Monday, September 14, 2009
THE CZECH REPUBLIC
TheStar.com - World - No hope for Roma in Czech ghettos
ROSIE DIMANNO/TORONTO STAR
David, 5, front, and other children had their first-day-of-school excitement dashed when the bus driver refused to let them board because they are "gypsies." The Roma face deep-rooted racism in the Czech Republic. Rampant discrimination explains why 'gypsies' in former Eastern Bloc seek Canadian asylum
September 12, 2009
KLADNO—It is the first day of school. The children are well-scrubbed and neatly dressed. Some, the littlest and most excited, have their mothers in tow as they wait at the bus stop.
The bus pulls in. The doors fold open. The driver glares.
And forbids them from boarding.
"I don't take gypsies."
Moms, incensed, start to yell. Kids, confused and frightened, begin to cry. The driver, unmoved, slams shut the door and the bus rumbles off, leaving youngsters stricken and adults seared with shame.
Many of these children have just had their introductory lesson in what it means to be Roma – reviled and excluded – in this so-civilized country.
Ask the question: Why did 2,869 Czech Roma wash up at Toronto's Pearson airport between Oct. 2007 and June 2009, seeking asylum as alleged political refugees?
Here is an answer: Rust-belt Kladno – birthplace of NHL star Jaromir Jagr – a mining eyesore 25 kilometres northwest of cosmopolitan Prague, where gypsy children are unwelcome in public schools and on buses, where families live upwards of 10 to a single room in a dilapidated tenement building on the hardscrabble edge of town.
A single water meter serves nearly 700 residents. Toxic asbestos insulation oozes from the walls.
It was this address – a one-time meat-packaging plant known as Masokombinat – that was fire-bombed by skinheads last year, though fortunately the projectiles landed in a clump of bushes out front. Unlike, say, the Molotov cocktail assault in April on a Roma home in the town of Vitkov that left a 22-month-old girl with burns to 80 per cent of her body.
These are not isolated incidents. In Czech towns with a heavy Roma population, in the gypsy ghettos of Prague, violent attacks against the ethnic minority have escalated alarmingly in recent years. Right wing groups and the anti-immigrant political parties that feed on Roma resentment are on the march across all of Europe, most especially in former Iron Curtain countries.
The Czech Republic is not even the worst offender in making pariahs of Roma. Unlike neighbouring Slovakia, there are no gypsy villages or squatter camps. But it is the Czech Roma who brought the issue of a people's crippling discrimination to political prominence in Canada, with Ottawa this summer making the controversial decision to reimpose visa requirements in order to staunch the flow of asylum seekers. Some 3,000 Roma have settled in Hamilton, overwhelming social services.
In Kladno, Canada might as well be Oz.
That is an underlying complication in the exodus to Canada – those who can afford to leave are most often the Roma suffering least from privation and racism. Many, it is believed, paid "mediators" – both here and there – who helped facilitate asylum applications, which included advice on how to exaggerate their experience of racial discrimination.
Isabella Tokarova would not need to exaggerate.
The 38-year-old lives at Masokombinat with her husband and three children, the oldest son already emigrated to England.
She is still fuming that her 5-year-old boy, David, was not permitted on the school bus, heatedly stating her case to a female police officer.
"They let all the white people come on board but not the gypsies. I told the driver: `You are a racist!' He just sat there and continued to insult me, said we didn't have the right to ride on the bus or attend white schools.
"I swear, if I had the possibility of leaving this country, I would pay everything I have to get out. But we are stuck here, where we don't want to be and where they don't want us to be."
Tokarova pinches her dusky flesh. "This is who I am. This is why nobody will give us a chance to prove that we are decent people, too."
Vera Benakova, 47, recalls when her daughter started at the local school and was assigned to share a desk with a white girl. "Her mother came to the school and slapped the teacher across the face."
Prague was severely censured by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled the Czech Republic was discriminating against Roma children by putting them in special schools – for "backward" kids – as a matter of public policy, a systematic streaming that precluded them from advancing academically and led to early drop-out, usually after Grade 8, which is required to obtain a driver's license.
The government has, formally, phased out that program but many gypsy students are still segregated in Roma-only classes within mainstream schools, where they follow a different curriculum and are stigmatized from the get-go.
The Czech Republic is the only EU country that has no anti-discrimination laws that could prevent such things.
The collapse of communism in the Czech Republic, while sparking a vigorous free market economy for most citizens to enjoy – this is a wealthy nation – had only lousy consequences for Roma. Under the Communist regime employment was mandatory, meaning at least menial jobs for gypsies, and guaranteed housing.
State socialism did provide a tattered security blanket and, arguably, restrained the worst of racial prejudices. That buffer has disappeared. Local authorities sold municipal and social housing to private owners in the red-hot real estate market that ensued. In many towns, Romas were relocated to designated areas and housing estates that developed into ghettos.
Non-Roma already living in those areas who couldn't afford to buy up – their own house values plummeting when Roma moved into their midst – are seething side-by-side with the newcomers, ripe for overtures by fascists, neo-Nazis and fringe xenophobic parties.
No less than Jiri Cunek, head of the Christian Democratic Party and former deputy prime minister, made retrograde racism acceptable when, as mayor of Vsetin, he ordered dozens of Roma families removed from a rundown building in the centre of town to a decrepit housing estate on its periphery.
These housing estates have become the scene of far-right marches and riots, extremists portraying themselves as defenders of the working class against gypsy criminals and welfare parasites; Roma leaders in turn have called for the formation of patrols to protect their homes. It's a perfect incubator for spiralling violence.
A government study in 2006 found that 80,000 Roma – out of a gypsy Czech population of about 300,000 – were living in some 300 ghetto-like communities, four-fifths of which had come into existence in just a decade. Predictably, as occurs everyplace where an underclass is bottled up and denied a lifeline, criminality jumped. Little wonder that, according to polls, nine out of 10 Czechs don't want Roma neighbours.
In much of Europe, but rarely here, Roma beg, sending their kids out into the streets in what Westerners regard as scandalous child abuse. For many gypsies, however, it's a genuine profession – so many others had been closed to them.
"Roma were excluded from society for such a long time, all over Europe," explains Martin Simacek, former head of the Kladno city branch of People in Need, the largest Czech NGO dealing with gypsies. "They are not a popular topic in Czech society."
In fact, there are upwards of 400 Roma-oriented NGOs in the Czech Republic, shouldering a burden that had too long been ignored by Prague. Only now is the government willing to give state-administered status to the Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities, with Simacek appointed to head it. Twelve "localities" – from small towns to large-size cities such as Brno – have been identified so far for integration efforts emphasizing education, employment and health care. But municipal authorities have been resistant. "They don't want anybody controlling them," sighs Simacek. "We are in a fight."
These are the same authorities who privatized the pre-existing social housing, pushing Roma to the physical and psychological edge of mainstream existence.
"Unemployment in the Czech Republic used to be very low. Now, there is no work for Roma and they are unable to pay for their own living costs. But there's no social network capacity for them either. We need to rebuild that whole capacity for social living."
Simacek estimates that up to 30 per cent of adult Roma have never held a job in their lifetime. "It's not because they don't want to work. There are so many fairy tales about Roma. The fact is they are unskilled and there are no jobs for them anymore. They left the special schools when they were 15, 16 years old, unprepared for life and dysfunctional, although there was nothing wrong with their brains.
"Now we have children who can't speak their own Roma language and are not fluent in Czech either. What are they supposed to do?"
Many, he acknowledges, become involved in crime. "They do robberies, become pickpockets. We see a lot of usury and prostitution and drug-dealing. But most of this criminality is tightly connected to their own communities.
"It's true that in the Czech Republic, Roma don't beg. But this is still a horrible life for them."
Simacek, however, does not consider Czech Roma legitimate candidates for asylum status in Canada. The Czech Republic has been a member of the European Union since 2004. There is freedom of movement among all European countries, no visas required.
That begs the question why Czech Roma would turn to Canada for escape, when they could easily look for improved prospects anywhere in Europe. Of course, an asylum claim in Canada comes with guaranteed welfare assistance attached while it wends through the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) process. That's not available to internal EU migrants.
Simacek suggests – though he has no proof – that mediators in both the Czech Republic and Canada were behind the exodus of the past two years, with employers in Canada on the hunt for cheap labour.
Canada sheltered Czechoslovakian political refugees in 1948 and 1968. There was a wave of immigration that followed the collapse of Communism in 1989. Ottawa, in October 2007, lifted the visa requirement imposed 10 years earlier. Around that time, a Czech TV documentary showed refugees enjoying their new lives in Canada.
Nearly 3,000 Czech refugee claims were filed in the next two years – compared to five in 2006. While Canada doesn't record ethnic origin, it was obvious the applicants were Roma. Ottawa reimposed visa requirements in July.
So far, the visa shift has had immediate and dramatic effect: Between July 16 and July 31, there were only two Czech refugee claims, compared to 155 in the two weeks preceding visa imposition.
Back at Kladno – population 70,000, 5,000 of them Roma – residents of Masokombinat have little understanding of the diplomatic fandango between Canada and the Czech Republic. With or without a visa, Canada is beyond their grasp.
"My flat was destroyed by fire and the government moved me here," says Helena Misalkova, single mother of three. "They said it would be only for three months. That was eight years ago."
And then there's David, the little boy who had been so eager and excited to start school.
"I am sad," he says, eyes downcast. "But I will never go to that school now, even if they let me on the bus."
Posted by Morgan at 12:46 PM