Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion holds national Romani meeting
On Thursday, 12 December, Romani representatives met with staff of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and the Office of the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs at Lichtenstein Palace in Prague. The meeting was attended by 80 members of the Romani community from all over the country.
Those attending were recruited from positions with municipalities, nonprofit organizations, or working as Regional Romani Coordinators. The aim of the meeting was to provide the participants an opportunity to reflect on the activity of the Agency and the Inter-ministerial Commission at regional and state level.
"Our aim is that similar meetings with Romani figures, Romani field social workers and Romani staff members of nonprofit organizations and other institutions, as well as Romani activists, be held regularly. We agreed to reconvene every quarter," Martin Šimáček, director of the Agency, said after the meeting.
The meeting was preceded by interest from most Roma in the opportunity to participate, but capacity was understandably restricted; the need to keep the discussion constructive within the realm of possibility given the size of the gathering was also a determining factor. Šimáček opened the meeting by introducing the work of the Agency at regional level through the example of two towns, Kadaň and Kutná Hora.
The director also presented examples of the Agency's involvement in various legislative processes in support of Romani integration at the state level. "I dare say the Agency is currently the most active institution within the framework of the state administration involved in supporting Romani integration," Šimáček said.
The morning part of the meeting in particular was accompanied by a slightly stormy atmosphere and discussion, prompted by the fact that Romani people do not sense that there are enough such meetings and opportunities for reflection during these unsettled times given the uncomplimentary societal atmosphere against them as a minority. One of the most frequent comments was that as a result of the growth of socially excluded localities, which politicians are focusing their attention on, the public and the Agency itself primarily discuss the Romani people living in those localities who represent a certain burden on society, a burden that then inscribes itself on the deteriorating relationships between the majority society and the Romani minority in general, providing an opportunity for right-wing extremists and populists to parasitically feed off of the topic.
Some of the Romani representatives present introduced themselves, for example, in the following way: "My name is thus and so and I am not socially excluded", receiving thunderous applause in response. What might at first glance seem like an amusing gesture, however, reflects a much deeper dejection and uneasiness among those Roma who are employed, integrated, and doing their best to aid co-existence but who are nevertheless falling victim to the generalizations about Romani people that are rife in Czech society.
The second problem discussed was the fact that in precisely this context, the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner (a position currently unfilled) or the Czech Government Human Rights Minister (should the proposal by 40 nonprofit organizations to create such a position be adopted by the government) should also focus on human rights topics affecting Romani people that are not related to social exclusion. Jarmila Balážová of the ROMEA civic association spoke of the need to work on public opinion and to designate at least one person to focus full-time (not just in addition to the rest of his or her regular work agenda) on anti-Romani scandals and statements made through the media and to work toward creating positive public opinion about the Romani minority.
Balážová also mentioned the need for a more thorough allocation of tasks among the civil society representatives on the Inter-ministerial Commission and the Czech Government Council for National Minorities so those representatives would be able to comment on the actions of and materials produced by various ministries, including both chambers of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, as well as participating in essential negotiations. David Tišer shared his experience as a former member of the Inter-ministerial Commission with those present, complaining that he had never received the necessary information from the Commission Secretariat precisely concerning opportunities to participate in such negotiations with the Czech Ministry for Education, Youth and Sport or other ministries.
The meeting also addressed the topics of collaboration between the Agency and the Office of the Inter-ministerial Commission, the functioning of the Inter-ministerial Commission, and possibly increasing the representation of Romani people during negotiations with various ministries about draft legislation. Those participating in the discussion also frequently gave their opinions of the recent anti-Romani statements made on the floor of the Czech Senate during its discussion of recommendations from the Council of the EU regarding Romani integration and strategic documents about Roma such as the Concept for Romani Integration and the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion.
The discussion also covered the need and support for the possible reintroduction of the post of Human Rights Minister and whether such a person would be taken seriously by the Government. The Romani participants also criticized those in their own ranks somewhat, calling on one another to be more thorough, to lobby the Parliament of the Czech Republic, and emphasizing the need to to rapidly respond to the disturbing statements made by some populist politicians.
"Several interesting findings came out of this meeting for me. Until now I have primarily been active at municipal level. Today I made contact with many other interesting people who are working locally also. I was surprised by how well-spoken some of them were. Now we just have to unify our opinions so we can head in the same direction," Oto Varadi, the Vice-Mayor of Ralsko, said.
Of course, some participants said they were concerned that the various proposals made at the meeting cannot be successfully implemented in the near future. In that case the meeting will just have been an opportunity for everyone to say hello to one another, to share their experiences and complain - and everything will keep running along the same old track.
"I evaluate today's meeting as very positive. Several hours of discussion gave us the opportunity to discuss many topics that have been weighing down the relationship between the Agency and Romani representatives for several years, for example, why the Agency's name was shortened, as well as how the Agency works in the regions and how it involves people from excluded localities, especially Romani people, in its work," director Šimáček said.
"We agreed to regularly repeat these meetings. They will always be held in connection with the sessions of the Inter-ministerial Commission. We will focus in much more detail on the topics the Commission is reviewing and on other current topics, such as, for example, the situation around the residential hotels and the law on social housing, or news in the area of education," the Agency director said.
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