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Assessment for Roma in the Czech Republic

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Roma in the Czech Republic, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a6c2b.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Czech Republic Facts
Area:    78,864 sq. km.
Capital:    Prague
Total Population:    10,286,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Due to their lack of political cohesion, widespread poverty and low levels of education, Czech Roma have virtually no risk of rebellion and only a very low risk of protest. Their situation, however, remains poor at best. Roma are still among the poorest in the Czech Republic and are subject to several forms of discrimination and popular prejudice. A disjoined Roma political movement has not been able to provide much help. Despite government efforts to improve the status of Roma, the group's situation in the Czech Republic is deteriorating.

Nonetheless, there are several signs of hope. Chief among them are the continuous pressures by the European Union, the Council of Europe, and other regional as well as non-governmental organizations on the Czech government to remove restrictions and adopt new policies to improve the situation of the Czech Roma.

The combination of these factors gives grounds for cautious optimism regarding the future of the Czech Roma. For it seems that while the problems facing the Roma in Czech Republic may not be getting any better, at the very least, they will not be getting any worse in the coming years.

Analytic Summary

Roma in the Czech Republic are geographically dispersed with a slight concentration in Sudeten part of the country (GROUPCON = 0). They are by far the most disadvantaged minority in the Czech Republic (ATRISK1 = 1, ATRISK2=1, ATRISK4=1). They are distinct from the majority population in terms of culture, race, language, and customs (ETHNOG = 1; LANG = 2; CUSTOM = 1; RELIGS1 = 4; RACE = 3; ETHDIFXX = 7). Roma have historically been frequent targets of various forms of official and unofficial discrimination and prejudice. The predecessors of today's Roma are believed to have left their Indian homeland during the 9th and 10th centuries, traveled in the middle of the 11th century through Persia, Armenia and small Asia, and in the 14th and 15th crossed the Danube basin to proceed to the Central and Western Europe (TRADITN = 1). Unlike in Western Europe (where the group was in the 15th century officially excommunicated from the Church and subjected to harsh official discrimination), the attitude toward the Roma in the Central and South-Eastern Europe was initially positive. Drawing on their traditional talents as metalsmithers, musicians, constructors, basket-weavers, etc., Roma performed valuable services for the dominant population in exchange for food, shelter, and other goods and gradually started settling down in several towns. The legislative orders of Maria Theresia and Joseph II in the 18th century led to further settlement and assimilation as a means of addressing the perceived "Gypsy problem".

Industrialization brought a dramatic deterioration in the group's situation as cheap factory-made products gradually decreased the demand for products by the Roma craftsmen. The most brutal treatment of Roma occurred during WWII during the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. By 1944, between 6,000 and 8,000 Czech Roma had been killed in concentration camps. In total, approximately 95% of all Roma living in the Czech lands lost their lives during the war.

After the Communist takeover in 1948, Czechoslovakia's communist government banned all existing Roma organizations and embarked on a policy intended to eliminate "the primitive old Gypsy way of life with all its bad habits" through dispersion and assimilation. At this time, few Roma remained in the Czech Republic and many were moved from Slovakia to the Sudetenland, from which the German minority had been expelled. In 1958, the Communists passed a law requiring the settlement of "nomads" in order to help them become "orderly working citizens." Many Roma were moved into new apartments causing resentment among other Czechoslovakians who often had to wait for years for housing. In 1968, the National Council for Issues relating to the Gypsy Population was set up after previous attempts to assimilate and disperse the Roma failed. The council's task was to break up "undesirable concentrations" of Roma, relocate their inhabitants and enforce universal employment. As in the past, these efforts failed and many Roma continued to live in shanties. In 1968, a brief period of "normalization" occurred with the government even allowing the establishment of the Union of Romanies. However, this organization was abolished in 1973; Roma demands for recognition as a nationality were ignored; and the policy of forced relocation was resumed. In the mid-1970s, as a result of the growing problems and a sense of helplessness and inability to deal with the recalcitrant Roma population, the communist government embarked on a new project of "minimizing the high proportion of unhealthy population" through offering substantial financial incentives to Roma women who agreed to be sterilized.

The 1989 "velvet revolution" brought both positive and negative developments for Roma. On the positive side, Roma now enjoy political and economic freedom. They are recognized as a minority and have formed political, cultural and educational organizations. Between 1990 and 1992, for example, Roma were represented in both the Federal and the National parliaments and held government and ministerial posts. On the other hand, Roma have 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. In addition, as Communist repression was lifted and economic and living conditions deteriorated, popular prejudice against the Roma became more overt, leading to a dramatic increase in racially motivated threats and violence against Roma and other non-ethnic Czechs. Despite some government actions, the number of racially motivated attacks against Roma continues to rise. In addition, a large number of formerly Czechoslovak Roma found themselves stateless after the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia, as the Czech government enacted a new discriminatory citizenship law which classified them as aliens, and denied them voting rights and social benefits (The law required permanent residence and 5 years of a clean criminal record). The citizenship status of orphans, many of whom were Roma, was also a major concern since a large number of these children were considered Slovak citizens even if they were born in the CR and had no ties to Slovakia. Once released from state institutions at age 18, they would face possible deportation due to their problematic legal status.

Denied rights in their own country, many Roma fled abroad, encouraged by some government officials and media campaigns to do so. This led to reimpositions of visa requirements for Czech citizens by several countries, including Canada and Britain, further increasing popular resentment against the group.

In the Czech Republic, the Roma have an extremely high birthrate with those under the age of 15 making up about 50% of the population. There is also a high mortality rate among Roma children (DEMSTR99 = 6). The Roma often have difficulties in school because many are not proficient in Czech. For this reason and a general lack of encouragement from their parents, many Roma children are sent to schools for the mentally handicapped where they are often discriminated against by teachers. Accordingly, there is a considerable illiteracy problem among the Czech Roma. This lack of education, along with job discrimination, has resulted in difficulties in getting skilled jobs and a high rate of unemployment among the Roma (ECDIS03 = 3, POLDIS03 = 3). There are also reports of discrimination in housing, health care and child care.

Due to numerous incidents of attacks of Roma by skinheads over the past decade, physical safety remains the key concern for the group members. Other important demands and grievances of the Roma are of economic nature – including greater economic opportunities, better education, access to higher status occupations, improved living standards. Improved education and cultural opportunities for Roma are also frequently voiced as important demands.

Czech Roma are represented by several conventional political parties and civic associations. Among the most politically active are the Romani Democratic Initiative and the Democratic Alliance of Roma of the Czech Republic. In addition, there are also a number of human rights, cultural and educational NGOs representing the Roma population. Many of these organizations are short-lived, however, resulting from frequent splits and merges among the existing associations and not all are politically active. In general, much like in Slovakia, the Czech Roma political scene is characterized by a lack of unity and frequent confrontations among the different groups. This lack of political cohesion and unity, combined with widespread poverty and low levels of education help explain the virtual absence of political protest by the Roma. In 1999 and 2000, there were no incidents rebellion by the group (REB99-03 = 0) and protest levels were generally low, ranging from verbal opposition to scattered symbolic resistance (PROT99 = 2, PROT00-03 = 1).

As is the case elsewhere in the region, Czech Roma have received ideological support from a number of non-governmental and regional organizations, including the EU, CE, OSCE, European Roma Rights Center, International Roma Union, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and several others.

References

Fisher, Sharon "Romanies in Slovakia" RFE/RL Research Report, October 1993, 2(4), pp. 54-9.

Lexis/Nexis: US Department of State Human Rights Reports for 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994 (all published the February following the year which they cover.)

Lexis/Nexis: All news files: 1990-2003

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