In 1997, a large Czech Roma moved to Canada following the production of a television program about how well Roma were treated in Canada. As a result of the influx, Canada imposed visa restrictions, which were lifted in November, 2007. From 2001 to 2007, 123 Czechs made a refugee claim in Canada, but since last November till March this year there were 267, all probably Roma. Why did they flee?
According to Toronto lawyer Max Berger, who represents some of them, "They tell me it’s because of beatings and harassment by skinheads and neo-Nazis." Paul St. Clair, executive director of the Roma Community Center in Toronto, gave a more detailed account. Of some 40 families he has worked with in recent months, "Seven pregnant women were beaten and kicked in the stomach by skinheads. Four can no longer conceive. Another woman, eight months pregnant, was kicked in the stomach and her child now carries permanent bruises from the attack."
St. Clair said that skinheads carry knives and foot-long baseball bats with straps which they wrap around their wrists and which they use to attack Roma at subway stations and elsewhere. Roma, St. Clair relates, fear to take the subway as a result. The skinheads throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at homes in Roma neighborhoods, sometimes invading homes, assaulting those inside, and destroying property. When hooligans are convicted of attacks against Roma, they are sometimes given light sentences or even suspended sentences. Recently, a new group, calling itself the National Guard and celebrating Hitler’s birthday, stages marches and beats up anyone with a dark skin whom they encounter, shouting, "The Czech Republic is for whites!" This group is an offshoot of the Magyar Guard from Hungary.
It would not be surprising to know that Roma face discrimination in employment in the Czech Republic. Politicians also share the prejudice against them. In 1997, Liana Janackova, a local mayor, proposed paying two-thirds of the airfare for Roma leaving and renouncing Czech citizenship. In 2006, she told a meeting that "I’m a racist. I disagree with the integration of Gypsies and their living across the district." She is both a mayor and a senator, serving as vice-chairman of the Senate Human Rights Committee. The Senate refused to lift her parliamentary immunity to allow the police to proceed with a charge of committing a hate crime by her remarks. Only 13 of the 54 Senators present favored lifting immunity.
One woman who came to Canada in 1997 as an asylum seeker was housed by immigration authorities in a motel in a Toronto borough, where some local racists gathered to demonstrate against the Roma. Her first reaction was that she was experiencing the Czech situation all over again. But then she was delighted to see that the police who arrived were there to protect the Roma.
Unfortunately, the discrimination faced by Roma in the Czech Republic is not unique to that country. Roma women complain about forced sterilization not only there but in Slovakia and Hungary as well. And now the Italian government has taken an openly racist position.
Some Roma camps in Italy have been destroyed, and the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi has undertaken to finger-print every Roma in the country, citizen or not. Roma are victims in a number of other European countries as well. Police brutality has been a problem in Macedonia. Anti-Roma violence by racists has occurred in Russia, where politicians and media engage in racist commentaries.
In the Ukraine, Roma have been driven from their homes. Victims of skinhead violence have been told that the perpetrators could not be identified and they have not been able to gain access to their complaint files. Throughout much of Eastern Europe, Roma children have been segregated into inferior schools, often with the claim that they were mentally deficient. In Bulgaria, Amnesty International (AI) has identified skinhead attacks and police indifference, as well as police brutality. AI also reported police brutality against Roma young people in Greece. Greece expelled a number of Roma from neighborhoods that were transformed for the 2004 Olympics without aiding them to move to alternative facilities-a violation, AI notes of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, to which Greece is an adherent.
Europe has a lot of work to do to end discrimination and mistreatment of the Roma and to improve their living conditions. Generally speaking, Roma are frequently unemployed, living in poverty and squalor, suffering poor health and receiving inadequate education.
The Decade of Roma Inclusion began in 2005, with the following countries signing on: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Three-fourths of Roma do not complete primary school. Poverty is over five times the rate for other citizens of some of these countries. Life expectancy for Roma in Central and Eastern Europe is ten years less than for other citizens. Infant mortality is double in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Roma children are more apt to have vitamin deficiencies, anemia, malnutrition, and even rickets. Tuberculosis in one Serbian Roma community was found to be two and a half times the national average, a trend likely to be found elsewhere in the region. These nations and others in Europe need to move forcefully to deal with this problem in this decade and beyond. They also need to marginalize the likes of Czech mayor Liana Janackova.
Photo reprinted from Flickr