Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the results of the 2001 Census, there were 11,746 Roma (0.1 per cent of the population) and 23,211 speakers of the Roma language. Unofficial estimates, which are not contested by the authorities, put the real number of Roma living in the Czech Republic at 150,000 to 200,000. The Roma community in the Czech Republic mainly comprises Slovak and Hungarian Roma who entered the territory after the Second World War. Nomadic Czech and Moravian Roma were almost entirely destroyed during the Nazi occupation.
Approximately one-third (100,000) of Roma in the Czech Republic are Slovak citizens. The Czech citizenship law, which came into force on 1 January 1993, makes citizenship conditional upon a prior two-year residency and five years without a criminal conviction. An amendment passed in June 1993 requires evidence of economic means and of stable accommodation. Although these measures are not in violation of international law, they have been criticized as discriminatory by the 1994 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting on Romany Issues. Roma without Czech citizenship are not entitled to free medical care or education, nor may they participate in the privatization process. They may also be deported at will by the authorities.
Although recognized as a national minority in inter-war Czechoslovakia, Roma were obliged to carry ‘Gypsy Personal Identity Cards’ and nomads had to register with the local authorities every time they moved. Under the communists, attempts at forcible assimilation were introduced, which included a ban on nomadism and a policy of sterilization. During the 1970s and 1980s, assimilation gave way to segregation and to the construction of housing estates reserved for Roma. On the basis of flawed psychological tests, Roma children were often sent to schools for the handicapped where they were taught manual activities.
Some improvement in conditions followed the 1989 revolution. Cultural associations were founded and magazines in the Romani language began to be published. Roma representatives participated in the Nationalities Council and a Roma museum was established in Brno.
Roma continue to face widespread hostility, including at the hands of police and local officials. National policies on non-discrimination have often been ignored at the local level, and decentralization of Czech government has left local officials with enhanced authorities. There have been many recent cases of discrimination against Roma in housing, employment, education, and provision of government services. In many cases, local officials have sought to enforce segregation, including through the use of evictions. In 2007 a Czech senator and district mayor in the city of Ostrava openly called for Roma to be segregated behind an electric fence. One in a group of senators dispatched from her political party to investigate her remarks in August 2007 only compounded the problem, stating that white residents hostile to Roma were ‘right more often than not’.
Over 90 per cent of Roma children were enrolled in school in 2005, but segregation remained a major problem. In 2006 a group of Roma organizations argued before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that by systematically sending Roma children to ‘special needs schools’, the Czech Republic was violating their rights to education through ethnic discrimination. In February 2006 the lower chamber of the ECtHR ruled that the organizations had failed to prove the state’s intent to discriminate. In January 2007, the Minority Rights Group supported the organizations at an appeals hearing before the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. While that decision was pending, in August 2007, a committee of the European Parliament released a report finding that fully half of all Roma children in the Czech Republic were assigned to ‘special needs schools’. In November 2007, in a landmark decision, the Grand Chamber overturned the previous decision, and ruled that the Roma children had had their rights violated when Czech authorities sent them to special schools without adequate justification. MRG’s Roma expert says “One of the consequences of the decision is that it establishes a positive duty on the government, to eliminate racial segregation in schools by taking into consideration the special needs of Roma as a disadvantaged group.”
A group of NGOs made a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in July 2007 to urge measures tackling human rights abuses against Roma in the Czech Republic. In their filing, the European Roma Rights Centre, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Life Together, and the Peacework Development Fund cited extensive racial discrimination. They called for justice for Romani women who were forced to undergo sterilization over the course of decades, and passage of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to include such areas as housing, employment, and education.