Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Czech Roma:
Foreigners in their Own Land

by Aileen Crowe
Czech President Vaclav Havel has described treatment of Roma, commonly known as Gypsies, as a "litmus test for a civil society." His fellow Czechs have failed this test miserably. Since time immemorial Roma have suffered from hate crimes and discrimination, but that persecution should currently exist in the Czech Republic, a country lauded for espousing market reforms, lofty democratic ideals and personal freedom since the Velvet Revolution, seems shocking. Twenty-seven Roma have been killed in the Czech Republic since 1989, more than the combined total in Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia. In one case a man was clubbed to death by skinheads while his wife and five children watched. One hundred and eighty-one racially motivated attacks have been recorded since 1993; 42 of these occurred in the first two months of 1996, showing that the trend of hate crimes against the Roma in the Czech Republic has become increasingly prevalent.

Skinheads and other right-wing extremists commit the most grievous crimes against the Roma. However, discrimination against Roma pervades all aspects of Czech society, from the common practice of placing Romani children in programs for the mentally handicapped because they have not mastered the Czech language to banning Roma from restaurants and other public places. In the town of Kladno this summer, the Roma were banned from swimming pools due to a hepatitis outbreak among Romani children, although health officials insisted that such a ban would not contain the spread. The Roma often suffer from such epidemics due to poor standards of living and lack of appropriate health care.

Roma, referred to as "blackies" due to their darker skin coloring, have often been "encouraged" to leave the Czech Republic. A Romani woman from the industrial town of Usti Nad Labem was forced to go to Slovakia to have her baby. In 1993, a beauty pageant contestant from the same town won a standing ovation when she announced her dream of becoming a public prosecutor, "so that she might cleanse the town of all the dark-skinned people."

Thus, while the Roma have long preferred to maintain their traditions and lifestyles, they are finding it increasingly difficult to function in a society which attempts to ignore and displace them. Although there are an estimated 200,000-300,000 Roma in the Czech Republic, only 32,903 people described themselves as such in the 1991 census, reflecting a fear of racial discrimination. Most Czechs have reaped the fruits of a booming economy, but the Roma have again been left out. In a country that possesses a mere 3% unemployment rate, 70% of the Roma are unemployed due to a lack of marketable skills and lack of available training in a system that is strongly biased against them.

The plight of the Czech Roma has received worldwide attention, especially concerning the Czech citizenship law which effectively renders the Roma stateless, forcing them to live as foreigners in their own land. The majority of the Roma are of Slovakian descent, though they have lived in the Czech lands for decades. Similar to German citizenship laws, all Czech residents born of non-Czech parents, Slovaks included, must apply for Czech citizenship. To qualify, one must be fluent in Czech, have had a stable residence for at least two years, and possess a clean criminal record for the previous five years.

These stipulations have marginalized the Roma, already living on the fringes of society. At the time of legislation, the clean criminal record requirement dates back to the communist era, when many un-employed or self-employed Roma acquired records for "avoiding work" or "neglect." No distinction is made between minor and serious crimes, giving Czech authorities excuses to refuse Roma applications for citizenship. This requirement is notoriously labeled the "Romani clause" because it directly targets the Roma population. The residency requirement has discriminated against the Roma because many of them have held temporary residency status despite having lived in the Czech Republic for sometimes five years or more. These years of residency under temporary status do not count towards the residency requirement for citizenship.

A Czech human rights group, the Tolerance Foundation, has estimated that at least 20,000 Roma, about a tenth of the Roma population, have been excluded from Czech citizenship since 1993. Roma from Karvina, North Moravia, were stripped of Czech nationality without being properly informed or given time to make alternative arrangements. These Roma can not vote, were not included in coupon privatization, receive no social benefits (previously often their sole source of income), and must pay foreigners' rates at hospitals. The process of applying for citizenship entails meandering among the bureaucratic mazes of the various Czech institutions, a daunting process for many Roma who are not proficient in the Czech language. Furthermore, they must spend money that they do not have to  produce documents such as marriage or birth certificates and in many cases must travel far away to retrieve them.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described the citizenship law in an open letter to President Havel as "the largest denaturalization in Europe since the World War II period." Other entities have made outcries about the citizenship law to the Czech government: several human rights groups, the U.S. Congress, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Council of Europe, stating that the law violates international norms.

Initially President Havel and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus defended the Czech citizenship law. In July of 1995, Representative Christopher Smith, head of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, asked Havel to "exert his considerable moral authority" to change provisions in the law considered unfair against the Roma. In December, Havel replied that it was "more worthwhile to work for the proper interpretation and application of the citizenship law of the Czech Republic than to seek its amendment." Klaus dismissed the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report  which criticized treatment of the Roma as based on poor information in the Czech Republic.

However, the citizenship law was amended last April, in which Czech citizenship will be granted on a case-by-case basis. This measure, while an improvement over the former law, allows officials to make arbitrary decisions and does not help those whose applications were previously refused. According to an official from the U.S. Embassy in Prague, only 200 individuals were granted citizenship since April, a paltry number considering the tens of thousands of Roma involved. Czech officials are paying lip service to the Roma's plight, but effective changes have yet to be made.

The Roma possess little political power and have virtually no domestic lobbies, other than human rights groups, supporting their cause. Only one MP in the 200-seat Czech parliament is a Rom, Ladislav Body of the Left Bloc. In opposition, political anti-Romani sentiment has increased. The far-right Republican party campaigned on a platform of ridding the country of Roma and won four parliamentary seats in the elections in early June.

As it strives to become a member of NATO and the EU, the Czech government must make more concrete efforts to protect Romani rights and to provide proper opportunities for them to receive training and education. Czech Roma deserve to be Czech citizens and steps must be taken to incorporate the Roma into society.

Excerpted from European Update Online, Vol.4, Nr.2, November 1996

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