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CZECH REPUBLIC: Roma Exodus Provokes Diplomatic Conflict

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Jul 27 2009 (IPS) - Canada has imposed visas on Czechs following a year of thousands of visa applications from Roma who point to persecution in the Czech Republic. Czech officials and media put the blame on Canada.

Canada reintroduced visa requirements on Czechs on Jul. 13 after the country of 10 million became the second biggest source for refugee claims after Mexico.

The Czech Republic has responded by introducing visas for holders of Canadian diplomatic and official passports. It is trying to get the EU (European Union) to activate a solidarity clause under which the entire Union could impose visas on Canadians.

Between January 2008 and April 2009 Canada received 2,581 asylum claims, leading it to warn Czechs that if the situation did not improve, it would be forced to reintroduce visa requirements it had lifted in late 2007.

Several Roma activists have called on Czech Roma to leave the country for Canada, noting the rising number of attacks against members of their community. The Roma are a people who migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century. They continue to face widespread discrimination.

In April and May two separate Molotov cocktail attacks targeted Roma families in small localities across the country, in one case causing severe injuries to a two-year-old girl who remains in hospital in serious condition.

Clashes between extremists, supported by anti-Roma residents, and the police also took place last year in the now ill-famed Janov housing estate in Litvinov in the northern Czech Republic, heavily inhabited by Roma.

But some voices have cast doubts on the true reasons behind the Roma exodus. Sociologist Roman Kristof, former director of the Government Council for Romany Affairs, says in a report that this migration is related to the “professional and financial interest” of former Czech citizens in Canada.

Kristof said the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) had “one- sided and biased information on the situation of Romanies in the Czech Republic due to the workers of the human rights industry.” The human rights workers, he said, “are to a large extent identical with the prospectors” who profit from assisting asylum applications.

Roma activists have called this an “insane theory”, and human rights and minorities minister Michael Kocab said neither he nor the interior ministry had any indications that such migration is organised.

“We really believe that the atmosphere in our country has markedly worsened recently and that the Romanies did not feel safe,” said Kocab in a rare official acknowledgments of guilt on the Czech side.

But much of Czech media has taken Kristof’s theory for granted, and says the Canadian asylum system has been overly generous and naïve about “well- invented stories” from asylum claimants.

These views have found resonance also at the top level. “Canada is resolving its own problem at the expense of the Czech Republic,” foreign minister Jan Kohout told the press.

“This problem does not lie in the Czech Republic; it does not lie in this number of applicants for asylum; it lies in the fact that Canada has in today’s world an exceptionally generous immigration law and asylum system,” the minister said.

But this could hardly be the case for Anna Polakova, chief editor of the Czech Radio’s Romany broadcasting, who cited “permanent attacks on my family” and the “radicalisation of society” as the reasons behind her asylum application to Canada.

“What this case told us is that this is not about gaining money or hiding from your debts in Canadian forests, but about daily discrimination and dangers to family members,” Stepan Ripka, Roma programme coordinator at the Open Society Fund in Prague, a humanist society, told IPS.

Ripka says anger in the Czech media relates to a Canadian NGO partly funded by its government “that helps asylum seekers with legal issues in Canada and instructs them on how to apply for asylum. Czech media shows this as NGO advisors telling Czech Roma what to say during the interview with migration officers.

“There are some preferred narratives of discrimination and oppression that work with the officers, but these people did not invent their stories.”

According to polls about two-thirds of Czechs see coexistence with the Roma as a problem, and extreme-right parties, while lacking parliamentary representation, are trying to gain strength through the use of anti-Roma rhetoric.

Caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer says these extremists will profit from the Canadian visa requirements as this will be another argument used against the Roma, and that anti-Romany moods will intensify as a result of Canada’s decision.

Hungarian, Slovak and Bulgarian Roma face a similar situation to that in the Czech Republic, but no such wave of visa asylum claimants has been registered from any of these countries.

Czech diplomats have been trying to convince Canada to sign an agreement recognising the Central European state as a safe country of origin, that would make it virtually impossible for Czech citizens to be granted asylum in Canada.

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