Friday, November 20, 2009



November 21, 2009

Roma families experience the dark side of the Velvet Revolution

Adam LeBor in Pardubice, Czech Republic
In the grimy corridors and cramped rooms of the municipal hostel on Ceskova Street, communist-era methods of social control are thriving. There has been no revolution here, velvet or otherwise, in the 20 years since the Czech Republic gained its freedom.

Uniformed security guards control the entrance and the building is continually monitored by CCTV. All visitors must present identification and may only visit a specified family. The families here pay 6,000 crowns (£200) a month for a cramped single room for five or six people without a bath, shower or kitchen. They must ask permission for the key to use washing facilities, which costs an extra 15 crowns (50p). Children may not play in the corridor. After three warnings, the family may be evicted.

This is life for the Roma in the Czech Republic and places such as this are the country’s secret shame. The story in Pardubice, a picturesque city on the Elbe, 65 miles east of Prague, is not an isolated one. Some tenants have been evicted for unpaid rent; others, say activists, have got in the way of property developers or vindictive municipal bureaucrats. Nobody at the Pardubice municipality would comment on conditions in the hostel.

This week the Czech Republic celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, although the situation of the country’s Roma belies its carefully nurtured image as a beacon of human rights. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, one of the first acts of the new Czech Government was to pass a law depriving most Roma of their citizenship since they came from Slovakia.

The legal wrangles still continue. The Czech Republic was the last EU member state to adopt anti-discrimination legislation; it did so in June, narrowly escaping legal proceedings from the European Commission. President Klaus had vetoed the Bill, arguing that existing legislation should be improved rather than a new framework introduced.

The squalid hostels embody the institutionalised racism against the Roma and their powerlessness. The 200,000 to 300,000 Roma in the Czech Republic have a higher infant mortality rate, are more likely to be unemployed, live in extreme poverty and have a shorter life expectancy. Racist violence is on the increase. Last November hundreds of activists from the extreme-right Workers Party attacked Romas in Litvínov with stones and petrol bombs.

Racism is openly expressed, even among the educated. In May, the Czech National Party called for a “final solution” to the Gypsy issue in a television campaign for the European Union elections. The previous month a two-year-old, Natalka Sivakova, suffered 80 per cent burns after an arson attack on the family home in Vitkov, near the Polish border.

About 30 per cent of Roma children are segregated and placed into special schools for the mentally handicapped, compared with 2 per cent of non- Roma children, even after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights declared the practice illegal.

A psychologist recommended that Edita Stejskalova should be sent to a special school at the age of 7. Her mother resisted, and now Ms Stejskalova is a university graduate aged 29 who runs a non-governmental organisation campaigning for equal legal rights for Roma.

“Czech society is very racist,” she says. “If a Roma family lives in a block of flats the other families will often organise a petition to remove them. Non-Roma parents demand that Roma children at school are segregated, in different classes, even in different buildings. The school agrees because it wants the parents to enrol their children there.”

Czech officials say that the political will exists to tackle Roma issues and that the Government is committed to equal rights. A new Agency for Social Inclusion aims to co-ordinate national policy across different ministries. However, decisions taken in Prague and Brussels often have little impact. “The Government passes good legislation but it is not implemented,” says Michael Kocáb, the Human Rights Minister.

For Josef Lakatos and his family, the Velvet Revolution ushered in a new era of poverty and racism. Although under communism the Roma were subjected to forced assimilation and resettlement and women were frequently sterilised, they were part of wider society and, like all citizens, guaranteed work, housing and income.

Mr Lakatos, 48, lives with his wife, seven children, mother and another relative in a one-room flat of 33sq m (355sq ft) in a tenement on the edge of Pardubice. “It was better under communism because we had work, there was much less racism and there were no skinheads,” Mr Lakatos said. “I want to work, but when they see a Roma they say there is nothing.”

Arguably, Roma traditions have magnified the difficulties of the transition to capitalism. Roma society is deeply traditional, conservative and patriarchal. Many Roma women are still pressured to marry young, have numerous children and stay at home, while some are forced into arranged marriages.

In Ostravany, in neighbouring Slovakia, locals have built a wall, 150m long, to keep out their Roma neighbours after residents complained that Roma children were raiding their gardens and stealing fruit. “These new walls against Roma will be harder to tear down than the Berlin Wall,” warns Rob Kushen, the director of the European Roma Rights Centre.

History of persecution

The Roma appeared in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries and were commonly referred to as Egyptians or Gypsies. In the 18th century scholars discovered that the Romany language was a Sanskrit dialect that originated in the Indus Valley in northern India in the 9th century

Europe’s Romany population is an estimated 4-14 million, but its members frequently remain unregistered

The Roma have frequently been persecuted in Europe; during the Holocaust, about 500,000 were killed. In recent years, the International Organisation for Migration has won compensation for survivors of about €7,000 (£6,300) each

In Britain, Roma people have a life expectancy about ten years lower than the rest of the population

Source: European Roma Rights Centre, Institute for Public Policy Research, Times database

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