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The Plight of the Roma
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19 Apr 2010 EST

- by Aisha Gawad, Contributing Writer

Since emerging from Communism, things are looking good for the Czech Republic. The country, part of the former Czechoslovakia sandwiched between Germany, Poland and Austria, was kept under the thumb of the Soviet regime for almost fifty years. With the success of the so-called "Velvet Revolution," in 1989, which peacefully brought down the Communist government, the country has seen rapid prosperity and growth. The Czech Republic was accepted into the European Union in 2004 and is about to take over the rotating presidency of that organization for the first time next year. Its economy is stable and strong, with its currency, the Czech crown, rapidly gaining in value. More and more foreign investors and tourists are swarming the beautiful capital city of Prague and other Czech cities. All in all, the country is thriving. But there is one notable exception to this general prosperity: the Roma community of the Czech Republic.

The Roma, the largest ethnic minority in the country, are a group of people who are thought to have immigrated to Europe from India in the ninth and tenth centuries. They settled all over Central and Western Europe, and initially made their way in society as skilled craftsmen. The Roma have faced persecution under centuries of European monarchs, and suffered under the brutal persecution of the Nazis in World War II. According to Minorities at Risk (MAR), "95 percent of all Roma living in the Czech lands lost their lives during the war." And under the Communist regime immediately following the war, the Roma or gypsy culture was suppressed as a corrupting influence on society. Even after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Roma enjoyed increased political and economic freedom along with all other Czechs, permitted to establish their own community organizations, but were never made equal members of society. They "suffered disproportionately from the difficult economic transition. Roma were often the first to be fired from state-run firms and the last to be hired by private businesses," says MAR.

Things were particularly bad throughout the 1990's when the Czech Republic was still transitioning into a parliamentary democracy and a capitalist economy. The number of racially motivated attacks on the Roma and other minorities climbed steadily in the 90's, and peaked in 2004 with 473 racist crimes recorded, according to Czech police statistics. This number has declined every year since then, but the violence of the past decade has already set a precedent. According to a Ministry of the Interior report, in 2006, the majority of 248 racist crimes, "were committed by members of the majority society and these formed both verbal and physical attacks which were directed towards Roma."

Racist groups like the neo-Nazis and other ultra-right wing organizations have used the Roma as scapegoats for society's ills, playing off of the mainstream population's general distrust of the Roma. One example is the effort of the country's largest Neo Nazi organization, Narodni Odpor (National Resistance) to organize "national guards." These groups of self-proclaimed vigilantes, really just a front for Roma persecution, feed into the latent Czech dislike of the Roma in their midst. To illustrate, according to a recent poll by the Open Group Society of sociologist Ivan Gabal, two-thirds of Czechs say they find it hard to live with the Roma, often characterizing them as criminals or welfare cheats. Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights advocate and author of the 2006 European Network Against Racism report in the Czech Republic, fears that the neo-Nazi strategy of using national guards might bring the country back to the violence of the 90’s. "There were an incredible number of assaults on Roma people by skinheads, and the court system completely failed the people," said Albert.

The discrimination against the Roma of the Czech Republic also manifests itself in education and job opportunities. Roma children are often stigmatized as being slow and are sent to special schools for the mentally disabled. The Roma make up around three percent of the Czech population, yet 70 to 75 percent of the students in these special schools are Roma, according to the European Commission Progress Report of 1999. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Czech government "engaged in indirect discrimination against Roma children," says Human Rights Watch (HRW). The case was brought up by 18 Czech nationals belonging to the Roma Community; in the late 90’s, the applicants were assigned to the special schools and argue that their treatment qualifies as a "discriminatory denial of their right to education," says HRW. The applicants also submitted research that shows that Roma students are "systematically assigned to segregated schools based on their racial or ethnic identity rather than their intellectual capacities," according to the HRW article.

Albert and other activists think that government ambivalence towards the poor treatment of the Roma community is a big part of the problem. The prevalent discrimination against the Roma is largely accepted if not actively encouraged by public officials. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Christian Democrat Party leader Jiri Cunek, for instance, made a derogatory remark in response to how people could receive subsidies similar to those awarded to the Roma: "For this they would have to get sun burnt (referring to Roma skin color) make a mess with their family, put up fires on town squares. Only then some politicians would say - they are really needy people." The fact that Cunek's statements were tolerated - he never apologized - sends a message to the rest of the Czech population. "We are accepting people in government who are clearly racist," says Albert

While the Czech Republic should be commended for the progress it has made since the fall of Communism, it still needs to acknowledge that all its citizens have not benefited equally from this success. If the Czech government continues to ignore the plight of its largest minority, it will only serve to hold the nation as a whole back from further growth.

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