The Czech Republic is home to between 250,000 and 300,000 Roma, who make up the country's second largest minority population after Slovaks. Similar to Roma in other Central and East European countries, Czech Roma have experienced long-term discrimination. It was hoped that the collapse of Communism in 1989 would improve human rights conditions for all.
Unfortunately, in recent years the Roma in the Czech Republic have experienced increasing discrimination in the areas of education, employment, housing and health care. In addition, Czech Roma have become the target of racial attacks. In the wake of such developments, the issue of Roma rights has attracted attention not only from domestic politicians and civic organizations but also from the international community.
The wrong kind of international attention
Growing international attention to the plight of the Roma in the Czech Republic is due in part to the country's efforts to join the European Union. European Union membership is conditioned on respect for human rights, in addition to fulfillment of economic and political criteria. Second, large-scale migration of Roma from the Czech Republic to Western countries, namely, Canada and the United Kingdom, has drawn the attention and concern of the international community.
Roma immigration to Canada and the United Kingdom began in 1997, after a Czech television program ran a story on the acceptance of Roma in these countries. More than 1000 requests for asylum, citing discrimination and violence in the Czech Republic, were filed by Roma between 1997 and 1998. Although the majority of asylum requests were denied, with only three out of 560 requests granted between 1997 and 1998 in the UK (US Department of State: "Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998"), the Roma continued in their attempts to emigrate.
While the attempted emigration of substantial numbers of Roma in 1997 and 1998 brought the issue of Roma rights onto the Czech political agenda, the EU Commission's 1999 Progress Report concluded that greater attention to the issue of the Roma in the Czech Republic had not improved their situation.
For example, in October 1999, a wall was erected to separate Romani and non-Romani residents in a district of the city of Ustí nad Labem. This action drew international criticism and a statement from Günter Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, who referred to the construction of the wall as a "violation of human rights" (Poolos, 21 October 1999).
Local residents insisted that it was not an issue of discrimination but rather a means of dealing with the loud noise and disorder coming from the tenement building. The "noise and hygiene barrier," according to city spokesman Milan Knotek, would separate the "decent people" from the "problematic community" of Roma (US Department of State: "Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998").
In response to the construction of the wall, Czech leaders including President Václav Havel and Pavel Zářecký, the deputy interior minister, immediately called for its removal. The wall was ultimately dismantled in November 1999. According to the EU Commission's 2000 Progress Report, not only was the wall removed but a state subsidy of CSK (Czech koruna) 3.6 million (approximately USD 88,000) was provided to purchase the houses of those citizens who initiated the construction process.
Going to extremes
Other evidence of discrimination against the Roma can be seen in the rising incidents of racially motivated crime in the Czech Republic. Between 1997 and 1998, the number of members of extremist groups doubled to almost 10,000 people. In addition, 133 racially motivated crimes, mainly against Roma, were committed in 1998 (EC Progress Report, 1999).
According to the Ministry of the Interior's 2000 "Report on Extremism," there was "a slight increase in the number of followers of extremist movements over the period 1998-1999." However, the increase in followers was significantly less than that reported in the previous year. The number of racially motivated crimes in 1999 also rose to 316, up from the 133 reported in 1998 (EC Progress Report, 2000).
Recognizing the increase in extremist followers and the rising number of attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic, the government took active steps to combat the growing problems. In December 1999, the Czech government initiated the country's first ever anti-racism campaign. The government offered not only verbal support for the project but also allocated CSK 10 million (approximately USD 245,000) from the state's budget to support the campaign (EC Progress Report, 2000).
School is where it's (not) at
Discrimination in the area of education for Czech Roma has been particularly pronounced. According to a 7 April 2000 report published by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), discrimination in education remains a widespread problem for Roma in many European countries. Walter Kemp, a senior assistant to the OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities, believes the Czech Republic's situation is one of the worst. "I think it's fair to say that the problem is most pronounced in the Czech Republic and this is something that's brought out in the high commissioner's report," Kemp argued (Eggleston, 18 April 2000).
The scathing criticism against the Czech Republic was in response to the country's "special schools," set up for mentally handicapped children. While the Roma make up less than three percent of the total Czech population, 70 to 75 percent of students sent to the special schools are members of the Roma community (EC Progress Report, 1999).
In an effort to combat discrimination against the Roma in education, the Czech government devised a long-term strategic plan of action to be implemented in the period of 2001-2020. Announced in June 2000, the "Concept of the Government Policy Towards Members of the Roma Community," promotes access to education for Roma at all levels, from kindergarten through college. In 1999, positive steps were already being made to increase educational opportunities for Roma. For example, the Czech government put forth CSK 12.3 million (approximately USD 301,500) to pay for 180 assistant teachers to help Roma children in the special schools, as well as in kindergartens and primary schools (EC Progress Report, 2000).
In addition, access to higher education for Romani students has been improved with the signing of an amendment to the School Act, which went into force in February 2000. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has also set forth a recommendation that schools promote multicultural programs and make information on Romani culture more accessible to the majority Czech population (EC Progress Report, 2000).
Employment, housing and health
Unemployment and housing are additional areas included in the Czech government's strategic action plan for 2001-2020. In 1999, Roma unemployment in the Czech Republic was reported to be between 70 and 90 percent (EC Progress Report, 1999). This situation did not improve in the year 2000. Lack of education, as well as employer discrimination, directly contributed to the ongoing high unemployment rates within the Roma community.
Housing and health conditions also remained much worse for the Roma than the mainstream population throughout 1998 and 1999. Some positive steps were made in the area of housing in April 2000 when the government offered CSK 32.5 million (approximately USD 796,500) for the reconstruction of two buildings occupied by Roma in Brno. In addition, the city of Brno will benefit from a loan of the same amount from the Council of Europe Development Bank (EC Progress Report, 2000).
Not only has the Czech government implemented policies throughout 1999 and 2000 to promote Roma within Czech society, but efforts have also been made to include Roma in advisory positions in government ministries, district authorities and educational facilities. In 1999, for example, the number of Roma representatives in the Inter-ministerial Roma Commission increased from six to 12. The staff of this commission, however, remains small, and the commission itself lacks both a budget and executive power (EC Progress Report, 2000).
Other evidence of the government's interest in promoting the position of the Roma can be seen in a joint project sponsored by Czech and Slovak presidents Václav Havel and Rudolf Schuster. While the project intends to address discrepancies in employment, housing, health care, legislation and other areas between the Roma and the majority populations in the two countries, details of the project are not expected to be made public until the end of the year ("Project on Situation of Roma Not Addressing Romani Emigration" 26 October 2000).
The Czech government is not alone in trying to combat discrimination against the Roma. Romani leaders themselves are playing an active role in promoting Roma rights. A positive step was taken in July 2000, when the Fifth International Romani Union (IRU) conference was held in Prague. The conference marked the first time in ten years that Romani leaders from around the world came together to discuss current issues and problems faced by the Roma. Topics discussed at the conference included the issue of Romani emigration from Eastern Europe and ways in which to improve conditions for the Roma at home (Poolos 26 July, 2000).
Perhaps more important than the policies and initiatives set forth by non-Romani and Romani leaders are the individual efforts to increase cooperation and understanding between the Roma and the majority Czech population. In order to end discrimination, mindsets, not policies, must change. In an attempt to do just that, the Stories Exchange Project, coordinated by the EastWest Institute and the Fund for New Performance/Video and sponsored by the World Bank, has provided a forum for increasing dialogue between Romani and non-Romani Czechs.
The purpose is to change attitudes through communication and understanding. The project is currently using the Internet to spread its message throughout the Czech Republic. In addition, it is reaching out to Czech secondary schools to introduce awareness through storytelling into their curriculum (Semrad 2000, p A4). (For more information on this project, see the Stories Exchange website.
Although much work lies ahead in order to improve the situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, important efforts are being made by both government and Romani leaders, as well as Czech citizens, to address the issue of Roma rights. According to the EU Commission's 2000 Progress Report, "increased and, in some areas, significant efforts have been made since last year regarding the situation of the Roma community, notably with regard to the education system. However, a lasting improvement in the situation of Roma requires sustained effort over time." This effort must continue to come from the international, state and local levels in order to bring about significant and long-lasting change.
Tiffany G Petros, 27 November 2000
photo by Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov
- "2000 Regular Report from the Commission on the Czech Republic's Progress Towards Accession."
- "1999 Regular Report from the Commission on the Czech Republic's Progress Towards Accession."
- Eggleston, Roland, 18 April 18 2000, "OSCE: Report Details Discrimination Against Roma," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- Poolos, Alexandra, 26 July 2000, "World: New Roma Migration Reflects Eastern Europe's Social Ills," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- Poolos, Alexandra, 21 October 1999. "Czech Republic: A Wall Divides the Country," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- "Project On Situation of Roma Not Addressing Romany Emigration," 26 October 2000, Central Europe Online.
- Semrad, Staci, 8-14 November 2000, "Czechs, Roma Discover Power of Stories," The Prague Post, 10(45): A4.
- "US Department of State: Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998," released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on 26 February 1999.
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