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October 28, 2021



Civil society: The Czech state is not fully implementing its Roma integration policy

8.4.2020 14:46
PHOTO:  Petr Zewlakk Vrabec
PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec

The recently-published second and third reports from the Roma Civil Monitor project assessing the implementation of the Czech Republic's National Roma Integration Strategy (NRIS) have concluded that while the strategy identifies the ethnic discrimination of Romani people as a determining factor that influences the Romani population in many areas, its measures proposed for the purpose of ameliorating discrimination have yet to be implemented in practice. The reports have been published as part of a project aiming to beef up participation by Romani civil society in monitoring these strategies in the EU Member States.

The Roma Civil Monitor project was begun in 2017; it is financed by the European Commission and coordinated by the Center for Policy Studies at Central European University. Through the project, different coalitions of nonprofit organizations in 27 Member States are in contact with Romani communities and are thereby able to assess the actual impact of each country's strategy on the lives of Romani people and their prospects.

“These reports have opened up an exceptional opportunity for representatives of civil society to express their views on the state of integration, the Government’s strategy, and the issue of Romani people in the Czech Republic, in different areas,” said Jelena Silajdžić, the Executive Director of the Slovo 21 organization, which is coordinating the RCM reports in the Czech Republic. “They are forming a basis for further advocacy activity by the coalition of the contributing NGOs with respect to public policy design in the area of Roma integration.”

Indebtedness: If formal employment does not lead to financial stability, people choose to work outside the system

Many problems that severely impact the Romani population also impact other economically disadvantaged groups in the country. One is overindebtedness and its association with unemployment.

The current system of debt collection in the Czech Republic is leading to a situation in which formal employment does not lead to resolving debt and regaining financial stability, since the income remaining after costly debt servicing is automatically deducted is not enough to cover one's basic living needs, which leads the person to fall further into debt after borrowing what is needed to survive. For that reason, some people choose to work outside of the formal employment system.

Activists consider reform of the existing debt collection system to be crucial. That reform should result in one's participation in the formal labor market facilitating the earning of a living wage while also enabling one to meet one's financial obligations.

"This report is pointing to ongoing problems that have not yet managed to be resolved despite the Government's obligation to resolve them and the expenditure of money from the European Union on them. Our report is delivering the actual picture of the situation of Romani people in the areas of education, employment and housing," said Zdeněk Ryšavý, director of the ROMEA organization, which contributed to all three reports.

Housing: Law on social housing is lacking, housing benefit-free zones are a problem

Addressing this type of structural problem requires legislative change. This includes the laws regulating support for social housing.

The current arrangements make it possible for local governments to designate so-called "housing benefit-free zones" on their territories, i.e., areas where people cannot draw on housing benefits. That decision-making power was originally meant to serve as a way to prevent landlords from abusing benefits by charging tenants exorbitant rents that would then be covered by the state, but many municipalities have exploited this to either get rid of people who need state support to maintain their housing or to prevent the influx of new socially disadvantaged persons into their communities, even going so far as to declare their entire territories "housing benefit-free zones".

Civil society representatives have therefore been creating pressure to change social housing policy by creating a binding framework of law defining the parameters of social housing that would take the aims of the NRIS into account and that would, as per the Antidiscrimination Act, prevent discrimination in housing on the basis of ethnicity. That framework should also oblige local governments to invite Romani community members into local community planning processes.

Positive assessment of the National Program for Support of Health in Excluded Localities

Another area requiring reform is that of health care. Activists have identified many successful projects promoting preventive health care at the local level which they consider it would be beneficial to implement across the board.

Since communications barriers between health care professionals and marginalized Roma are significant factors that make marginalized Romani people's access to health care difficult, activists are proposing increasing the requirements at Czech medical schools for medical students to study intercultural communications with patients as well as ethics in medicine. On the positive side, the National Program for Support of Health in Excluded Localities has been assessed positively by the report for aiming to reduce inequities in the area of health; nonprofit organizations' projects concentrated on monitoring the state of health in Romani communities also received a positive assessment.

Abuse of Roma-targeted subsidies by projects promoting antigypsyism

The monitoring report has also pointed out that some projects formally declare integration as their aim while actually discriminating against Romani people and contributing to their social exclusion, thereby abusing subsidies targeting Romani people; the example was given in the report of a "Project Day" implemented in 2014 at a primary school in the Czech Republic with European Social Fund financing. The school, which presents itself as "inclusive", used the funds to teach Romani girls of preschool age how to become "cleaning women".

Those who designed the project presented it on the school's website with the following justification: "The profession of cleaning lady is rather attractive for socio-culturally disadvantaged children (girls especially) given its low level of theoretical sophistication." The project report posted online even included photographs of the girls.

The education system must serve all children irrespective of their ethnicity, social status or cultural background

Education is the area for which the most data exists and where the most inclusion measures have been adopted by the Czech state. According to the second-year RCM report, private foundations providing scholarships to Romani children and youth are much more effective in terms of the numbers and success rates of those receiving this support than Government programs are.

The report analyzes the difference in approaches taken by the private versus the state programs. "The Government support is not comprehensive and its impact is not being measured by any indicators," said Monika Mihaličková, fundraiser for the ROMEA organization, after the publication of the second report last year.

"ROMEA's scholarship program, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive form of support which includes, in addition to the scholarship itself, many other opportunities for education and self-development, such as tutoring or mentoring, as well as informal education and socializing by Romani students together as part of ROMEA's BARUVAS project. This support system has demonstrated that it works and could be implemented nationally," Mihaličková said.

Civil society activists consider it crucial that the education system serve all children well irrespective of ethnicity, social status or cultural background, and that requires education and training not just of pedagogues, but also of administrators and school assistants. Another key demand is the desegregation of education and the closing of schools that are demonstrably providing a lower level of education to Romani children and thereby reducing their chances of continuing on to secondary education after ninth grade, which is not compulsory in the Czech system.

Participation of Romani people in decision-making processes is minimal

While the second RCM report reviewed the crucial areas of education, employment, health and housing, the third report concentrates on neglected areas in Roma inclusion policy. Participation by Romani people in decision-making processes is one such area.

The authors of the report state that during the implementation of the current NRIS, no significant steps were taken to improve Roma participation in decision-making. Romani people are represented in the Committees on National Minorities that are able to exist at both local and regional level, but these cannot be considered anything more than formal advisory bodies.

According to the report, those committees have demonstrated no activity when it comes to the matter of promoting the participation of Romani people or other national minorities in decision-making. Similarly, the Czech Government Council for Romani Community Affairs cannot be considered as either a participatory or a representative body of the Romani minority.

The council is an expert advisory body to the Government and the degree to which it functions depends, to a great degree, on the unpaid work done by the civil society members there and the deployment of the employees of its Office, which is undersized in terms of capacity. According to the report, the ministries represented on the council do not perceive the institutional promotion of Roma participation to be their responsibility.

Another area that could have an impact on increasing Romani participation is that of the nonprofit sector. The problem there, of course, is that the financing and setup of state subsidies for implementing public policy does not directly or systematically use those subsidy programs to support projects aiming at Romani participation in the administration of public affairs.

The least-developed area is that of Romani participation in local government. Even in areas with high concentrations of Romani people, their low voter turnout is an obstacle.

The Office of the "Roma Council" needs more personnel

Another area neglected by the NRIS is the coordination of Roma policy. The coordination role of the National Contact Point for Roma is meant to be played by the Office of the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs, but in reality this designation is just a formality, as the Office does not have a big enough budget or staff to perform the role in such a way as to actually coordinate implementation of all aspects of the strategy.

Without functional mechanisms for interministerial coordination, or regular, systematic reporting, or the formal designation as to which stakeholders are responsible for which aspects of policy implementation, it is impossible to ensure that the ministries fulfill their responsibilities flowing from the NRIS. The Office is in the process of designing the next NRIS for post-2020 and is doing so without being able to consult on it more broadly and systematically or to coordinate it with the other strategic documents being redrafted for the next funding period, according to the third report.

The necessity of ethnic data collection

There is a lack of consensus about the most effective approach to take toward improving the situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic, whether to develop policies specifically targeting Roma, or to address their problems through generally-targeted policy implementation. A lack of reliable data disaggregated by ethnicity also makes it difficult to implement Roma inclusion policy effectively and to assess its impact.

Concerns persist that Romani people are not benefiting proportionately from generally-targeted policy implementation in the Czech Republic. For that reason, there is a regular raising of voices calling for more Roma-targeted approaches.

On the other hand, some emphasize that because the image of Romani people continues to be negative in the Czech Republic, it is more strategic to focus policy discourse on social inclusion per se and not to mention Roma specifically while doing so. In conclusion, the report emphasizes that if Romani people are meant to avail themselves of these measures, irrespective of how they are targeted, then it is necessary above all to pay more attention to ensuring their equal opportunities and to combating discrimination and segregation, which is not yet being done in the Czech Republic to a sufficient degree.

Social inclusion at local level: Romani voter turnout must increase

The final neglected area that the third report covers is the implementation of Roma inclusion strategy at local level. The report finds the only systemic measure for including Romani people to be the fact that Regional Coordinators for Romani Affairs can exist at regional level, as can Romani advisors at municipal level.

The NRIS itself, however, is only drafted to be binding at the level of the central Government. Regional Authorities and local self-governments enjoy a significant degree of autonomy in the Czech Republic and are very active if concerns arise that their autonomy could be endangered.

What's more, many municipalities take decisions with impunity that promote segregation and contravene the purpose of the NRIS. On the other hand, in recent years the number of local governments doing their best to implement social inclusion policies has also grown.

An important factor at the local level is political will. The most important intermediary in the area of social inclusion at local level in the Czech Republic is still the Agency for Social Inclusion.

The operation of the Agency is project-based and it does not have enough systematic financing from the Czech Republic's own budget - it cannot cover the entire country, and the content of its work depends on whether the projects it helps develop are approved or not. The important unanswered question remains, therefore, who in the Czech Republic is able to systematically remind local politicians of the human rights dimension of the problems their Romani residents face.

It is logical that the most-engaged stakeholders in the area of implementing the NRIS locally will be Romani people themselves. For that reason, it is necessary to work on improving Romani voter turnout as a priority, the third Roma Civil Monitor report on the Czech Republic concludes.

lud, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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