Commentary: Active, emancipated Roma by 2020 is goal of Czech strategy
Government strategies are not usually the most attractive or readable of texts. As far as the position of Romani people is concerned, readers can find many government documents have been produced already, including the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion or the Strategy for Social Inclusion.
Now a new document is asking for our attention, namely, the Romani Integration Strategy to 2020 (2020 Strategy). The utility of these strategic plans consists of the fact that they convey a vision, formulating the direction we want to go and the routes we choose to get there.
It's not suprising that at a time when Romani people are facing an increasingly hostile mood here, and when large numbers of them are living in unsuitable conditions on the outskirts of society, that the aim of the 2020 Strategy is to achieve a state of affairs in which such differences will cease to exist between the majority society and a significant proportion of Romani people. These are differences that currently persist to the detriment of the Roma.
That means Romani people should eventually obtain similar results as the majority society on indicators such as income levels or levels of education achieved. At the same time, they must stop having to face discrimination and should have room to develop their identity as a national minority here.
The 2020 Strategy also takes into consideration the need to reverse the apathy and feeling of powerlessness suffered by a significant proportion of Romani people. What is important is that its measures are not solely targeting people living in excluded localities.
The strategy also focuses on that part of the Romani population which has managed to integrate. It offers measures and opportunities also designed for the Romani intelligentsia and middle class.
The position of Romani people is unsatisfactory in many EU states, including in the countries of Western Europe. A testament to this is a survey performed by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2009 which found that Romani people represent the most-discriminated group of EU inhabitants.
At EU level, however, until recently there was no coordination of activities focused on Romani inclusion and each country addressed this issue in an isolated fashion. The year 2011 was a breakthrough for efforts to address the Romani situation at EU level, as that was when the European Commission adopted its first strategic document on this area.
Specific steps then followed that adoption. The entire process, however, is complicated by the fact that this is a very sensitive political question.
States often refuse to address this problem at international level, saying it is their own internal affair. In recent years the Czech
Republic was an advocate of that position, preferring a defense of state sovereignty to a defense of its citizens' human rights.
The shift toward active participation at EU and international forums, as well as the enhancement of bilateral cooperation included in the draft 2020 Strategy is, therefore, very desirable. Moreover, it is not surprising that international criticism of the position of Romani people is one of the strongest motivations forcing the Czech state to stop ignoring this problem.
The 2020 Strategy sets out a total of 12 strategic aims. More concrete, specific aims then follow from those, including, primarily, measures for their fulfillment.
The aims dedicated to specific problematic areas are worth presenting here. It is not surprising that they include long-smoldering problems such as access to education or housing, as well as neglected topics such as Romani participation.
As a minority without their own state, Romani people face barriers to preserving their customs, language and tradition. The development of their identity could be a fundamental contribution toward their emancipation.
For the years to come, the 2020 Strategy proposes providing support for instruction in and the use of the Romanes language, as well as thoroughly familiarizing the public with Romani culture and history. Support for living culture is to play a significant role (e.g., the Khamoro Festival), as will institutions involved in preserving Romani culture and memory such as the Museum of Romani Culture and the memorials to the victims of the Romani Holocaust at Hodonín by Kunštát and Lety by Písek.
Access to quality education is usually presented as the key to undermining the poor position of Romani people. At the same time, numerous pieces of research show that the educational gap between the majority population and Romani people persists, with a disproportionate number of Romani children educated in the "practical primary schools" and Romani children being segregated in mainstream schools in general.
The aim is for Romani children to achieve, on average, the same education as non-Romani children. Their incorrect assignment into a parallel education stream, therefore, must stop, and there is a need to ensure that more Roma make it to high school and university.
The 2020 Strategy proposes continuing the implementation of measures that are time-tested in this area. These include establishing teaching assistant positions and awarding scholarships to Romani high school pupils.
However, it will also be necessary to monitor the implementation of these measures in practice more thoroughly. Just like in the education system, the labor market currently is being influenced most unfavorably by economic problems and Romani people are a group particularly at risk.
The rising numbers of long-term unemployed and the low level of employment of persons with only primary educations or without educations at all is also evident. Discriminatory behavior on the part of employers also plays a negative role.
For Romani people to receive the same chance at employment as members of the majority, the active employment policy must target them and provide them individual counseling that is cognizant of their needs. As the 2020 Strategy further proposes, it will be necessary to support Romani people's first work experiences on the one hand and their lifelong learning on the other.
The challenge will be to involve Romani people living in social exclusion in the labor market. For that reason, the 2020 Strategy includes support for social entrepreneurship.
Many Romani people live in excluded localities and encounter prejudice from landlords on the ordinary rental housing market. An increasingly larger number of households, therefore, are forced to use the unsuitable residential hotels that have been established either by municipalities or private owners.
There is nothing subtle about the lack of social housing in the Czech environment. That is why the 2020 Strategy establishes the aim of making sure no Romani family with children ends up permanently housed in residential hotel facility or in any other form of substandard, temporary housing.
The strategy plans to support non-discriminatory access by Romani people to municipally-owned or social housing as well as to rental market housing. It will also be essental to reform the system of undignified housing facilities like the residential hotels and ensure Romani people can access social housing.
The 2020 Strategy does not, however, much focus on the situation in excluded localities and ghettos because that has already been addressed by the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion. Romani people who do live in excluded localities, however, often have difficult accessing social services as well.
There will be a need to support the availability of social and other services corresponding to specific needs. These include work in the field in Romani localities, commnity work, and drop-in services.
In excluded localities there are not just problems with accessing social services, but also with accessing health care. The result is a worse state of health for the people who live in those areas and the 2020 Strategy also reflects how to improve this situation, for example, by training more health workers for it.
Thanks to their visible differences, Romani people are one of the groups most likely to fall victim to discrimination. The Anti-
Discrimination Act has been in effect in the Czech Republic for several years now, but we are still waiting for it to produce some fundamental results.
The 2020 Strategy proposes arranging for aid and protection to the victims of discrimination by creating a system of free or financially affordable legal aid. Another tool is facilitating the filing of public interest lawsuits for protection from discrimination, as well as educating judges and other legal professionals in anti-discrimination law.
Expanding the powers of the Office of the Ombud would also help. Last but not least, pupils and students will have to be educated toward greater tolerance.
Among the 2020 Strategy's meaningful measures are a public campaign against hatred, and collaboration with the media in order to get rid of prejudice in their reporting about minorities. Biased media reporting has contributed to the evident growth in anti-Romani sentiment and violence in the Czech Republic in recent years.
The problem is no longer solely one of right-wing extremism, but also of the support by some members of the public for right-wing extremist actions. The 2020 Strategy proposes paying attention to antigypsyism as a special form of racism with which many Romani people have personal experience.
The prevention of petty crime by people living in social exclusion and the involvement of Romani people in eradicating such crime by developing the crime prevention assistant program is another measure germane to this area. After all, Romani integration primarily takes place at local level.
Exclusion, inter-ethnic tensions and segregation are most evident at local level as well. Municipal and Regional Authorities should take the situation of Romani people into account when adopting political measures.
The 2020 Strategy also appeals to municipalities to enhance the local involvement of Romani civil society. Romani people cannot continue to be perceived as passive recipients of aid, but must be perceived as active participants in decisions about social life.
The task here will be to support increased representation of Romani men and women in executive positions in the public administration. Even though that aim has received a negative response from the media to date, there is no question that it makes sense.
Currently the prospects of many Romani people are restricted to performing auxiliary, poorly paid work. That will never make it possible for them to bridge the gap between themselves and the majority society.
This is where the involvement of Romani people at all levels of life will be important. Where will this find us in 2020?
It could be objected that various strategies concerning Romani people have already existed for years here, that problems persist nevertheless, and that in some respects they are worsening. If the aim is to change the situation for the better and stop the cycle of Romani exclusion and marginalization, scepticism must be set aside, and there is a need to find the resolve to remove the barriers preventing Romani people from fully enjoying their rights.
For years we have primarily heard about negative measures being proposed in the media and political discussions about Romani people, and the 2020 Strategy now proposes positive ones. It does not focus only on socioeconomic tools in the area of exclusion, and it does not ignore the problem of discrimination and human rights violations more generally.
What will be key will be whether we succeed in building functional communications between those who design policy at local and state level, those who work in civil society, and those in the Romani communities. Given that this is a politically sensitive topic, there will be a need to find the political will to solve this problem and not to neglect communication with the public, who are generally not on the side of the Roma.
The measures proposed by the 2020 Strategy are many and it will not be easy to achieve them. One barrier definitely will be a lack of majority-society will to support positive measures for Romani people.
This means the involvement of Romani people will be even more important. If we succeed in accomplishing that, it will be even more realistic to expect fulfillment of the 2020 Strategy's vision.
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