Jarmila Balážová on the Czech Government Romani Integration Strategy
Jarmila Balážová, press spokesperson for Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier, has responded to questions from news server Romea.cz about the newly-approved Romani Integration Stratey to 2020.
Q: Were those who created the Romani Integration Strategy sufficiently aware of what Romani people themselves believe about such efforts? Do Romani people know enough about the documents that are supposed to aid them? In his response to our survey Mr Čeněk Růžička says it is a big problem that Romani people know almost nothing about these Government strategies.
A: The Romani Integration Strategy to 2020 that was approved on Monday was discussed for more than one year with many people, especially Romani people, of course. I think this is the first such document whose authors actually put in a great deal of work in order to get to know the opinions of Romani people themselves and have them participate. One of the main messages of the Strategy is to emphasize that there is a lack of involvement by members of this minority in resolving the problems that existentially concern them, and that if the Strategy is to be meaningful in future, it is necessary to help Romani people overcome obstacles to education, employment and housing, to emphasize that it is necessary that they get involved in political and social affairs. There has been a genuinely large-scale effort here to reach out to those whom the Strategy concerns through various avenues.
Despite the risk of early failure, a working version of the Strategy was published on the website of the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic on 14 May 2014 so the general public could express their views of it. This is a practice that is common, for example, at the European Commission, but not here in the Czech Republic, and not with such a sensitive topic. Minister Dienstbier and his team were exposed early on to attacks on the Strategy from the opposition and from others who began to selectively discuss certain segments of the proposed measures for their own purposes. This is not pleasant, especially because you risk adding fuel to the fire when it comes to the view of the Romani minority, how this minority is perceived by the majority society.
Despite this risk, the authors of the Strategy decided to make it public. The comments were collected and discussed at a round table in the Lichtenstein Palace in Prague, again with Romani participation. After that round table, there were other discussions with experts and Romani representatives about the document's content so that the demands "from below" could be met insofar as that was possible and the concrete problems of this minority would be focused on. Anyone who wanted to familiarize themselves with the working text of the Strategy and send in comments had the opportunity to do so even after the close of that first round of public discussion. For as long as it was possible (i.e., up until the material was sent to the inter-ministerial commenting procedure) we gradually collected input and included it in the Strategy.
Experts unequivocally took a great interest in the document, as can be seen from the comments we received. The material is based on other Government Concepts in such a way that it can influence and respond to them. Many Romani people were involved in its creation, whether through the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs, as members of various working groups, or as members of the public. Mr Čeněk Růžička was involved in creating this Strategy to the maximum possible extent. His requirements were satisfied. The Strategy was also presented to Regional Romani Coordinators so they could familiarize Romani people at local level with it, get their feedback on it, and work on it. However, it is not realistic to visit every excluded locality, every town, every village, to familiarize every single individual with this document. This is understandable for many reasons of capacity, the need to know certain information, time, etc. Moreover, no one would ever raise the question or require that when a law to ban smoking in public spaces is being drafted, for example, the drafters must ask every single non-smoker, every single restaurant owner, every single smoker, etc., for their feedback. I could give you other examples. You don't ask every single woman in the country what her beliefs are about the representation of women on the boards of corporations, it's just not possible to do that.
Understandably, this is about the proposed measures of the Strategy corresponding to the reality in which Romani people live, about consulting them sufficiently. Everyone who spent time on the commenting process deserves thanks. The enormous effort put into the process deserves to be mentioned and thanked. Now the biggest task is to concentrate on successfully implementing the Strategy in collaboration with the ministries, municipalities, and of course with local actors and with Romani people.
Q: Does the Strategy count on using "positive discrimination"? Some activists and experts insist that without such measures it won't work, while others reject them in principle. Does the Strategy work with the difference between "positive discrimination" and "compensatory actions"? Most importantly, will politicians have the political will to support "positive discrimination" should the public resist it?
A: First of all, it is absolutely necessary to understand the differences between "positive discrimination" and compensatory measures. If a difference or a gap can be demonstrated in society between a particular social group and the majority, then the Government should be brave enough to call that difference by its real name and to create measures that will lead to a settlement - for example, by making it possible for that group to access quality education, housing, work, etc. The compensatory measures in the Strategy unequivocally strive to establish the same "starting line" for everyone, whether this is about Romani children or youth seeking work. Romani people are not being privileged over the majority in this respect.
One aim of the Strategy in this regard is to ensure equal access to education so that each and every child will have the opportunity to enroll into mainstream education irrespective of whether he or she is of Romani origin. Many people are now reproaching the Government over the Strategy, and that was the risk of publicizing it in its working form. Critics say it involves "favoritism" and they are doing their best to make sure either that what they dislike will be completely done away with, or that the measures they like will be applied to other socially disadvantaged persons, the number of whom is constantly rising here - we are not talking just about Romani people, far from it.
When it comes to financial barriers in education, the possibility of applying for a scholarship to cover the costs associated with school activities, etc. ... currently does not apply across the board to everyone, only to the needy. It is not the case that every Romani college student will receive financial support for his or her studies, only those who can demonstrate their social disadvantage, just like any other citizen. The Strategy, therefore, could aid even more of the needy in the education system. It's the same with the apartment market or the labor market, where it is unacceptable that Romani people should be disadvantaged on the basis of ethnicity, just as it is unacceptable to discriminate against families with a larger number of children, foreign nationals, etc.
We can't say whether politicians will have the political will to implement these measures in practice, to defend compensatory measures, but we can discuss this with many of them. You're not going to go around to every mayor in the country, though - the introduction of measures, for example, on housing, etc., are needed in specific places. If the political will is lacking, then nothing can be done, so it is necessary that human rights activists and Romani activists promote such political will - that's why we reached out to them, so they would be familiar with the material, know it exists, and will be able to demand it be implemented at their particular level.
The Strategy is no panacea. You can't actually believe that these problems, some of which have existed for 40 years now (for example, the practice of assigning Romani children to the "special schools", now called the "practical schools") can be resolved in five years. That's absurd. However, we have to start somewhere. Either the citizens and the politicians just want to have scapegoats to point their fingers at and curse for not working, for not wanting an education, and for being too noisy, or something must be done. It is naturally easier to extoll populist rhetoric, that costs nothing and scores points in elections, but it will not change the situation, and we need to change it even at the price of using equalizing measures, because they will accelerate this process. The result will benefit all of society, which so deplores the number of Romani people dependent on welfare, etc. now.
By now the media should have sensed their own great responsibility and the role they play here - the most important role when it comes to shaping public opinion of coexistence and of Romani people. There are different ways to ask questions about this, other ways to write about it. We could be writing about how this Strategy can aid everyone else, not just the Roma, because it can.
I also consider it important that the Strategy identifies the problem of the debt trap, which subsequently has an influence, understandably, on employment, on informal labor, on people's inability to pay their rent, etc. This material references another Strategy, the one against social exclusion, where individual tools leading to debt relief are listed in detail.
Q: So there are two strategies, the Romani Integration Strategy and the Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion, and the question has been raised of whether we really need two? There is a discussion of whether the fact that we have two is a result of the fact that two concepts are clashing here, one of which is "ethnic" and one of which is "social".
A: The Romani Integration Strategy clarifies the realtionship between these two documents. The approach to Romani integratoin must take more factors into consideration, and one material cannot incorporate and list all of the relevant measures, for the simple reason that they have already been addressed in other sectoral documents. The Romani Integration Strategy is aware of this fact and references the relevant documents. That is the context of its relationship to the Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion. This document proposes an approach to the specific situation of socially excluded Romani people, who comprise roughly one-third of the total Romani population. Again, it also concerns other target groups as well, because the number of people who are on the edge of poverty here is rising, and we have to have a model for helping them out of social exclusion. The Romani Integration Strategy augments that approach with this particular ethnic dimension. The approach taken by the Government toward Romani integration must, however, be in accordance with all of the relevant approaches that have also been mentioned in the Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion, the Employment Policy Strategy to 2020, the Education Policy Strategy to 2020, the Concept for Social Services Provision, the Social Housing Concept, etc. The measures proposed in the Romani Integration Strategy are based on those documents and refer to them.
The opportunity to propose legislative amendments enjoyed by the Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation facilitates our making a contribution to improving the situation in other relevant areas as well - for example, the upcoming legislative intent on the Public Procurement Act will contribute to more responsible public procurement and will facilitate a better overview of the situation of the long-term unemployed on the labor market. Once again, the minister and his team are basing their work on this issue on the findings of specific individuals, including Romani people with whom we come into contact.
Q: What has changed for us to be able to believe that these new Strategies will work? We have had many of them in the past.
A: That question is, in my view, formulated a bit unfortunately. Since 1992, when Romani people lost their participation in political power (because 1990-1992 was the only time in the history of this state when we had 10 Romani representatives in the legislative assemblies, which back then were the Czech National Assembly, the Slovak National Assembly, and the Czechoslovaki Federal Assembly), we have lost any actual influence over our lives and our position in society. Many Romani people lost their jobs and then their homes, and in a country that had no historical experience with ghettos, ghettos began to spring up. Suddenly we had more than 400 socially excluded localities. It would be naive to believe that during just five years, the influence of one government-adopted document can change all that. It can't. You cannot change the fact that everything just went down the drain 25 years ago, but we must begin somewhere. This Government, represented by the Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation, has at least had the courage to approve a Strategy with more concrete measures, with braver measures than previous governments have, including a couple of these equalizing opportunities that are sparking so much passion even though they actually only affect a couple hundred people (e.g., scholarships, etc.). This Government has also approved a proposal for how to involve Romani people into politics at the central, regional and local levels.
In the beginning here I mentioned that the need to bring the Romani minority into participation is one of the most fundamental messages of this document. Part of the implementation of the Strategy should be the creation of a network of staffers dedicated to Romani integration. It also proposes a coordinated approach in relation to the European Structural and Investment Funds. It is not, however, a panacea. Without the political will of both politicians and the Romani people themselves, nothing is possible. I think we have already experienced many demonstrations and marches here, and we can only be thankful that they didn't cost anyone their lives. Sparking tensions in society is the domain of extremists and populists. Let's try to do what is in the domain of normal people now.
We must live together somehow, and it is up to all of us how.
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