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November 20, 2018
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Czech PM chairs Govt Council on Roma, civil society members demand more Romani involvement, less paternalism

12.9.2018 14:21
Edita Stejskalová (right) and Petr Torák (center), Romani civil society members of the Czech Government Council on Romani Minority Affairs (PHOTO:  František Bikár, Romea.cz)
Edita Stejskalová (right) and Petr Torák (center), Romani civil society members of the Czech Government Council on Romani Minority Affairs (PHOTO: František Bikár, Romea.cz)

The Czech Government Council on Romani Minority Affairs addressed several points yesterday at its fourth session this year, during which the civil society members of the council stressed the need to place greater emphasis on community work and involving Romani people themselves in problem-solving; the need to cancel the disbursal of welfare benefits in vouchers instead of in money; and reiterated their refusal to approve the Czech Government's Report on the State of the Romani Minority 2017 as a gesture of their disagreement with the fact that fulfillment of the Romani Integration Strategy is failing because many measures are not being implemented. The meeting was led for the first time by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who chairs the council.

"We are proposing a transformation of how the EU funds are distributed here so that it will be possible to draw on them to finance community work that directly involves Romani community members. The advantage of our proposal is that the indicators measuring the degree of Romani integration will be absolutely clear. Up until now that has been avoided, for different reasons, and we want to change that in the next programming period," civil society member Lucie Fuková told news server Romea.cz.

Among the important agenda items that could soon have an actual impact on all those who are dependent on welfare benefits was the agreement of the civil society members of the council with the representatives of the Czech Education Ministry and Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry that disbursal of welfare benefits using vouchers should be cancelled. A certain segment of the benefit known as "aid to those in material distress" began to be disbursed by local authorities in vouchers last December.

Soon, however, it was ascertained that the "food voucher" system was not without problems:  Welfare recipients began buying and selling the vouchers in order to access cash because the vouchers cannot be used for shopping in most of the stores that are located in smaller communities, which means welfare beneficiaries spend even more money traveling to shops that will honor them - and they cannot be used to pay for lunches in school cafeterias. Civil society members of the council emphasized that because of the vouchers, the Office of the Public Defender of Rights has been flooded with dozens of complaints about complications with using them to pay for basic living needs.

The Czech PM promised during the meeting that he would reach out to legislators in his ANO party and ask that they vote in favor of abolishing the use of the vouchers. The Romani civil society members of the council also reiterated their refusal to give their approval to the Government's Report on the State of the Romani MInority in 2017 (which the Government has already taken note of).

Discussion of the report was removed from the agenda by the civil society members on the basis of their previous complaints that it is just a description of the critical state the Romani minority finds itself in and will not impact decision-making. The civil society members said their refusal is a symbolic protest against the fact that the situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic is not being satisfactorily addressed.

Romani civil society members of the council also said they are bothered by the fact that their voice is frequently not heard and that their proposals are not accepted by the Government. "We are people with practical experience and we are able to generate proposals for practical solutions to change this situation, but we must be heard. The Government and other institutions should abandon their paternalistic approach toward Romani people," Vice-Chair Martina Horváthová said after the meeting was over.

The demand was also raised by the Romani civil society members that the PM establish the post of a Commissioner for Romani Affairs whose agenda would be to defend Romani people against the impact of different discriminatory laws and who would therefore be empowered to communicate with ministers about the impact of proposed legislation prior to its adoption. "I think it is necessary to have an actual plan written down on paper and to discuss what is realistic. All of the ministers must express their opinions about why measures were not fulfilled in the past and we basically reached agreement on that," the Czech PM told Czech Television after the meeting.

ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Andrej Babiš, Rada vlády pro záležitosti romské menšiny, Vláda, Zmocněnec



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