August 18, 1997 in Nation/World

Czech Gypsies Attempting To Move To Canada Gypsies Fighting Bias

Judith Ingram Associated Press

Under round-the-clock police guard, a prefab hostel awaits new inhabitants: Gypsy 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 Gypsy settlements on the outskirts of the city especially hard. But the crude dwellings only extend an existing ghetto and reinforce feelings among the Gypsies, who prefer to be called Roma, that they are being pushed further 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 on Thursday.

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 sorry.”

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 stalled.

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.”

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