Czech Govt Human Rights Commissioner: Romani people are persecuted here, welfare abuse is exaggerated
In an interview with the weekly magazine Reflex, Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková says it is complicated and unpleasant to be a Romani person in the Czech Republic and that right-wing extremists are exploiting people's dissatisfaction with the state of the country. News server Romea.cz brings you the interview in full translation:
Q: In your view, is the so-called Romani question a racial or a social problem?
A: I don't know what that means exactly when you use the term "so-called Romani question". Most probably you are referring to the overall position of Romani people in the Czech Republic, including their coexistence with the majority population. Many of our Romani people have long found themselves in socially adverse situations. They live in residential hotels or in poor-quality buildings on the outskirts of towns, they have no work, and thanks to their low qualifications, it is very hard for them to find any. That is why they often start choosing other ways to solve their problems. Unfortunately, today there are two groups that are often mistaken for one another. In the Czech Republic, according to expert estimates, there live a total of about 180 000 Romani people. Research shows that approximately 60 000 or perhaps 80 000 Romani people live in places with social problems like those I am discussing - in other words, less than half of all the Romani people in our country live in such circumstances, and most of them live fully integrated into society. These problems are primarily of a social character. Once we learn to distinguish between the two, we can avoid misunderstandings and problems.
Q: Why are normal citizens starting to lean toward the side of the radicals?
A: Frustrations and tensions have grown in Czech society in recent years. Unemployment is rising and the opportunity to find decent-paying work is worsening along with the economic situation and price rises. The public is under pressure. If you manage to make enough money despite these obstacles, then you're successful. The unstable political situation doesn't help keep things calm, nor does the loss of faith in elected representatives. At such a moment it is very easy for radicals to latch onto this human resentment, point the finger at a clearly different, recognizable group, and say "Those are the ones who are unfairly privileged compared to you, be angry with them." This is especially easy when a conflict or incident takes place somewhere involving a Romani person, whether an adult or a child, as in the case of České Budějovice. I understand that many people today are grappling with many problems. When, in addition, they have problems with people in their neighborhoods, then it's very hard for them, especially when no one is resolving the problems and no one is discussing them with people. The fact that there is a clash of lifestyles in many places where the majority population lives next to members of the Romani minority is very often a resolvable problem, as many towns have shown us. It's not easy, but aggression and violence are not the solution.
Q: České Budějovice is not known for being a place of "racial" conflicts. Why has the clash happened there exactly?
A: I paid a visit to the Máj housing estate there. I spoke with people from the majority and with Romani people. It is evident that this is a place where the number of low-income residents has been increasing for some time, people who can't get housing in more lucrative parts of town. Of course, the housing estate is not occupied only by Romani people, only a couple hundred live there compared to many thousands of non-Romani residents. Moreover, the housing estate is very well-maintained, it's been renovated, and even the apartments of the Romani residents there absolutely cannot be compared to those in other places in the Czech Republic where there are problems in coexistence between the majority and this minority. However, for a long time no one has paid any attention to ensuring there are sufficient public amenities, investing in them, or that there are alternatives for spending one's free time there, so children and young people have started gathering in various parts of the housing estate, and that is not necessarily pleasant for everybody, as it increases tensions. It's not far from that to a conflict that launches an avalanche. Moreover, in South Bohemia there have long been strong cells of right-wing extremists who have skillfully exploited this recent dispute. Even a full week after the incident at the playground they managed to spread hateful ideas through social networking sites and incite locals on the scene to do what we have seen on the news.
Q: Has this country made any progress at all during the past 20 years on Romani integration - isn't everything worse?
A: The situation has truly deteriorated in many respects and there are many reasons for that. During a worsening economic situation when there is increased pressure to find work, those who are the least qualified have no success. People who are losing their jobs today have to look for a long time before finding a new one. They gradually lose both their motivation and their work habits and learn how to live on welfare. Many impoverished people cannot attain good-quality housing, and many end up in residential hotels, where they pay sometimes as much as CZK 20 000 per month for one room. Unfortunately, the housing benefit system makes this possible, and that money ends up in the pockets of the so-called "poverty businessmen", in particular the owners of the residential hotels. On the other hand, there still exist many places that are willing to address this situation in a more systematic way. I have visited many of them, in particular Cheb, Krásná Lípa in the Šluknov district, and Kutná Hora. Many of them collaborate with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. We have managed to introduce many preventative activities and social services to help resolve many problems in those places. Unfortunately, these successful examples are not as visible as the failures. We need these functioning examples to spread elsewhere.
Q: Are there any relevant data available regarding so-called welfare abuse?
A: What is this so-called "welfare abuse"? Welfare should be distributed to anyone who meets the legal criteria for it. If, for example, a person presents untrue information about his or her situation, then we can say it's "abuse", but the claim that this is happening is really very exaggerated. The money spent on state social benefits from the total state budget of CZK 400 billion is less than CZK 40 billion, not even one-tenth of the entire state budget, and many of those benefits are practically impossible to abuse. The parental benefit, for example, is disbursed to almost everyone who has a child. Maternity benefit is disbursed to anyone who can prove she's given birth. Manipulation might occur when reporting income while drawing unemployment benefits - those who receive such benefits might work under the table and not report their income. However, an enormous role is played in the decision to award those benefits by the relevant office, which has the option of auditing employers as to whether they are employing people under the table. The amount of money that might be abused through such practices would not impact the total state budget significantly. Housing benefits do remain an enormous problem. They are higher, and they create the impression that a particular family has a high income solely from welfare, i.e., that it pays to live on that income alone. Of course, as I said previously, a large part of those benefits never end up in the hands of those who draw them, but in the hands of the owners of residential hotels. It is those landlords, in the final result, who are abusing the entire welfare system for their personal benefit.
Q: What does the actual persecution of Romani people consist of? Some people don't think it exists here.
A: Almost any Romani person can tell you how complicated - and very often how unpleasant - it is to be Romani in our country. Very often there is an enormous grudge being held, unfortunately, against all Romani people. It starts with them being watched like hawks when they go shopping, having their bags supposedly "randomly" checked to make sure they haven't stolen something, and it continues with their being repeatedly rejected when they seek work. When they call to ask about a job they can be promised it, but when they show up in person and turn out to be Romani, suddenly the job no longer exists. When they seek housing, Romani people are often rejected by landlords who tell them "first your people have to get it together". How is such a person supposed to be able to do such a thing? How would we do it if someone wanted something like that from us? Often this is not persecution that violates laws, but a kind of common, everyday experience which is very unpleasant for many Romani people. Take the situation right now in Duchcov, in North Bohemia, for example. There, after an incident in which Romani assailants attacked a non-Romani married couple (and I emphasize that this attack deserves condemnation), social workers began auditing Romani households, accompanied by municipal police officers. I don't know what criteria they are using, but for the time being the only households audited were Romani ones. Not to mention the fact that in the currently tense situation, especially in places where we often hear slogans chanted like "gypsies to the gas chambers", "black swine", etc., many Romani mothers are afraid to perform even the banal task of taking their children to school.
Q: Is there a country similar to ours that has resolved its problems with a similar minority?
A: One can never speak of a definitive resolution, but we can discuss measures that work, to a certain degree, on problems of long-term poverty and all it entails. There will probably always be poverty in society. There is no universal recipe that works everywhere. We should learn from the British how to work on including children from various minorities into mainstream schools, including how to support them, how assistants can work, and how to create a safe environment so children feel good in school. Austria and Poland are examples of how to use social entrepreneurship to employ long-term unemployed people with low qualifications. Vienna is a city with an excellently designed social housing system and a minimum number of homeless people.
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