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Alexander Olah: Twenty years of poor Roma being integrated by Romani elites in the Czech Republic

11.4.2017 8:16
Alexander Olah (PHOTO:  Romea.cz)
Alexander Olah (PHOTO: Romea.cz)

The law on national minorities in the Czech Republic - and basically the entire concept of minority protections - is desperately far from the actual needs of impoverished Romani people in socially excluded localities. The same applies (apart from the existence of the Office of the Public Defender of Rights) to the absolutely miserable provisions for the protection of these people from institutional discrimination.

The adoration of successful Romani people, affirmative action, and the false creation of positive role models are having no effect. Where is the error?

The national stage - cast and characters

All of this is a consequence of the long-term failure of integration policies based on the principle of nationality. The integration policy of the state has long been created as the backdrop for a human rights stage play about Romani emancipation, mentality and participation that presumes only Romani people can comprehend and therefore aid other Romani people.

The genre of this production walks the thin line between comedy and drama. Its result is an absurdity of international dimensions.

This show can always be reprised whenever anybody asks how Romani people themselves are participating in changing their plight. Romani integration policy based on nationality occupies a decisive position in the entire integration process and its institutional support, the top level of which is the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs, and the opposite pole of which is the so-called Romani Advisor job.

That function was established on the basis of a Government decree from 29 October 1997. The decree was published as a response to the Report on the Situation of the Romani Community (the so-called Bratinka Report) as a reaction to the situation during a time when Romani people were emigrating to Canada in bigger numbers and their integration and the problems associated with it began to be thematized here.

That Government decree played an important role in the choice to take an approach toward integrating Romani people into society that is based on their nationality. Besides tasking all of the ministries at the time with certain obligations, including the responsibility to create the jobs of Romani Advisor and Romani Assistant at what were then the District Authorities, the decree called on Romani people themselves, in an appendix (i.e., on people who most probably had no way of accessing the material in the first place) and on influential representatives of Romani organizations to immediately propose their representatives to the Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs.

The integration of Romani people, since 1997, has therefore essentially been undertaken primarily through influential Romani representatives and "Romani" organizations. The Inter-ministerial Commission referred to above subsequently transformed into the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs, and a substantial portion of the members of that advisory body to the Government are influential Romani representatives and "their" organizations, i.e., the so-called Romani representatives.

It is a question to what degree these people actually represent the ethnic minority of Romani people, which is not a homogenous minority. Unfortunately, there is no question how these people acquire their mandate to represent everybody.

Members of the Romani representation are proposed, approved and appointed by the Human Rights Department at the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, especially by the bureaucrats in the Office of the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs. Some Romani people have proven themselves so useful in this function that they are nominated and selected for the advisory body with each new Government.

The Government of the Czech Republic, since 1997, has therefore been integrating Romani people primarily through such Romani representatives, a portion of whom are represented on the Government's advisory body. In recent years we have been able to follow the development of a certain clash between the principle of a nationality-based policy, which conditions the inclusion of Romani people in participation by means of this representation, and the social principle, which consists of responsible public policies on social inclusion.

While deploying the nationality principle can give the impression that Romani people are participating in their own inclusion, Romani people actually still are sidelined when it comes to solving problems at local level. More than the Government Council, the Agency for Social Inclusion has advocated for Romani participation at local level and in recent years has done its best to develop certain models of participation.

The Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs meets four times a year, on average. The crucial points of its meetings are usually to approve subsidies for support to the Romani minority and to discuss the Report on the Activity of the Agency for Social Inclusion and the Report on the State of the Romani Minority, the content of which essentially has not changed for quite some time.

Regions, municipalities, nonprofits and their approach to Romani people

The advisory body to the Government is not the only place where a heterogenous, rather large ethnic minority is represented by "Romani leaders" whose mandate is acquired through a one-sided choice made by bureaucrats. On the one hand, this means the area of the emancipation and integration of Romani people has just become a club for Romani elites.

On the other hand, this field of endeavor has also become a perfect alibi, not just for the national-level Government, but also for the Regional Authorities and local governments when they want to demonstrate that Romani people themselves are participating in resolving their plight. The integration policy of the state, based on the principle of nationality, cannot actually intervene at local level, though.

For some time, so-called Romani Advisors did actually work in local communities. According to the original intentions of that scheme, the Romani Advisor was supposed to be a link between local self-administrations and the Romani minority, and it was recommended that being of Romani origin should be a requirement for performing this job.

In many cities, however, some Romani people were recruited for these positions who had already managed to intervene in a rather negative way into the affairs of the excluded localities - even without their newly-acquired authority as bureaucrats in what were then the District Authorities. In some cases, for example, these people were also loan sharks.

Frequently all of the local aid available was targeted primarily to these advisors' own families. In other towns, on the other hand, Romani Advisors were found who actually developed activities to improve the situation in the excluded localities and among all Romani families, but even from within their official positions they could not ensure that the local government would follow their recommendations.

After the District Authorities were abolished, no systematic transfer of the Romani Advisor agenda to the local level was ever implemented, and currently municipalities are not legally required to establish the position of Romani Advisor. The institutional arrangements for Romani integration at local level are, therefore, currently slim.

The question, however, is whether it is actually appropriate and necessary (and in principle, integrative) to always deploy a specific instrument or job defined as "Romani" when it comes to a local government's approach towward the Romani minority, one that is performed by a person of Romani origin. Is it actually necessary to have a "local Romani leader" to act as a broker for the needs of the Romani minority on the territory of the municipality vis-à-vis
the local administration - and is that at all even possible in the case of a diverse ethnic minority?

In practice, what is being demonstrated is that this is possible just for a certain segment of the Roman minority, the one that "represents" such leaders. Often it happens that these people primarily represent their own particular interests, or the interests of a certain part of the group, which can be deciphered on the basis of the extended family ties of this or that "Romani leader", although there are some honorable exceptions to this rule.

Another still-existing element between the central government and local government levels of the institutional arrangements for Romani integration are the Romani Affairs Coordinators. Their positions are legislatively anchored by Act No. 129/2000 Coll., on the regions.

Originally the Regional Coordinators were supposed to coordinate the activity of the Romani Advisors. Currently their agenda is very broad, their positions have accumulated other aspects and expanded to include the area of foreign nationals and minorities in general.

Their task is to provide methodological support to Romani Advisors and others for the purpose of improving the cultural, political and social situation of Romani people. Frequently, however, they just replace the role once played by the Romani Advisors, who are now absent locally.

Where no Romani Advisor position has been established, work with socially excluded inhabitants is, in the best-case scenario, part of the absolutely normal agenda of the local social welfare departments as part of their local social work. In some locales, however, that agenda has still never been replaced by anything to respond in any way whatsoever to the situation of people in socially excluded localities.

Similarly, the position of a Romani Assistant in the schools has undergone a certain development. Currently we have pedagogical assistants who do not primarily have an ethnic focus, but who generally work with pupils who need assistance with their education.

The attribute "Romani" is still not being spared, though. The originally-recommended requirement that such staffers be of Romani origin, that their origin be one of the criteria according to which they should be chosen (which we can consider superfluous given current law) is one that absolutely corresponds to the concept of an integration policy based on nationality.

When considering Romani integration at local and regional level, the expression "Romani community" is generally used unsparingly as well, but even at local level the Romani minority is never comprised of a homogenous community that might be able to be represented by creating a position for a Romani Advisor or Romani Assistant chosen by representatives of local government. The nationality principle can also be followed in the rather particular confusion of the nonprofit sector, which is divided up in an absolutely absurd way (without any basis in law) between non-Romani, pro-Romani, and Romani organizations because such designations are frequently a condition for requesting subsidies for their activities in cases where an authorized applicant can only be a pro-Romani or Romani organization, i.e., one with a given percentage of Romani representation in the organization's leadership.

The trap of the concept of Roma helping Roma

In the institutional provisions for Romani integration in the Czech Republic, the nationality principle plays first violin. We have celebrations of International Romani Day, exclusive Romani trainings for bureaucrats about the mentality of Romani people that are paid for with public money and implemented by Romani nonprofit organizations, we have the Museum of Romani Culture, Romani exhibitions, Romani mentors, Romani reverence sites, and Romani students with Romani scholarships.

A certain portion of Romani people are able, thanks to this principle, to develop their "Romani" activities of emancipation and liberate themselves. Alongside this, however, we also have thousands of impoverished Romani people who are grappling with social problems for whom the nationality principle is not enough when it comes to their inclusion.

The nationality approach earmarks Romani people as a specific minority that necessarily needs specific (Romani) measures for their inclusion into society. Such an integration policy based on nationality at local level does its best, therefore, to exclude Romani people as citizens.

This policy places Romani people at the level of a very specific ethnic minority that needs specific instruments and positions to be established in the local administrations, not just so the administration can offer effective aid when solving problems that are actually more connected with poverty and social exclusion, but so the local administration can even communicate with these people in the first place.

In principle, therefore, what are created are instruments to intensify these people's exclusion. On the other hand, the impression is being created, once again, that the local administrations are collaborating with Romani people and including them.

This is advantageous both for some "Romani leaders", who are expanding their own personal influence through this approach, and for some local administrations, which take advantage of this to shift their own civic and public responsibility, in the spirit of the principle of nationality, to the "influential Romani representatives" and the notion that Romani people alone will manage to advise other Roma because of the various specifics of this ethnic minority. At a minimum it is time to reassess this longstanding principle in relation to socially excluded Romani people.

Alexander Oláh, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Institut pro sociální inkluzi, integration, Soužití, Spolky



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