Ostrava, CZECH REPUBLIC, ( RNN Correspondent ) , 17 August
Under round-the-clock police guard, a prefab hostel
awaits new inhabitants: Roma families flooded out of their homes. A ruined
workers' barracks next door is another future shelter.
Resettlement begins this week, after a summer of disastrous floods hit
Roma settlements on the outskirts of the city especially hard. But the
crude dwellings only extend an existing ghetto and reinforce feelings among
the Roma, who prefer to be called Roma, that they are being pushed farther
onto the margins of society.
That feeling has prompted Roma to look for a way out. When a private
TV station aired a documentary Aug. 6 depicting Canada as a land where
Roma can leave poverty and discrimination behind, many started selling
their belongings and bought plane tickets.
Czech citizens need no visa for Canada, so Roma simply apply for residence
or refugee status once they reach the country. Canadian embassy switchboards
have been jammed with calls, and plane tickets are booked through October.
At least 16,000 of the Czech Republic's estimated
200,000 Roma live in Ostrava, the country's third-largest city. Several
told The Associated Press that they planned to leave for Canada within
a month, but fearful of publicity, they declined to speak further.
It is not certain Canada will accept them. The Czech news agency CTK
reported that a family of six arrived back in the capital of Prague on
Saturday after failing to gain residence status in Canada.
On Friday, CTK quoted the head of the Czech consulate in Ottawa, Eva
Hendrychova, as saying that Canadian authorities had turned down six Roma
Many of their Czech neighbors would be happy to see them go.
Voicing stereotypes common throughout Europe, Czechs
claim that Roma, with their traditionally large families, are a drain on
the social service budget and live better than Czechs with jobs. They regard
Roma as dishonest and often criminal.
In a 1996 poll cited in the U.S. State Department's human rights report,
35 percent of Czechs favored "concentrating and isolating the Roma" and
45 percent supported "moving the Roma out of the Czech Republic if possible."
Karel Helstyn, a waiter at the Radegast beer hall in Ostrava, said the
restaurant would not serve large groups of Roma.
"The problem is when 10 or 15 of them turn up," he said. "They're noisy,
they often fight, and as a rule all the other guests leave. So we say we're
Roma say the beer hall's policy is nothing new -- most restaurants and
bars in Ostrava, located 200 miles east of Prague, refuse to serve them.
Security guards trail them in shops. Skinheads taunt and beat them.
The head of a local district government even offered to pay most of their
costs to Canada if they gave up any future claim to scarce housing.
"They're so racist against us, it's like we're behind God's back," said
17-year-old Claudia Horvath, a Roma from Brooklyn, N.Y., who came to live
with relatives this year because of family problems at home.
Officials deny any systematic discrimination.
City council spokeswoman Jana Pilarova said Ostrava
had several programs for Roma and other disadvantaged minorities. She said
that a special school was opened specifically for Roma children.
Josef Stojka, a Roma activist in Ostrava, says such programs condemn
them to the underclass.
"How can we develop an intelligentsia, really educate people, when all
the kids go to these schools for the learning disabled?" he asked.
Most Roma living in the Czech lands are descendants of immigrants resettled
from Slovakia after World War II to fill the void left by deported Germans.
Human rights organizations have criticized the
Czech Republic for its reluctance to give Roma Czech citizenship when Czechoslovakia
split in 1993.
While some Roma have become successful entrepreneurs, the community
as a whole suffers from an estimated 70 percent unemployment, illiteracy,
poverty and health problems.
Many live in segregated housing, like the makeshift dormitories on the
outskirts of Ostrava, where Roma families will each be given one room and
share a washroom. Police are posted to make sure they don't steal construction
materials or vandalize the site.
Stojka said Czech authorities have been ineffective
either in stopping harassment or improving the lives of Roma. Racially
motivated attacks often are treated as simple fights, he said. Legislation
and programs to discourage criminality and improve education have been
Premier Vaclav Klaus has urged Roma to stay home and demanded that a
government advisory body come up with concrete proposals on subjects including
education, employment, housing and discrimination against Roma.
"When we've urged them to do something, nobody has lifted a finger,"
says Miroslav Holub, a successful labor contractor who is head of Ostrava's
Democratic Union of Roma.
"Meanwhile, the problems of Roma in society are piling up," he said.
"Many of them have no choice but to leave for Canada."