Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2011 census, the Roma community were estimated at 105,738, around 2 per cent of Slovakia’s total population of around 5.4 million. However, the number of Roma is commonly underreported in government statistics, with other estimates suggest that Roma may actually make up between 7 and 11 per cent of Slovakia’s population – meaning that there are potentially more than half a million in the country. Roma live dispersed throughout Slovakia, though their concentrations in individual regions vary widely.
Although recognized as a national minority in interwar Czechoslovakia, Roma were obliged to carry ‘Gypsy Personal Identity Cards’ and nomads had to register with the local authorities every time they moved. Roma suffered severe discrimination in Slovakia during World War II, but most (unlike those in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia) avoided extermination. After the war, many Slovak Roma settled in the Czech lands.
Post-World War II, communists introduced attempts at forcible assimilation, including a ban on nomadism. During the 1970s and 1980s, assimilation gave way to segregation and to the construction of housing estates reserved for Roma. Even in the late 1980s, one-third of Slovak Roma continued to live in shanty villages. From the 1970s onwards, Roma women were encouraged to volunteer for sterilization, and there have been many allegations of forced sterilizations. On the basis of flawed psychological tests, Roma children were often sent to schools for the handicapped where they were taught manual activities. Roma employment rates gradually improved to 75 per cent of the active adult Roma population by 1981.
Although flagrant human rights violations largely ceased after 1989, Roma in Slovakia continued to suffer considerable discrimination in employment, accommodation and access to services. In 1992 the new government abandoned an attempt to alleviate the Roma housing crisis; during the Meciar years of 1992-1998, anti-Roma rhetoric by the authorities increased.
With Meciar’s defeat in 1998 and Slovakia’s decided turn toward the EU, the government initiated a number of measures intended to strengthen minority rights, and specifically Roma rights. In 1998 the new government created an advisory Council for Minorities and Ethnic Groups, in which Roma persons occupied 2 of 15 seats for minorities. Although the government passed a progressive language law in 1999 allowing minority communities to use their mother tongues in interaction with officials, a dearth of Romani-speakers in administrative positions drastically limited its practical effect. A new Anti-Discrimination Act passed in 2004 banned discrimination, including on the basis of ethnicity, in areas including employment, provision of government benefits, healthcare, and education. Also in 2004, in light of continued complaints that Roma women still faced coerced sterilizations, the government adopted a law specifying that sterilizations only be conducted at the request of the patient, and only following a 30-day waiting period from the request.
Elections in 2006 resulted in the parties of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and ultra-nationalist Jan Slota returning to government as junior partners in the centre-left ruling coalition. Anti-Roma rhetoric during and after the campaign worried Roma rights advocates, especially in light of the continued problem of hate crimes directed at the community.
In 2007, a group of Roma civil society organizations wrote to Prime Minister Robert Fico to express concern about rampant evictions of Roma carried out by municipal authorities, often in violation of domestic and/or international law. To this day, no suitable housing has been found for the Roma forcibly evicted over a decade ago.
Roma in Slovakia still confront deep and prevalent discrimination in employment, education, housing, healthcare, and provision of government services. The housing crisis for Roma citizens in Slovakia persists, with many living in slum conditions: for instance, the village of Jarovnice houses 5,600 Roma in an area of less than one square kilometre. Continued evictions lead to a swelling of these slums, with little evidence that Slovak politicians are currently looking for solutions to this problem.
Despite legal provisions for minority language education, as yet there are no Roma-language schools. Rather, Roma children continue to be disproportionately placed in separate schools for students with developmental disabilities, even when test results do not warrant it. Unemployment rates for Roma remain extreme, particularly in certain areas of the country, and almost 40 per cent of the Roma population in Slovakia is out of the workforce entirely.
A number of Roma women have filed legal complaints over their forced sterilization with the European Court of Human Rights, with sterilizations carried out on them without their knowledge. In November 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found that Slovakia in fact violated these Roma women’s rights, declaring that sterilization without prior full and informed consent violates a person’s right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment and their right to respect for private and family life.