Czech Republic: Roma combat drugs and prostitution in collapsing neighborhood, minors may be involved
The Předlice quarter of Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic is probably justifiably perceived to be the country's most socially excluded locality. The vast majority of residents are Romani people, some of whom moved there voluntarily over the course of the 20th century, are mostly well-integrated and maintain their housing, and some of whom have ended up being concentrated there more recently as a consequence of the distorted form of the local rental housing market.
Předlice: One of the few opportunities for Roma to rent
There is a high degree of ethnic discrimination on the local rental housing market - Romani people in Ústí nad Labem have almost no opportunity to lease an apartment for a "normal price" in a "normal" part of town because "normal" landlords do not want Romani tenants. Renting apartments in Předlice is one of the few options local Roma have for addressing their housing.
"Traffickers in poverty" exploit this to lease apartments for exorbitant rents to Romani tenants in Předlice and other excluded localities that are of the lowest possible quality in buildings that are in catastrophic states of repair in terms of hygiene and structural integrity. During the 1990s, strongly-positioned Romani families in the neighborhood were also renting out housing in buildings there that were absolute ruins for excessive sums, but years ago the Roma landlords were pushed out of that profitable business by "white" Czech business people who currently own most of the real estate and profit from the catastrophe that is Předlice and from its residents.
In the past, several apartment buildings in the quarter have collapsed and their residents have ended up covered in rubble, including one fatality. In March 2017 yet another building on one of the quarter's two main roads, Marxova Street, collapsed, and the thoroughfare has since been closed to traffic.
This summer building no. 106 on Beneše Lounského Street also collapsed, and that street has also been closed to traffic ever since. Both buildings are at risk of further deterioration that could harm people in the vicinity.
Very nearby the residential housing is a massive series of dumps that have been expanding for years and are suspected of containing toxic waste. There is also an open drug scene in the quarter and an enormous number of drug users.
A new negative phenomenon residents of the quarter must grapple with daily is the prostitution provided on the outskirts of the locality bordering on the new industrial zone of the city. The neighborhood is a textbook example of how policy on Romani social integration has failed in the Czech Republic.
Despite the fact that enormous financing has been invested into the locality to address the situation (which the author of this piece estimates has been at least CZK 300 million - EUR 11.6 million), frequently from EU funds, and even though the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion has attempted for many years and at no small cost to address the situation there, no visible effect has been achieved and the situation in the quarter is deteriorating day by day, year by year. Currently the offers of aid to the local residents are the bare minimum, which is not enough.
Locals can only attempt to find hope of assistance from those working in the quarter's nicest building, one that was reconstructed at great cost to house a branch of a Prague-based nonprofit that has been working there since the year 2000 and which, unfortunately, has no connections to or relationships with the local community and is therefore perceived by them as a foreign element. Among the Roma of Předlice, that building has the humorous nickname of "The Palace".
The AMARE Předlice (Our Předlice) organization, arose from this desperate situation in January 2017, created by locally engaged residents, and immediately began its efforts to activate the local community. The group's basic activity is to provide room for discussing the situation there and to seek possible solutions to it with the aid of direct community work.
AMARE Předlice organizes regular meetings of local residents and is doing its best to invite representatives of the institutions responsible for various matters to get involved in dialogue with local residents. Through this method the group has managed to establish a collaboration, for example, with the local council of the central municipal department, with the local Roman Catholic parish, and with other players.
During the spring of 2017 the first results of this work could be seen. The municipal department supplied containers free of charge and locals themselves cleaned out and closed down several of the local dumps, then installed benches in the public space and held several public events, such as a Witches' Day (Čarodějnice) party and children's days.
Local Roma working with the group have begun to take an interest in the world beyond the borders of the neighborhood and in the situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic generally, organizing trips to sites connected with the genocide of the Roma at Lety u Písku, and have begun getting involved with human rights activists and structures, establishing contacts abroad, etc. When summer came to an end this year, the group prepared activities of a new kind, the sort we are most familiar with from stories from abroad - activities involving direct community action.
The first activity of this type took place on Friday, 29 September on the outskirts of the quarter. People from the local Romani community, including members and supporters of AMARE Předlice, shut down the provision of paid sexual services for several hours there.
We Do Not Want Prostitution in Předlice
The direct community action was preceded by discussions about the problem of prostitution locally during many AMARE Předlice meetings, as well as discussiones with representatives of the central municipal department. The prostitution happens on the quarter's outskirts, not far from a church, on the streets leading to the new industrial zone and in the zone itself, which occupies the area between the quarter of Nové Předlice and the part of Předlice called Kolonie.
The male clients of the female prostitutes are truck drivers who come to the zone from all over Europe (not just in trucks heading directly to the factories in the zone, but also trucks taking a break from driving on the adjacent D8 highway), as well as men driving to the location in personal vehicles that frequently have German license plates. It is precisely those personal vehicles that sometimes drive into the quarter itself, where their drivers sexually harass local Romani women they see on the streets and mistake for prostitutes, waving bank notes at them from their car windows and attempting to arrange for paid sex, opening the car doors and inviting them to get in, and shouting or whispering at them.
Naturally, the targets of this behavior greatly dislike it. Their fathers and husbands don't like it either.
Other negative phenomena are associated with this prostitution there - for example, most of the women offering their services on the outskirts are drug addicts, and while they are offering their services the nearby busy street and the grassy areas of the industrial zone do not afford them any appropriate locations for injecting their drugs, so they head for that purpose to the closest suitable place on the outskirts of the Kolonie part of the quarter, considered the best and the calmest site there. They shoot up and then frequently throw their needles away at the small local park or on the children's playground.
Near the industrial zone or directly inside it there are usually about five women offering paid sexual services, but sometimes that number grows to 20 or 30, primarily during the weekend and at times when many trucks park in the zone. Most of the women working there come directly from Předlice, but we have also noted cases of women from other parts of Ústí nad Labem coming to offer sexual services, or even from the nearby town of Teplice.
On Thursday, 28 September, during an AMARE Předlice meeting, the decision was taken during a tempestuous debate to "do something about this", and to do it "as soon as possible". During the following discussion the plan arose to go as a group to the places where prostitution is running on Friday and to spoil the prostitutes' business by being present.
We were convinced that if 10 Romani people wearing reflective vests were to stand near the prostitutes carrying signs reading "We Do Not Want Prostitution in Předlice", no clients would stop for them. We informed the local media and police about our plan.
Is the prostitution of minors happening in the industrial zone?
On Friday afternoon we first distributed several dozen fliers around the quarter explaining to the local community what exactly it was that we were doing, why we were doing it, and what we want to achieve. At 17:00 our group assembled near the church - five men, three women and two minors.
A police vehicle with three criminal police officers was waiting for us at the scene and filmed our entire event, and a Czech Radio reporter was there also. Armed with our signs reading "We Do Not Want Prostitution in Předlice", we set out for the area where the paid sexual services were being offered.
Our presence sparked exactly the reaction we had anticipated. The women offering sexual services ran away from us, quickly abandoning their places, and no cars stopped for them.
We took a walk over to the parked foreign trucks and attempted to debate the issue for a while with the drivers, who were sitting in camping chairs and preparing their supper on a barbecue while drinking canned beer. When we asked them about the prostitution, their only reaction was to laugh.
We decided to walk in a circle around the industrial zone over to Kolonie. There we experienced a very positive moment.
Local non-Romani residents saw our group, hailed us and asked what our demonstration was about. When we explained it to them and gave them fliers, they were enthusiastic about our activity.
Those residents are also the victims of all the negative phenomena that have been introduced into the Nové Předlice and Předlice Kolonie neighborhoods. We exchanged contacts and arranged a meeting on the spot.
Next time those people will be joining us. Our walk also involved a very negative moment, though.
During the first half of our stroll around the industrial zone we encountered a group of teenaged girls whose ages we estimated at about 13. We immediately wondered whether they were also offering paid sex, but we did not want to believe that was possible, so we convinced ourselves that they were certainly just randomly walking through the zone on their way to the playground in Kolonie on the other side.
However, when we completed our circuit around the zone and returned past the location of the parked trucks whose drivers we had spoken with earlier, a surprise awaited us. The minors had not gone to the playground, but were sitting with the truck drivers in a party atmosphere.
We photographed the situation from afar and headed over to them. The moment the girls saw we were approaching, they sprinted in the direction of Nové Předlice.
When we made it to the drivers whom the girls had just run away from, they continued to drink their beers in their folding chairs. We immediately confronted them and asked what they were doing with the girls, who were obviously minors.
The drivers alleged that the girls had just wanted to smoke cigarettes with them. They were unable to explain why the girls had sprinted away when they saw us.
Our group returned to Předlice. Most of us were shaken by having encountered those minors.
We held another meeting and discussed what we should do next. We decided to inform institutions and the public about what we had experienced during our direct community action and to repeat it soon.
This time we will not be going to the industrial zone to spoil the business of the women providing sexual services there, but we will carry a banner reading "Drugs are being sold here" while standing in front of one of the local gaming salons. We know drugs are sold there and we have observed that the women working in the industrial zone go there to spend their earnings.
We will see what happens next. Wish us luck.
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