Growing international attention to the plight of the Roma in the Czech Republic is due in part to the country’s efforts to join the European Union. European Union membership is conditioned on respect for human rights, in addition to fulfillment of economic and political criteria. Second, large-scale migration of Roma from the Czech Republic to Western countries, namely, Canada and the United Kingdom, has drawn the attention and concern of the international community.Roma immigration to Canada and the United Kingdom began in 1997, after a Czech television program ran a story on the acceptance of Roma in these countries. More than 1000 requests for asylum, citing discrimination and violence in the Czech Republic, were filed by Roma between 1997 and 1998.
Although the majority of asylum requests were denied, with only three out of 560 requests granted between 1997 and 1998 in the UK (US Department of State: “Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998”), the Roma continued in their attempts to emigrate.While the attempted emigration of substantial numbers of Roma in 1997 and 1998 brought the issue of Roma rights onto the Czech political agenda, the EU Commission’s 1999 Progress Report concluded that greater attention to the issue of the Roma in the Czech Republic had not improved their situation.For example, in October 1999, a wall was erected to separate Romani and non-Romani residents in a district of the city of Ust nad Labem.
This action drew international criticism and a statement from Gnter Verheugen, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, who referred to the construction of the wall as a “violation of human rights” (Poolos, 21 October 1999).Local residents insisted that it was not an issue of discrimination but rather a means of dealing with the loud noise and disorder coming from the tenement building. The “noise and hygiene barrier,” according to city spokesman Milan Knotek, would separate the “decent people” from the “problematic community” of Roma (US Department of State: “Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998”).In response to the construction of the wall, Czech leaders including President Vclav Havel and Pavel Zreck, the deputy interior minister, immediately called for its removal. The wall was ultimately dismantled in November 1999. According to the EU Commission’s 2000 Progress Report, not only was the wall removed but a state subsidy of CSK (Czech koruna) 3.6 million (approximately USD 88,000) was provided to purchase the houses of those citizens who initiated the construction process.Other evidence of discrimination against the Roma can be seen in the rising incidents of racially motivated crime in the Czech Republic.
Between 1997 and 1998, the number of members of extremist groups doubled to almost 10,000 people. In addition, 133 racially motivated crimes, mainly against Roma, were committed in 1998 (EC Progress Report, 1999).According to the Ministry of the Interior’s 2000 “Report on Extremism,” there was “a slight increase in the number of followers of extremist movements over the period 1998-1999.” However, the increase in followers was significantly less than that reported in the previous year. The number of racially motivated crimes in 1999 also rose to 316, up from the 133 reported in 1998 (EC Progress Report, 2000).
Recognizing the increase in extremist followers and the rising number of attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic, the government took active steps to combat the growing problems. In December 1999, the Czech government initiated the country’s first ever anti-racism campaign. The government offered not only verbal support for the project but also allocated CSK 10 million (approximately USD 245,000) from the state’s budget to support the campaign (EC Progress Report, 2000).Bibliography: