Šluknov, Czech Republic: Rain gutters stripped from homes near the Roma "ghetto"
We headed for this small town in the northernmost corner of the republic, set in a picturesque landscape, to find out more details about a tense situation that has developed between the Romani community and the majority population there. Both the regional newspapers and statewide periodicals are buzzing with articles using strong terms such as "militia" (domobrana), "ghetto", or "lynching" (lynčování).
The reporting was so alarming we decided to see what was really happening for ourselves. We have done our best to give space in this article to all the parties involved. We were also interested in the opinion of the local municipality, because that is the decision-making body which is supposed to address the problems of all citizens.
We could be certain of only one impression: Šluknov has become a target for procedures being used by developers and real estate firms trying to raise property values. This is easily done, and in practice it always takes place the same way. In larger towns, people are moved out of apartments that are of some value and relocated elsewhere - for example, to a smaller town like Šluknov - so they won't be in the way. Apartments in smaller towns are cheaper, so tenants are generally amenable to these moves. The apartments in the larger towns then undergo the necessary reconstruction and are sold at a profit. This business is essentially founded on human poverty.
We all know that public opinion polls report 85 % of the Czech population does not want Romani people as neighbors. A building in Liberec or Ústí nad Labem that has been "disinfested" of Romani tenants immediately increases its market value, and buyers and tenants take an interest in it. No one is interested in what the long-term residents of a small town like Šluknov think of their new neighbors, and no one knows why the new arrivals are unable to live together without causing one another difficulties.
The owner of the housing estate in Šluknov has also understood that accommodating socially vulnerable individuals in his buildings represents another kind of economic potential. His socially needy fellow-citizens collect a state social support subsidy called the "housing contribution". This support is intended to cover housing fees (rent), and the landlord therefore has a guarantee that his tenants will pay, since the state is financing them. If for some reason the rent is defaulted upon, landlords can become the direct recipients of this state support. The welfare recipient is removed from the process and the amount concerned makes it way directly into the landlord's account. This, too, is basically a very lucrative business. It would be difficult to find a better one in these market economy times.
When working with information of this sort, it's hard to know who to ask to describe the overall situation. Who is the most relevant person to describe what is going on? We started with the town council and asked the mayor how she herself sees this problem:
Q: There are reports in the daily press about the exacerbated situation in your town. There has been a 200 % rise in crime. What is your view of this problem, and why are mayors in the Šluknov area writing to Czech PM Nečas?
A: To start with, I do not want to attribute the rise in crime to one particular group of residents in our town. It would be both absurd and mistaken to label local Roma and only local Roma as the origins of all evil. Yes, there is no doubt that the rise in crime is directly related to the influx of new residents. The more people there are, the more problems and troubles. What most frightens us, and by "us" I mean mayors in this region, is that as a result of government savings measures, our locality will most probably undergo a reduction in the number of police officers, and that will have an adverse influence on the crime rate and on crime solving. For the time being, the Police Directorate in Děčín claims the savings measures should not affect Šluknov, and we hope they won't.
Q: Voices very critical of the local Romani population are being raised in various media, however. How are you addressing this particular issue in Šluknov?
A: We, as the local municipality, do not underestimate the value of preventive measures. We are collaborating very closely with people from NGOs. It's worth mentioning that the town is currently supporting the creation of a drop-in community center targeting our socially excluded fellow-citizens. This center will be operated by the Counseling Center for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights (Poradna pro občanství, občanská a lidská práva). The town welcomes both their field social work and the construction of this center. We are inclined to support this project and the work of the field social workers implementing it because they deliver brilliant results. Understandably, we are very sensitive to the issue of social exclusion and we are doing everything we can to minimize the results of that. The moving of Romani people into our town is creating a ghetto, with everything negative that entails. High unemployment and other phenomena are part of why Šluknov is grappling with this problem now. However, I repeat once more, the growth in crime cannot be attributed only to local Romani people. Many residents from the majority population are also living in situations that are hard to bear.
Unemployment was the one term we heard almost everywhere we went. According to another town councilor, Mr Rudolf Sochor, 18-19 % of local people are unemployed.
"We are trying to launch a pilot project whereby the town's Technical Services would employ a certain number of people. They would work four days a week and have one day for study (education, re-qualification). For the time being these workers will be used to address cosmetic flaws in public spaces, we are working on the formalities," Sochor told news server Romea.cz.
Paradoxically, there seemed to be no end to the good news here. We even found out that one of the town councilors is not only Romani, but has a college education. We asked him what was going on with the town's reputation for Romani crime.
"What's the point of writing a positive report about the fact that normal Romani people live here too? No one will believe it," the Romani town councilor said. "My greatest concern is that one of these quasi-poetic political parties might come here hunting for votes - but not to address anything in reality. We do have problems here, we create them for ourselves, both the new people and the long-term residents. There are small bunches of youth here causing difficulties. There has always been crime here, just like prostitution, or panhandling at the local Tesco. This is not just a problem of the new arrivals, but of the long-term residents. Recently, however, it has gotten worse. It was already a problem before to get work, and now it's even worse. There are many Romani people here who worked their entire lives and now can't find a job. There are also many others who simply don't want to do anything. A few individuals cause the problems, it's always about the individuals involved - but there is no point in publicly distancing ourselves from them. It's not possible to wear a label that says you aren't filth, that you have a job - non-Romani people will always take you as part of the Romani community anyway, and l am a part of that community. It's the same everywhere. When I studied in Prague and traveled there by bus, I could be 100 % certain no one would ever take a seat next to me. The biggest problem is that there are no investors here, which means there is no work. A situation like what we have in Šluknov could never occur, for example, in the Prague-East (Praha – východ) district. Even people who don't want to do anything get work there."
When looking around the local housing estate in Šluknov, a visitor who knows conditions elsewhere quickly realizes it's a very attractive place to live. The interiors of the buildings have been painted and reconstructed. Tenants can even pay off their back rent by cleaning the public space in front of a building or performing maintenance tasks and minor repairs.
Everyone will have to come to their own opinion about the owner of these buildings. He's a tough businessman with a guaranteed income (the state is paying the rent), but on the other hand he is a person open to compromise and dialogue with rent defaulters. We tried to meet with him personally, but were not given the opportunity.
The neighborhood of the housing estate is picturesque and full of green. The hilltop offers a view of a distant chapel. It would be a romantic place to take a walk with your wife, your kids and the dog. However, an observant visitor looking at the homes adjacent to the housing estate sees that the rain gutters have been removed from the roofs and are probably on their way to the scrapyard, or that a new fence has been damaged by children gathering cherries on someone else's private land.
Police have not found the delinquents responsible for these incidents, and imaginations easily run wild. The tension is ubiquitous and cannot be ameliorated, not even by the Romani town councilor, who always used to function here as a kind of buffer and problem-solver. The Šluknov town hall has always consulted him on affairs concerning the local Romani community, and for the most part he has always celebrated success in calming or resolving problems. Now he has resigned himself to this new situation, aware he has scant influence over his newly-arrived fellow-tribesmen at the housing estate.
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