But migration to faraway countries should never be considered the primary
solution for mistreated and discriminated-against minorities. The real
solution must be to ensure fair treatment and better living conditions
in their countries of origin.
True, the recent revolutionary changes in Central and Eastern Europe
have in many ways worsened the objective living conditions of Roma. But
to grant asylum to today's Romani claimants from the region would definitely
be a wrong signal both to the local Romani communities and to the governments
of those countries. It would be tantamount to saying: "give up the fight
for improving the living conditions of Roma, since the West's doors are
Moreover, the looser asylum-granting policy suggested by Helton would
indirectly play into the hands of local rightist politicians and bigots.
In the case of the recent Czech Romani exodus, certain local government
officials actually stimulated the Roma to leave for Canada by offering
air tickets in exchange for title papers to their apartments.
Roma in the region should instead take heart from recent changes on
the international scene. All European governments are now aware of their
duties regarding minority rights. Over the last five years, the international
community has installed a new, complex machinery to improve the situation
of minorities in Central and Eastern Europe. The measures range from renewed
general commitments for strengthening minority rights through the existing
framework of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council
of Europe to new undertakings such as the European Union Stabilization
The OSCE has instituted the post of high commissioner
on national minorities, and the current commissioner, Max van der Stoel,
devotes a lot of energy to the Romani issue, which is also the case with
OSCE's Warsaw-based Organization
of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. In addition, the Council
of Europe has significantly revitalized its Roma-related activities - a
number of working groups have been charged with precise tasks and a specialized
group operates an impressive program of concrete activities in eight countries,
most notably in Romania.
The ambitions of most Central and Eastern European states to become
EU and NATO members have also positively affected their attitudes toward
ethnic minorities. To become an EU member, a country has to meticulously
observe EU laws, which include the European human-rights protection instruments.
NATO enlargement also brings indirect benefits for minorities through the
alliance's demand that members maintain good relations with their neighbors,
which gives minority rights a prominent place on the agenda.
As the recent Canadian and British episodes with
Romani asylum claimants show, there are no open doors in the West for the
Roma from Central and Eastern Europe. And that is not about to change,
as most of the Roma will not be considered eligible for refugee protection
under the Geneva Convention. To give them the signal that there is an open
door is deceptive.
There is only one responsible way out of that quandary: concerted government
action to improve the living conditions of Roma in their countries of origin.
Czech President Vaclav Havel is again leading the way, since he fully realizes
the potential political fallout from repeated Romani-asylum-seeker crises
and the humanitarian dimension of the problem. Another reintroduction of
visa requirements for Czech citizens by a Western country-as was recently
hinted at by Britain when it was faced with hundreds of Romani asylum-seekers
stranded in Dover-would be a serious drawback for the Czech Republic in
its EU and NATO negotiations.
On 26 October, Havel said: "We will have to explain
the basic principles of human rights and human dignity much more energetically
and systematically to our citizens." In late October, the Czech government,
with the president in attendance, adopted a package of extensive measures
- featuring special schooling programs, employment incentives, and social
interventions - aimed at improving the position of the country's Romani
The Swedish experience shows that such efforts can be fruitful. In the
1950s, amid what was already regarded elsewhere as a "welfare wonderland,"
almost all of Sweden's Romani population lived under conditions similar
to those currently experienced by the Czech Republic's Roma. The Swedish
government undertook momentous efforts to reverse the negative stereotypes
and implemented concrete social policies built upon the distinct cultural
heritage of the Roma, which ultimately resulted in the full integration
of the Swedish Romani population into mainstream society.
The incident reflects the treatment of Roma in Central and Eastern
Europe. Discrimination is pervasive, and the abuse is often directly carried
out or condoned by local authorities. Roma, therefore, deserve refugee
protection in cases where they are forced to cross national borders because
of a well-founded fear of persecution in their place of origin. Western
countries should recognize their responsibilities and provide asylum in
There are now between 7 million and 8.5 million
Roma in Europe. Since their arrival on the European continent in the 13th
and 14th centuries, Roma have faced mistrust, rejection, and exclusion.
That situation persists to this day, particularly in the central and eastern
parts of the continent. Over the last seven years, a rise in violence has
been observed in nearly every country with a significant Romani population.
Romani organizations such as the European
Roma Rights Center (ERRC), Romano
Centro, and the Roma National
Congress have documented numerous cases of brutality that have
gone unpunished. Systemic discrimination is also common.
For example, unemployment rates are ten times higher for Roma than non-Roma
in the Czech Republic. Barriers to higher education are also firmly in
place for the Czech Roma, about 80 percent of whom are sent to schools
for the mentally handicapped.
While there may be no laws in Central and Eastern
Europe that explicitly target Roma, authorities frequently manipulate laws
in a discriminatory manner for the Romani minority and fail to protect
them from abuses by non-state actors. According to experts from the region,
Roma who are defendants in criminal procedures are more likely to be detained
prior to trial, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive
a severe sentence than non-Roma arrested for similar crimes. Crimes of
violence against Roma result far less frequently in arrest and conviction;
when the perpetrators are convicted, the sentences are, on average, less
severe than those imposed on Roma convicted of similar crimes.
The differential treatment is on display in places like Swiebodzice,
Poland, where local villagers have repeatedly firebombed Romani houses.
Despite numerous complaints, the local police have taken little action.
Their only assistance was to suggest that the Roma cover their windows
before their children caught cold.
While freedom of movement is enshrined in the economic
and political harmonization under way in the European Union, a far different
experience awaits asylum-seekers in this select club of nation-states.
Such individuals are often detained, subject to summary processing under
unduly restrictive standards, and forcibly returned to a country of transit
or place of origin. They are at continual risk of being delivered back
to their persecutors.
International law forbids the forced return of refugees to a place where
they may experience persecution. Although the term "persecution" is not
defined in the refugee treaties, it must be understood as encompassing
serious and unjustified harms perpetrated by state authorities. While a
threat to life or freedom is invariably considered to amount to persecution,
severe discrimination and abuses inflicted over time may constitute persecution
on a cumulative basis. Also, while explicit state action clearly satisfies
the refugee criterion, state inaction may also suffice in instances where
the authorities are unable or unwilling to protect individuals from harm
- a principle particularly applicable where private discrimination is involved.
Since Canada lifted its visa requirements for citizens of the Czech
Republic last year, at least 1,000 Roma have arrived in Canada seeking
asylum on grounds of racial discrimination. Much of that influx was prompted
by a Czech television documentary portraying Canada as a veritable paradise
for Romani immigrants. In response to the arrival of hundreds of Roma,
the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board invited representatives from
the ERRC in Budapest to come to Canada to inform the board about current
conditions for Roma in the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, Canada has reintroduced
the visa requirement for Czech citizens.
Optimally, human-rights violations should be prevented
in the place of origin. Refugees, however, are individuals who have been
deprived of protection by their home countries, who have been rendered
effectively stateless, and who are in need of the remedies provided by
refugee law. They are engaged in an oftentimes prolonged sojourn to find
protection and ultimately a new home. In large measure, that is the saga
of Central and Eastern Europe's Roma.