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.