Commentary: Integration of impoverished Roma must begin immediately in the Czech Republic
Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman has said good-faith, intensive negotiations are underway with stockholders to remove the pig farm from the site of the former concentration camp at Lety where Romani people died. Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier has said he believes a law on social housing can still be approved before the next elections.
Thanks to the Education Ministry, an amendment has been approved to the Schools Act that is meant to support the inclusion of children into mainstream schools. Basically, we should be optimistic, right?
Let's be sceptical
The removal of the pig farm that stands on part of the territory of the former concentration camp at Lety where Czech Roma died is said to be going well. The Culture Minister himself says so.
During the next few months, the Government and Parliament will adopt a law on social housing that will transform one of the main reasons impoverished Czechs (including Roma) are socially excluded - yet another minister assures us of that. We already have a law that will make it possible for Romani children to learn together with everybody else and be considered a natural part of the society around them from an early age.
Our experience, of course, puts the brakes on our optimism, which is why some healthy scepticism will do no harm. How many other ministers have said in the past that the pig farm at Lety wouldn't last, or that the law on social housing was already being drafted?
It is difficult to recall how many such optimistic estimates and promises we have heard - perhaps we should just count the number of ministers in all of the post-1989 admnistrations who were supposed to solve these problems in order to reach the correct number. Certainly the new approach to the schools is beginning to look hopeful, but....
Lift up your head
The "but" arises because of the complexity of the problem and its solution. Starting in just one sector of integration will not resolve anything in and of itself.
What must also begin functioning at the same time as the amended Schools Act is a social housing program, and a program to eliminate the vicious circle of indebtedness (otherwise debtors will continue to be ruled by local mafias), and a more modern concept of social work, and more job offers and motivation to find work - and also aid to the Roma so they can "lift up their heads". Those aren't just empty words - on the contrary, uplift is one of the most important matters.
Until society begins to consider Romani people equal partners, and until Romani people living on the outskirts of society improve their own approach towards those around them, we cannot count on any integration happening. When it comes to this specific point, it is Czech society's turn to make a move.
The European history of Romani people shows us, among other things, that society's refusal to accept them is the main reason some Romani people have not yet integrated - for the local, settled residents they were always unwelcome, so what kind of integration could have happened? How are they supposed to feel equal today in a society that leaves a foul-smelling pig farm on what should be a site of reverence?
Removing that farm must be understood as an action that acknowledges Romani equality. Let's imagine a pig farm standing, for example, on the territory of the Lidice memorial, or at the fortress of Terezín - we would probably rightfully rebel against that, or am I mistaken?
Integration is a two-way street
To expect that integration will be "arranged" by a couple of laws is absurd - even today's Government does not believe legislation can replace the entirety of such a complicated process. The laws are just about launching it in a successful direction.
What, therefore, is the most important thing at this moment? People should begin to speak with each other, and then they should solve problems together, directly in the places concerned.
Integration is a two-way street (and sometimes an intersection of many streets) where good will from just one side is not enough - everybody must identify with it, or to be precise, a large majority of people on either side must identify with it. Right now that is the biggest problem with the integration of impoverished Romani people living in the ghettos or localities where they have been concentrated by the landlords of apartment buildings and residential hotels, local authorities, municipalities, and real estate agents.
These people and their non-Romani neighbors are divided by their mutually bad experiences - the Czechs complain about Romani people and vice versa, and it seems that this mutual distrust is insurmountable. It will not enough to just redistribute the excluded people, or to move them into social apartments and believe everything has been solved.
The transfer of Romani pupils into mainstream schools can aid communications between Czechs and Romani people, but parents will not stop inculcating their children with prejudice against "blacks" (or for that matter against "whites"). Czechs are not going to say, from one day to the next, that it no longer bothers them to have Romani neighbors (and some impoverished Romani people are actually not pleasant neighbors).
Romani people will not stop asserting, from one day to the next, that the Czechs are racists - and some undoubtedly are racists and xenophobes. This bilateral antagonism is not going to disappear into thin air.
It is necessary to work today and every day on improving our mutual communication, to work on it over the course of several generations. Of course, we must begin now.
Maybe this could happen through newly-established (community?) centers where local people can discuss things with each other, get to know each other, meet up, eventually even do absolutely ordinary things together, such as play football. Simply put, the will to solve our coexistence problems will not arise on its own and no law will arrange it for us.
Repression has failed
Some towns go at this problem with an axe - they say it is the Romani people who must integrate by "adapting" in absolutely every respect. The towns of Duchcov and Litvínov, for example, have adopted "zero tolerance" policies that in practice involve constantly hazing people and overtly restricting their personal freedoms.
Duchcov is absolutely hopeless - the local government is a combination of extremists from the Workers Social Justice Party, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, and Social Democrats. At the Janov housing estate in Litvínov, where in 2008 ultra-right extremists attempted a pogrom against Romani residents, the "zero tolerance" has unfolded in an even more complicated way.
Local Romani residents there, for example, were being fined up to CZK 500 (EUR 18.50) for sitting on the staircases leading into their own apartment buildings as recently as 2013. Some municipal police officers also used force and intimidation against Romani residents, for which they had "cover from the top".
After news server Romea.cz reported on the officers' behavior, the town leadership began to conduct themselves a touch more humanely. Of course, even today they do not approach Romani people as their equal partners, but as nuisances that must a priori be turned around, and their practices demonstrate this generalized view.
Changing our minds
The former Mayor of Litvínov, Mr Šťovíček, justified "zero tolerance" when he was in office by (among other excuses) referring to the fact that Romani people are "too loud". He also described them as "living in the street", which is to say, in front of their homes.
Because of this, the town led its police officers to proceed against its darker-skinned citizens in ways that were unconstitutional. It never occurred to anybody at the town hall to build a children's playground, with benches for adults, 200 meters away from the housing estate so mothers could automatically take their children there.
For integration to go well we must change our approach to these problems, and we must change our minds - both Czechs and Roma. "Zero tolerance" policies have never solved any problems, of course.
That has been confirmed by a recent analysis commissioned by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. Meanwhile, according to the "Report on the State of the Romani Minority" for last year, which has been discussed by the Government, the number of impoverished apartment buildings, quarters and whole streets in the Czech Republic doubled between 2006 and 2014.
Their number rose from 300 to 600, and the number of people living in such localities also rose, from 80 000 to around 115 000. The vast majority of them are Romani.
As experience from the field shows us, the situation has been deteriorating from year to year, which makes integration that much more difficult. There is really no need to wait any longer.
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