS.

Roma complain of discrimination at work, and access to education, housing and services, but little can be done in the only EU country lacking an anti- discrimination law.

Millions of euros have been spent on Roma integration programmes with little result, and the number of poor Roma families living in ghettos has actually increased.

The Government Council for Romany Affairs, subordinated to minister for human rights and minorities Michael Kocab, has only five staff members, and lacks political support, leaving solutions to unprepared municipalities.

Local authorities have sold municipal and social housing to private owners, relocating problematic centres to just a few spots that eventually develop into ghettoes.

The millions poured in by the EU (European Union) have even caused some damage as they reinforce the majority population's general view of the Roma as living off aid, even though Roma groups often lack the know-how to apply for EU grants.

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