The tragedy and desperation of this summer’s Mediterranean human trafficking has slowly drawn blood even from the stone of David Cameron’s largely retiring isolationism, and united an unsteady Europe in sharing the humanitarian responsibility, or the accompanying rhetoric at least. The major parties have been joined in sympathy. There could be no other response. The savagery of Syria, the poverty of the Sahel, civil war and stagnant prospects are potent push factors. The comparative, indeed shockingly contrasting wealth and security of Europe is a justified pull. Yet one need not leave Europe to witness this cruel, international carrot-and-stick migration at work. Less sanguine, but perhaps more insidious, is the enduring maltreatment of the Roma people within the palisades of Festung Europa.
Time makes an embarrassment of prejudice. The brief passions of populism, racism, and the punitive attitude to difference eventually dissipate. Pogroms of faith, of race, of class or nationality appear all too frequently in any study of history, drive people from home and across seas, but hindsight will always be witness to the crudity of such views, and the savagery of their being acted upon. And yet, in the unfortunate and familiar regions so damaged by identity-driven violence and mistreatment, the divisions remain.
Slavic amid the Germanic, Protestant amid the Catholic, engulfed by the Hapsburgs, the Reich, and the Warsaw Pact, the Czechs have known division, and the temporary triumph of prejudice. Now, liberated and liberal, the national mentality demands quietly keeping oneself to oneself, and an acceptance that others will do likewise. In Prague, Czech au pairs happily escort the children of African-American expats to school. Each neighbourhood boasts several potravinys where, almost without exception, families of Vietnamese descent sell everything one could possibly need, from beer to scented candles. Such is the draw of the capital internationally that there is a positive rainbow of tourists, and the LGBT community thrives without the batting of even the most traditionalist eye. Nevertheless, entrenched attitudes, suspected to have been overcome along with so many others, play out presently. One can detect a kind of social atavism, even a verbal regression when the subject of the Roma, the Cikani, is discussed: ‘lazy’, ‘criminals’, ‘they live off the state’. These tired accusations are the cause of a system of injustices in the Republic, and are then fuelled and reinforced by the results.
State authority has been a justified source of suspicion for the travelling peoples within the Czech lands, and continues to be. With gypsies in the Protectorate almost annihilated under Nazi occupation, the incoming Roma population was then subject to a reverse deracination by the incoming Communist authorities, eliminating the nomadic lifestyle. The subsequent trend was to segregate the newly embedded population. It is this discrimination which finds both young and old jobless by Praha hlavní nádraží, with a bottle of beer or something stronger before them, rather than a commute.
Some of the mechanisms of this segregation have been noted by the European Court of Human Rights, in particular the commonplace, coerced or non-contested enrolment of Roma children in schools intended for those with special needs, ‘The disproportionally high number of Romani children being recommended for enrolment into primary education for the mentally disabled persists’, explains Zdnenĕk Ryšavý, writer, activist and director of ROMEA, a group campaigning against abuses to Roma rights, ‘it is much more probable that a Romani child will be recommended for enrolment…according to a reduced curriculum, than a Czech child’. Roma children in these schools are estimated to comprise nearly a third of the student body. Of the overall number of Roma students, seventy-two percent leave education early, compared to twenty-five percent of non-Roma. With a free tertiary education system, and an expectation of degree-level qualifications for employment in the increasingly modern economy, the meagre education available is often suitable only for low-paid, informal work, or maligned state-dependence.
While catchment areas may be of concern to those seeking a better education for their children, for Zdnenĕk they are demonstrative of his worries, ‘there are many more primary schools today that are mostly Roma or all Roma in the
Czech Republic due to residential segregation’. In these homogenous areas unemployment is calculated at ninety percent. The inevitable and dramatic deterioration in standards of living, and the increases in criminality, are obvious results. Landlords frequently refuse to allow mixed tenancies, and provide little or no maintenance of Roma properties. The unofficial practices are entrenched to the point where Zdnenĕk states, ‘no one cares about improving the living conditions of socially excluded people living far below the poverty level’. Enforced or ignored abjection is then stereotyped, cruelly reversed to blame the victims, and used in the anti-Roma rhetoric indulged in even by members of parliament. MP Tomio Okumura – himself not of entirely Czech heritage – has gone so far as to deny the fatal purposes of the well-known Cikani concentration camp, Lety.
Along with the neighbouring Czech Republic, Slovakia has also, under the vassal presidency of Josef Tiso and subsequent Soviet influence, been party to ethnic discrimination. Both republics have been in receipt of harrowing legal action by victims of once-official attitudes being acted upon. Recent membership of the European Union has provided a judiciary platform for Roma plaintiffs to report their involuntary, often surreptitiously administered, sterilisation. The popular preconceptions which made such attempts at eugenics permissible under the one party system remain in the modern, putative image of the Roma people as poor, unhygienic, unintelligent, and criminal. Long after the revolutions of 1989, a common disdain endures. Long after the Czechs, Slovaks, and so many others freed themselves from Eastern Bloc repression, the Roma are still fettered.
On a brief visit to Bratislava I was witness to the low-level, prosaic prejudice toward this minority, even in my extremely genial and otherwise cosmopolitan host, ‘Of course I do not like them, they take our money, they do not work. Why should I work for their money?’. This largely apolitical native it was who, when walking about the concrete greyness of the city, translated the surprising shouts directed at our group, perhaps with the trace of a spit, by an old lady, ‘She said “The Jews are ruining this country. They are a disease in this land”, she’s crazy’. Although they differ somewhat in their extremity, these opinions have something in common: the accusation or suggestion of parasitism. This seems at least a necessary if not sufficient part of ethnic oppression. It can be found in the cracked outburst of this old Slovak, in the material of Goebbels’s ‘Public Enlightenment’ Ministry, and in the characterisation of the Tutsi, by the Hutu, as cockroaches. The outcomes of these hatreds had, of course, further practical requirements for action, and opportune circumstances to realise their truly abhorrent results. Nevertheless, even commonplace characterisations establish the mistrusted other in the public imagination, and such outgroups are easily legislated against without popular opposition.
Zdnenek is concerned at the impact of such rhetoric within the Czech Republic, ‘Politicians are scoring political points with hateful, populist slogans. The media are abandoning journalistic ethics, professionalism and their role in society in favour of higher ratings and a larger readership’. As a counterweight to this ROMEA attempts to report on the Roma situation, finding frequent abuses of the constitution in local municipalities, with widespread discriminatory practices in housing and education. Duchcov, over the border from Dresden and the Pegida heartland, is a perfect example of this localised abuse. Agencies have been established to ensure equitable treatment, but their success is limited in the eyes of ROMEA’s director, ‘collaboration with the towns is always necessary…In some towns that political willingness is lacking and the situation for the Roma is deteriorating’. With a decentralised approach to alleviating these social ills, effective solutions are often hostage to the inclinations of local officials, those whose tenure stands to be lengthened by exploiting antiziganist sentiment, and adopting segregationist, punitive policies. In the manifold injustices which follow, the stereotyped lifestyle for which the abused are stigmatised is reified, and the bigots fulfil the prophecy of their own prejudice.
In an ancestral reversion, the Roma of central Europe are once again on the move. Greater economic opportunities lie to the west, and the U.K has become a popular choice for those escaping stultifying marginalisation. The incumbents must be careful not to inherit the burdens of the culture of maltreatment borne by Roma and non-Roma alike. With public concern with immigration at the forefront of recent electioneering, and the jovially opportunistic Mr. Farage having piloted the discourse on migrant populations into immoderation and repressive one-upmanship, the mobile minority could find waiting for them the same populist agenda and vulnerability to discrimination they face further east. Combatting the politics of scapegoating which would cast the Roma people as villains before their arrival is a priority. Of equal importance, the incoming population must not cast themselves in the role experience has forced upon them, that of the indigent and the oppressed. ‘They must raise their heads’, Mr. Ryšavý urges, ‘integration is always a bilateral matter. If only privileged “whites” are making the decisions about Romani integration, it will never work’.
As the humanitarian efforts continue in the Mediterranean, governments must avoid complacency on the continent. There are estimated to be between ninety thousand and two hundred thousand Roma currently residing in the U.K. Any equitable circumstance for the long-suffering migrants must involve a reversal of the failed policies continuing in the Czech Republic – where partisan decision-making has made little advance in ending ghettoization and neglect – and a reversal of the results of such failure: the widespread prejudice against the Roma population, and the normalcy of poverty among its members. Removal of the cultural, legal, and financial conditions for victimizing must be wed to a resistance to victimhood on the part of the Roma, embracing the opportunity for political participation, and establishing an independent, custodial voice for their rights. The challenge and responsibility of any entente for equitable treatment of migrants, must be to ensure the success of both, and end the cycle of deprivation and discrimination which, like the red wheel of their flag, has always revolved with the Roma.
First published by Freedom Press 23/07/2015