The Best-Laid Plans
EU accession was supposed to improve life for the Czech Republic’s most marginalized minority. It didn’t. by Maria Husova and Petrana Puncheva 23 May 2006
PRAGUE, Czech Republic | Before the country’s accession to the EU, some Roma in the Czech Republic saw the union as a promised land, where the problems of poverty, unemployment, and subpar education that have plagued them for decades would be wiped out.
Two years after accession, the country boasts numerous government programs and strategies to help Roma – on paper. In reality, life for Czech Roma has hardly changed since they joined the Western family.
“The social gap hasn’t narrowed. On the contrary, it has widened,” said Jan Sipos, chairman of the Council of Roma in the northwestern town of Chomutov. Sipos’ organization tries to solve day-to-day problems for impoverished Romani communities in the region. Of Chomutov’s roughly 50,000 residents, 6,000 are Roma. Estimates of the number of Roma in the Czech Republic vary widely, from the official figure of about 12,000 in 2001 to an advocacy group’s estimate of 250,000 to 300,000. The discrepancy could be attributable to migration patterns or many Roma’s reluctance to declare their ethnicity officially.
The Czech Republic, among other member states, was slow in adopting EU directives on racial equity and fair employment practices, and has been equally slow in implementing them, say activists for Roma.
“There is still a lot of bureaucracy,” said Iveta Demeterova, editor-in-chief of the Rota radio station, which airs programs targeted to the Romani community.
AN EU PRIORITY
Between 3 million and 4 million Roma live in the EU. With Bulgaria and Romania set to join in 2007 or 2008, that number will nearly double.
During the enlargement process, Brussels attempted to train a spotlight on the problems faced by the Roma, the union’s largest minority and some of its poorest citizens. Most EU members drew up integration policies, but according to the summary report from the European Commission’s “Roma in an Enlarged EU” conference of April 2004, Roma remain excluded from mainstream society.
Racial equity and employment directives safeguard EU citizens from discrimination, calling for equal access to employment, education, social security benefits, health care, and goods and services, including housing. They give victims of discrimination the right to sue and provide for sanctions against those who discriminate. Further, they require member states to establish bodies to promote equal opportunity and give independent assistance to victims of racial discrimination.
The 10 countries that entered the EU on 1 May 2004 had to adopt the directives before accession – a task the Czech Republic completed only in 2005.
Member states were also to adopt an anti-discrimination law, the Czech version of which – drafted by the cabinet at the end of 2004 – still awaits action in parliament.
Pavla Bouckova of the Prague-based Counseling Center for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights authored a 2005 European Commission report on the Czech Republic’s compliance with EU anti-discrimination legislation. The report criticizes the country’s delay in passing the legislation and calls amendments to some national laws to comply with the directives ambiguous, noting specifically that definitions of discrimination are confusing. It also criticizes the lack of sanctions against those who discriminate and the country’s failure to establish a body that would assist victims of discrimination, both required by the directive. Under the draft anti-discrimination law, this function would be transferred to the Czech ombudsman.
The report also criticizes the Council of Roma Affairs, saying it has not made any real progress since it was established in 1999 to coordinate state policies on the Roma.
Although the government has a strategy on Romani integration, it does nothing to implement it, said Karel Holomek, former second deputy of the council and editor-in-chief of the biweekly Romano hangos
(Roma voice). Some ministers haven’t even recognized various problems, outlined by the council, that the Romani community faces, he said. “For example, Minister of Education [Petra] Buzkova doesn’t acknowledge that the Czech school system is segregated, although this is obviously the case, and she rejects any strategy in this area,” Holomek said.
Another problem, said Holomek, is opposition to Romani integration by local governments, many of which, he said, favor “ghettoization.” Holomek believes profound reform of the entire state administration is necessary to ensure better cooperation between central and local governments.
Integration can never be achieved when the unemployment rate is over 70 percent for Roma, compared with under 10 percent for the general population. Although inadequate education and qualifications play a role, activists say the main reason for high Romani unemployment is overt and covert discrimination by employers who would rather hire cheap laborers from Ukraine and other countries.
Ladislav Body, adviser to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on Romani unemployment, said an important step in reducing it was the adoption in 2005 of a law banning employment discrimination, a narrower measure than the omnibus anti-discrimination law languishing in parliament.
But for laws to have any effect, they must be obeyed. In 2005, to combat the high rate of rejection (which many consider discriminatory) of Romani job applicants, the Chomutov-based Romani advocacy group Nova sent observers along on job interviews with Romani candidates. Forty-six of the 66 candidates were hired, according to Nova president Stefan Raha.
Supporting Romani entrepreneurs is another way to boost Romani employment, said Raha, and according to the “Roma in an Enlarged Europe” report, simplifying application procedures for Romani groups applying for EU funds would also help.
As for the Czech state, Body said its social integration plan earmarks sufficient funds for Romani NGOs targeting unemployment and social problems, but Roma-run companies could better cooperate with the government. There are no statistics on the number of companies run by Roma in the Czech Republic.
Another option is retraining. The Dzeno Association, a Prague-based Romani advocacy group, has developed an economic model for integrating Roma into the Czech economy within 30 years at a cost of 750 million crowns (26.7 million euros): 500 million crowns in the first 10 years, 250 million crowns in the second 10 years, with the program supporting itself in its final decade. With Roma gaining access to the job market, state spending on social benefits would be drastically diminished and newly employed Roma would contribute to the country’s tax coffers, according to the scenario.
Romani representatives and government officials will discuss the Dzeno model at an August conference after the country’s general elections in June. “If these recommendations are implemented, you could see some changes within five years, and in 10 years there should be a significant improvement in the situation of Roma,” Dzeno chairman Ivan Vesely said.
MORE THAN A DOGHOUSE
That improvement must include better housing as well as more equitable hiring practices, according to Romani activists.
The Czech Regional Development Ministry has a housing strategy that focuses on building rental flats for those from socially excluded groups, but it has no specific program for Roma. Ministry spokeswoman Radka Burketova said the ministry cannot deal with Roma separately because the needs of the Romani community are not clearly defined.
Romani activists interviewed by TOL said state efforts on housing are not reflected in the life of poor Romani communities, where gaining access to quality and clean housing is still very difficult. They blame the lack of a targeted policy and a lack of money.
“For the time being, what is built in Slovakia for Roma are rental flats, but here some Roma live in something like doghouses. They receive unimobunk
(dwellings used by construction workers),” Nova’s Raha said.
In Chomutov, the housing policy is a purely commercial affair, according to Raha. In the past, people could hope to rent a flat owned by the municipality. Today, said Sipos of the Romani council in Chomutov, those who have money get these flats, leaving poor people out in the cold.
Public, subsidized housing is available only to those with a certain level of education, according to a February report by the Council of Europe. Such a requirement effectively excludes Roma and is an example of indirect discrimination, according to the report, which recommended scrapping the criterion. Representatives of the Czech parliament did not answer TOL’s questions on this issue.
The summary report of the “Roma in an Enlarged Europe” conference recommended inclusion of housing funds for Roma in the EU Regional Development Fund for the years 2007 through 2014.
"OBSTACLES AND DELAYS"
The European Commission has declared 2007 the European “Year of Equal Opportunities for All.” The commission, the EU’s executive body, wants to force EU members to integrate the EU legislation into their national laws, a process that “has encountered too many obstacles and delays,” according to Czech commissioner Vladimir Spidla, the EU’s employment and social affairs commissioner. The European Court of Justice has already chastised Austria, Finland, Germany, and Luxembourg for not adequately incorporating EU anti-discrimination legislation, which was supposed to be adopted by 2003.
But real change is likely to take generations, at least in the Czech Republic. “It’s necessary to change people’s mentality and that’s happening through generational changes, if the younger generations aren’t brought up with these same attitudes,” Holomek said.