Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rising extremism a danger to Czech minorities

The Czech government, prompted by a recent racially motivated attack, which left a Roma family, including a two-year-old girl, struggling for their lives, promises to come up with a plan to fight extremism. The details regarding the plan, however, remain to be seen. The government has been promising to put such a plan into place for months.

A comprehensive survey of ethnic minorities living in Europe, conducted by The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and published earlier this month, shows that the Roma in the Czech Republic report discrimination in the largest numbers in all of Europe. The Roma (sometimes also called Romanies) experience discrimination at work, in access to education, housing and healthcare.

With extremism and racially motivated violence on the rise (more also here), the survey results only add to the pressure on policy makers in the Czech Republic, who have not shown much strength in dealing with the dangerous trend.

Roma rights organizations and activists favor a comprehensive approach, including development, education and tough-on-hate-crime legislation. Minority group advocates have been lobbying for change not only on the local and state government level, but on the level of the European Union as well. Recently, Roma activists have even asked the Pope to help by organizing a debate on the social position of Gypsies in the Czech Republic and in other European countries. Last February, a Romani activist association wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama about the position of Romanies and "the expansion of nationalists" in Czech society.

A much publicized trial to dissolve the far-right Workers' Party (Dělnická strana, or DS), which has been organizing extremist rallies and provoking the Jewish and Romani communities around the country, took place in March this year. In the end, the result was that The Supreme Administrative Court rejected the government's proposal to disband the party. Many minority rights activists were dismayed about the court's decision, however, others (myself included) feel that the banning of extremist parties isn't necessarily an effective solution, as the party can -- and promised -- to reform, and also because banning parties hinges on undemocratic in a country which lauds freedom of speech as one of its credos. Furthermore, such a ban can strengthen the far-right movement under the guise of victimhood in light of persecution of the group by the state.

The outgoing Minister of Human Rights and Minorities wants to establish a committee of experts on extremism, which a number of Romani activists support as but one of the possible solutions, especially when it comes to helping shape public opinion regarding extremism and racially motivated violence, which is such a threat that Czech Roma are applying for asylum in Canada in droves. InterPress Service reports today:

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. (. . . ) 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.

Earlier this week, the Czech press reported that the Czech police and military employ neo-Nazism and extremist movement supporters, who provide the far-right groups with sensitive information and smuggle weapons to them, thus strengthening their movement.

Additionally, according to the Roma rights activist Gwendolyn Albert, it has been revealed that skinheads serving time for violent offenses in Czech prisons are well-served by organizations that send them racist literature and pay their legal fees.

Strategies among international experts on how to curb extremism vary widely. The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the most respected and successful organizations at fighting extremist groups in the US, takes the legislative as well as educational approach. The organization tracks hate groups, providing comprehensive updates to law enforcement, and has a strong track record of fighting white supremacist legislatively. To combat the underlying causes of hate, the center runs an educational program for school children called Teaching Tolerance.

The organization People in Need (Člověk v tísni), for instance, runs educational campaigns and helps monitor hate groups in the Czech Republic in concert with similar organizations across Europe. Step by Step, Czech Republic is an example of an organization which conducts anti-bias education projects in Czech schools. There are several such organizations in the Czech Republic. However, legislative-based activism against extremist groups is quite weak here.

In its latest Hate Crime Report Card for the Czech Republic in 2007, The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, reported:

The implementation of criminal law provisions devoted to racially-motivated crimes remains inadequate, and (. . .) reports of racially-motivated violence continue unabated. This conclusion is shared by the League for Human Rights, a Czech human rights organization in its report in February 2007 to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the Czech Republic. This observes that cases of racially motivated violence persist. Unfortunately, the cases are not always vigorously pursued by the relevant authorities. Sometimes the police play down the gravity of the violence.

Throughout Europe, members of the most vulnerable populations, when questioned about the solvency of hate crime legislation for the FRA survey, across the board stated that they are not aware of any legislative recourse:

When asked whether there is a law prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnicity when looking for work, the majority of respondents, with the exception of the Czech Republic, either indicated that there was no such law or that they didn’t know. (. . . ) Given that EC legislation against discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in employment is now in place throughout the EU, this lack of rights awareness suggests that the message about anti-discrimination rights is not reaching some of the most vulnerable minorities in Europe.

The survey also asked respondents to identify any organisation in their country that can offer advice or support to people who have been discriminated against for whatever reason. Between 71 and 94% of respondents could not name a single organisation. In sum, the results indicate that although roma respondents in the seven countries experience very high levels of discrimination, they are generally unaware that discrimination against them might be illegal, and they also are unable to name organisations in their country – either State bodies or NGos - that might be able to assist them.

Clearly, there is an opening for action here. A crucial step the Czech Republic can take is to pass anti-bias legislation. The country is currently -- and embarrassingly -- the only EU country without such legislation, though the EU governing body has reprimanded the country and threatened it with a fine if the Czech government doesn't pass such legislation, required by the EU charter. The existing penal code can be strengthen, as was done earlier this week in the neighboring Slovakia, where the Parliament approved tougher legislation to combat extremism. Focus must be put on law enforcement and better screening of police recruits.

Long-term solutions include training and job opportunities as well as access to sound, affordable housing, especially in smaller towns and more isolated regions, as unemployment and poverty-rates among the Roma are disproportionately high, reinforcing the stereotype of the welfare-dependent person who doesn't contribute to the society. Such sentiment is shared by countless Czechs. Recently one Czech town decided to take action against the "unadaptable people" (a euphemism racist Czechs often use to mean the Roma) who owe the city back rent. The mayor of Chomutov decided to "cleanse" the town of these "undesirables" and to send collectors to the welfare office to confiscate the residents' welfare money, which is actually unlawful. This situation drew staunch criticism from local humanitarian groups as well as the Human Rights and Minorities minister. Unfortunately, the move also gained a tremendous amount of support (including praise from the Minister of Interior), which is still gaining momentum. On the internet networking website Facebook, a petition in support of the drastic and racist measures proposed by the city has been signed by nearly 165,000 people, the largest number of Czechs that has ever signed an online petition of any kind.

On a positive note, last week a new European platform for Roma inclusion met for the first time in Prague, to improve coordination of national actions to tackle the exclusion of Europe's biggest ethnic minority. As the European Commission website reports:

The meeting brought together national governments, the EU, other international organisations and civil society and stimulated cooperation and exchange of experience on successful Roma inclusion policies. (. . . ) The meeting identified a set of basic principles to effectively address the inclusion of Roma. In addition, the European Commission will outline how it plans to target the needs of Roma people with EU-level instruments and policies in 2009 and 2010. It will report too on the implementation of a new EUR 5 million pilot project which the European Parliament has added to the 2009 Budget.

Still, the threat of violence looms for the Roma and other people of color living in the Czech Republic. May 3 is a day of solidarity with the Roma and the victims of the latest brutal racist attack. Demonstrations entitled "Enough is Enough" against extremism will take place across the country. I will be there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wall Street Journal: The Czech Republic Pays for Immigrants to Go Home

Earlier this month I wrote about the Czech government's scheme to encourage foreign workers to leave the country. The Wall Street Journal ran a story about this incentive program today:

In 2007, foreigners scooped up nearly 40% of the new jobs created in the Czech Republic. In the last five years alone, the number of immigrant workers doubled to nearly 362,000 by the end of 2008.

With demand for exports down, unemployment has soared to a two-year high of 7.7%. Economists say the rate could hit 10% by year's end, and there are signs rising joblessness is pushing some Czechs to apply for the low-wage work they once left to foreign laborers. The Czech economy is set to contract by 2% this year -- a sharp fall from a growth peak around 7% in 2006.

In February, the government, fearing crime, homelessness and immigrants overstaying visas, launched a $3 million program to pay newly jobless migrants to go home. The pitch: €500 per legal immigrant, €250 for children under 15, and the cost of the tickets home.

Since February, 1,345 immigrants have signed on for the Czech program.

Though The Wall Street Journal mentions the high debt many of the foreign workers accrue just signing up to work in the Czech Republic via the "pay-to-go programs," no word is uttered about the mafia-like nature of the pay-to-go agencies, which immigrant rights experts say need to be scrutinized much more than individual workers on whom the police have stepped up their raids. The journal doesn't speak about the dangerous myths perpetuated by politicians and the press alike, flying the flag that falsely links crime to the foreign worker communities, and thus helps fuel the xenophobic sentiment already so prevalent among the Czechs.

For the rest of the article, go here.

Racism, discrimination of minorities widespread in Europe, especially the Czech Republic

Last week, a report based on yet the most comprehensive survey of ethnic minorities living in Europe conducted concluded that "the majority experience racism and discrimination on a day-to-day basis," with the Roma and Africans at the highest risk. In fact, "around 90 percent of North Africans in Italy and France reported discrimination, while around 85 percent of Roma living in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece said they had been treated with prejudice because of their ethnicity." As a group, the Roma reported the highest overall levels of being discriminated against of all groups surveyed.

The Czech Republic "leads" the pack with the highest percentage in all of Europe of Roma reporting discrimination. About 83 percent of Czech Romanies, of whom there are estimated to be 250,000 in the country of just over 10 million, believe that discrimination is rife in the Czech Republic.

The report by the EU’s agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that "minorities reported racially-motivated obstacles when looking for work or a home to rent or buy, when trying to open a bank account or get a loan, when dealing with healthcare, social services or school officials. They also experienced discrimination when entering cafes, restaurants and shops."

One of the key findings was that racist crime, harassment and discrimination are grossly underreported. As a matter of fact, 80 percent of the minority respondents stated that they did not go to the authorities about the racist crimes they or ethnically inspired bias they witnessed or experienced, reflecting the belief that little could be done to tackle the problem.

FRA concludes that "the results suggest a sense of resignation among ethnic minorities and immigrants who lack confidence in the mechanisms designed to protect victims of discrimination or racist crime. The main reason given for not reporting incidents was that respondents felt that nothing would happen following their complaint."

Additionally, "80% of the respondents did not know of any organisation that could offer support or advice to victims of discrimination." The survey thus "demonstrates an urgent need for better information, but could also reflect a real absence of effective support services in many Member States," states the FRA report.

The main purpose of the report was to provide statistical evidence in order to support anti-discriminatory policy-making across the EU.

Incidentally, the Czech Republic, which got the worst grade regarding racism and discrimination experienced by the Roma of all of Europe, is the only EU27 Bloc member state without anti-discriminatory legislation in place, for which the EU court has reprimanded the country. Shame on Czech politicians!

Friday, April 3, 2009

study: women and the Roma face discrimination in the Czech job market

This week, it was reported in the Czech press that, according to Social Watch, an international human rights watchdog, Czech women and the largest racial minority, the Roma, are discriminated against in the job market.

As I also wrote on this blog last month, Czech women’s salaries are, on the average, 25% lower than men’s. Furthermore, Social Watch has found this:

Women are also overrepresented in the secondary market, where labour positions are characterized by lower prestige, worse working conditions and higher insecurity. Those with children up to six years of age and women-breadwinners are particularly threatened by long-term unemployment and poverty. In a recent survey, 13.2% of Czech women reported that they had suffered sexual harassment at work.

The study examined women’s representation in places of power. It found that "in 2007 women’s representation was 11% in the Government, 15.5% in the Chamber of Deputies, 13.6% in the Senate, 15% in regional councils and 25% in municipal councils." Worldwide, the average percentage of women in government positions is 17%, though the minimum benchmark of at least 30 percent was established in 1995 at the World Conference on Women in Peking.

Though 97 countries around the world have mandated quota for numbers of women in government, no quota systems or other forms of affirmative action have yet been proposed in the Czech Republic. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was, in fact, quoted by Social Watch as declaring at the inauguration of the European Year of Equal Opportunities in April 2007:

As to women – who in my opinion do not represent a disadvantaged group, even though they are usually designated as such – we cannot talk about equal opportunities (…). A woman has the freedom to decide not to have children and by making that choice, I am convinced, she can have the same professional opportunities a man has.

In addition to women, the Roma (a self-identifying term used instead of the derogative term Gypsies), are severely discriminated against in the market place. Social Watch states that the Roma, who represent 3% of the population, have "a dog’s chance for equal rights."

The report continues:

Although they became a recognized ethnic minority after 1989, growing inequality caught a significant part of the Roma population in the trap of social exclusion and ghettos started to spring up. The Roma suffer discrimination in the labour market and in education. Restaurants frequently refuse to serve them. Racist-based aggression, sometimes ending in the death of the victim, has increased (...) Housing discrimination exacerbates spatial exclusion. More than 300 slums and slum-like housing estates are inhabited largely by some 80,000 Roma.

On the whole, the report states, public services in the Czech Republic have been gradually shrinking. The Government is implementing a far-reaching privatization of public services, including health services, and the the gap between rich and poor is growing.


Tento týden byla v tisku zveřejněna zpráva mezinárodní organizace Social Watch, že český trh diskriminuje ženy a Romy. Podle této organizace, která monituruje pokroky a nedostatky v boji proti chudobě a za rovnost mužů a žen, ženy v České republice vydělávají o 25 procent méně než muži a častěji zastávají pracovní pozice s nízkou prestiží. Ženy jsou také více ohroženy nezaměstnaností. Matkám dětí do šesti let a ženám, které jsou hlavami rodiny, obzvláště hrozí dlouhodobá nezaměstnanost a chudoba.

Zpráva také informuje o tom, že 13.2% žen v Česku v nedávném průzkumu uvedlo, že se v práci setkává se sexuálním obtěžováním.

Šetření se zabývalo i podílem žen na moci. Podle SW "v roce 2007 bylo ve vládě 11%, v Parlamentu 15.5%, v Senátu 13.6% a 15% v regionalních radách a 25% v městských radách." Celosvětový průměrný podíl žen v zákonodárných orgánech je 17%, i když na Mezinárodní konferenci žen v Pekingu v roce 1995 byla stanovena minimální 30 procentní reprezentace.

I když v součastnosti existuje 97 zemí s kvótami na poměr žen v politice, v České republice se zatím návrhy na podobná opatření nevyskytla. Předseda vlády Mirek Topolanek, ocitován organizací Social Watch, se naopak vyjádřil proti podpoře rovnoprávnosti při slavnostním zahájení Evropského roku rovných příležitostí v dubnu 2007:

V případě žen – což není znevýhodněná menšina, ale obvykle se tak o ní mluví – rovněž nelze mluvit o rovnosti příležitostí. Těhotenství a mateřství je výsadou žen a tato výsada činí ženy apriorně odlišnými od mužů. Například na trhu práce (...) Žena se může svobodně rozhodnout děti nemít a pak jsem přesvědčen, že má stejné příležitosti uplatnění jako muž.

Český pracovní trh dále diskriminuje Romy, kteří tvoří 3% populace a podle zprávy SW mají "mizernou příležitost (doslova pod psa) dosáhnout rovnoprávnosti" s majoritou.

Zpráva pokračuje:

Ačkoliv jsou Romové oficiálně uznáváni za etnickou menšinu od roku 1989, zvětšující se nerovnoprávnost je svrhla do pasti sociálního vyloučení a díky jí se začala objevovat ghetta. Romové jsou diskriminováni na trhu práce a ve vzdělání. Restaurace je často odmítají obsluhovat. Množství zločinu podloženým rasovou agresí, někdy končící až i smrtí oběti, se zvyšuje (...) Diskriminace v bydlení stav vyloučení zhoršuje. Ve více než 300 chudinských čtvrtích a slumům podobných osadách žije přibližně 80.000 Romů.

Dále zpráva zahrnovala informace o tom, že veřejné programy se v České republice postupně ruší. Vláda provádí rozsáhlou privatizaci veřejných služeb, včetně zdravotnictví a rozdíl mezi chudými a bohatými roste.