Analysis: Without debt relief, Czech Gov't efforts to integrate Roma may not succeed
The impoverished, unfree people in the ghettos of the Czech Republic need to "raise up their heads" - they need to become free again, to find better prospects for their lives. How can this be achieved?
The starting point must be to emancipate these people from the influence of the traffickers in poverty (the mafia) and involve them in decision-making about their own lives, beginning with their participating in decision-making about matters in their neighborhoods. The first step in that direction should be debt relief for the most impoverished of them.
Two Government Strategies
This week the Government has reviewed two documents concerning integration and social exclusion - the Romani Integration Strategy to 2020, which it approved, and a report on the implementation of the Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion, which it audited. The fact that there exist two strategies with very similar focuses raises several questions, as does the content of both documents.
Those questions are:
- How does today's Strategy differ from documents adopted by previous administrations?
- Which is more important to such Strategies - their content, or the political will to implement them?
- Were Romani people sufficiently involved in contributing to the new documents? This is important because integration is always a two-way street.
- Do the new documents include "positive discrimination", or will their implementation involve it? Is that good or bad? Or do these documents only involve so-called compensatory measures in which we are striving to establish the same starting line for everyone?
- Can the state's approach to social housing, or the way in which Romani children are educated, aid in improving their integration?
The integration of impoverished Romani people into society is a complex problem which must be solved comprehensively. It is not enough to change the approach toward various sectors such as education or housing - solutions must be approached on the basis of a deep knowledge of these matters, since only that knowledge can reveal the priority areas where this change should begin.
The authors of the 2015 Romani Integration Strategy have that knowledge and include people who have worked in NGOs and who have consulted with other experts and directly with Romani people themselves. However, there is no room in that document for a more detailed description of these phenomena.
The resulting text is, understandably, a compromise created on the basis of comments from various ministries. We will attempt to describe here why precisely debt relief for people from the ghettos is where the integration attempt should begin.
The loss of people's prospects in life begins and ends with debt. Due to their high rates of indebtedness, the inhabitants of socially excluded localities live under the guardianship of the mafia, whose orders and wishes they are forced to fulfill.
Ghetto residents have scant opportunities for work. Primarily in the regions where the most Romani people live - the Moravian-Silesian Region and North Bohemia - the chances of getting work are few and far between.
Many Romani children are assigned to "special schools" that do not guarantee them any of the requisite qualifications for employment. In addition, they are also directly discriminated against on the labor market because they are Romani.
Some Romani people, after years of looking for work in vain, have given up on expending any more effort in that direction. Tired from losing out on their chance of at least a somewhat decent life, they resign themselves to their fate.
The traffickers in poverty who control the lives of people in the ghettos are sometimes linked to local bureaucrats, local and state police, and local politicians. That is why town halls (some of them, some of the time) do not attempt to ban neo-Nazi marches on Romani enclaves even though they do have sufficient access to the legal tools to do so.
This is also why police (sometimes, in some places) do not intervene against such marches even when they almost always have a legal reason to do so. These neo-Nazi demonstrations are part of the terrorizing of the impoverished and serve to drive them into the arms of their "protectors" (i.e., the mafia).
Some of these mafiosi are Romani themselves, which is a testament to the fact that in addition to the inter-ethnic tensions here, this is also a social problem. These traffickers in poverty also take advantage of local counter-demonstrations (against racism) organized in good faith by human rights activists - the mafia sees these moments as opportunities to demonstrate their own strength.
For example, the biggest such counter-demonstration against neo-Nazism and racism in Ostrava in recent times was attended by 400-500 Romani people, while about 600 right-wing extremists were demonstrating in close proximity to them. There were many Romani people from the ghettos in attendance at that event because the operator of a residential hotel had them transported there by bus.
Once the event was underway, a police officer came up to the group and told the trafficker in poverty that the Roma had to leave because the neo-Nazis were planning to march toward the square where the Roma were counter-protesting (their demonstration had been announced to authorities in advance and allowed to go forward). The residential hotel operator, even though he was neither an official organizer of the counter-protest nor the person who had announced it to authorities, then walked up to the microphone and told the Romani people that the demonstration was over and that they should get back on the buses immediately.
In five minutes the entire square was empty. Instead of heading toward a square where Romani people were demonstrating against them, the neo-Nazis were able to head for Romani homes near the residential hotels, where they proceeded to terrorize and threaten the Romani children and women who had stayed behind.
Many of the Romani men we interviewed after this incident told us that they were ashamed of their behavior, that they felt like cowards. The counter-protest had been the first time in their lives that they had taken the opportunity to raise up their heads, to do something necessary for themselves.
The effective cancellation of the event, however, pushed them back into depression. Once again, they learned the hard way that their lives are not in their own hands.
The mafia controls people's lives
Without any exaggeration, it can be stated that those who control life in the ghettos are getting rich on the backs of the most impoverished - they are exploiting them. That is the main reason why, despite all of the effort and money spent to integrate impoverished Roma from the ghettos, nothing is succeeding - none of the people involved have any interest in changing the current state of affairs.
The mafia and those who collaborate with them in municipal and state structures do not want to give up these sources of income - they need the people they control to remain unassuming, uneducated and unfree. Their main tool for controlling these people is their indebtedness and its intensification.
The "debt trap" is definitely the right way to talk about this situation. The mafia run a broad range of criminal enterprises in the ghettos that are connected to the culture of poverty.
Loan sharks (families or individuals) often own gaming rooms with slot machines where gamblers "return" some of the money they have borrowed to the loan sharks through their gambling losses, while the dealers and producers of hard drugs, as well as pimps, are also in business in the ghettos. They may even own buildings there, such as the overpriced residential hotels, and sometimes they even own the stores where locals shop.
In cases where the mafia do not own any businesses or real estate in a ghetto, they reach agreements with those who do operate there. Ghetto occupants could of course go somewhere else to shop, but they don't like to, because when they leave the ghetto they automatically are given a hostile reception.
The mafia determine the amount of rent to be paid for ghetto housing, increasing families' indebtedness. The amounts that these tenants pay for one room in a residential hotel are so high that if they don't have work, they must use their welfare benefits to cover the rent.
This means the ghetto residents have less money for their other needs, so they either go to the loan sharks to borrow more, or they perform some sort of "service" in exchange for them (or for other mafia) - the boys might distribute drugs, while the girls, including very young girls, become "streetwalkers". The punishments exacted by the mafia for failing to repay a loan or to perform some sort of service in exchange are harsh, ranging from eviction to broken bones or worse.
Some Romani people look for temporary work so they can at least partially extricate themselves from this trap. If they don't find any, then they collect scrap iron for recycling or commit petty theft.
Fulfill the assignment
The mafia decide on whether to evict a tenant from an apartment or residential hotel unit based on whether the person concerned is willing to fulfill their assignments and wishes according to their instructions or not. One such eviction, which took place within the space of one hour, happened last year.
During our work in the ghettos we have seen, more than once, small apartments occupied by between 10 and 15 people. Naturally, this kind of crowding occurs in the residential hotels as well, where 10 people can be crammed into a room, each of whom is paying up to CZK 4 500 per month.
The reason there is no escape from this vicious circle is that towns and villages do not want to lease their own apartment stocks to indebted families or individuals. The debtors, therefore, have no choice but to seek accommodation under mafia guardianship, which intensifies their dependency on this system.
Only a very few people in the ghettos have work - from time to time they will get a short-term opportunity or find work "under the table", but most of them are among the long-term unemployed. If they were to find a regular job, collections agents would immediately attach their wages.
Collections proceedings are an inherent part of the debt trap. This fact and the operation of this entire "system" is known to those who authored the Romani Integration Strategy.
The Strategy points out one aspect of indebtedness in relation to finding new employment: "When addressing long-term employment or a lack of willingness to enter the open labor market, overindebtedness plays a role - if a person becomes employed, his or her wages are attached; from the perspective of the debtor, entering legal employment is, therefore, a move that could worsen the economic situation of his or her family."
Debt relief missing from the Strategy
A proposal for debt relief, of course, is unfortunately not part of this integration strategy (which is to say, it is not described expressly in detail there). This may be because when Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier publicly raised the idea of debt relief for the most impoverished in mid-2104, a pack of snarling opponents lunged at him, including some of his fellow Social Democrats.
Dienstbier wanted to achieve this by changing the bankruptcy laws. Currently, a citizen's debt may be written off only if he or she manages to pay at least 30 % of it over the course of five years.
The proposed legislative changes would have made it possible for those who cannot pay off a third of what they owe due to their low income to also obtain debt relief. "This is aid to everyone who cannot cope with poverty alone. This is not just about excluded Romani localities, more and more frequently we are seeing non-Romani families who live on one adult's salary and senior citizens fall into this situation," Dienstbier said at the time.
This could, of course, be done differently as well, by transferring the debts of the most impoverished to the state. The debts would be purchased from the loan sharks (including the various registered companies that loan money at usurious interest rates) and the money would then be collected through a payment schedule with the proviso that regular payments could be automatically deducted from wages or welfare.
The payments would take place over a long period of time in small amounts so that the families could have enough money to live on every month and would not have to borrow again. The state would not lose a single crown and would help both non-Romani and Romani people who are very impoverished to raise up their heads.
It is sad that these matters are frequently decided on the basis of positions that are either ideological or populist. They are decided by politicians, most of whom either know nothing about the issues involved, or who have only very superficial notions of them.
The worst thing is that the politicians take no interest in the actual everday reality of the ghettos. It may come to pass, therefore, that we will witness an apparent paradox.
Whenever populists decide such issues, there is the danger that even more money from the state budget will end up being spent unnecessarily - Dienstbier is right about that. We can only add that without debt relief, it is not at all certain how the Czech Government's integration strategy will turn out.
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