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The most common, untrue myths about the Romani minority in the Czech Republic

Prague, 4.3.2012 21:54, (ROMEA)
Michaela Marksová - Tominová, Shadow Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities, Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD)

Below we are publishing a document which Michaela Marksová Tominová, the Shadow Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities with the opposition Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), has compiled together with others involved in human rights for the party's use. We are reprinting a translation of it in full below. You can find the original text (in Czech only) on the website of the party at http://www.cssd.cz/media/projevy-a-clanky/romska-mensina-nejcastejsi-nepravdive-myty/

The Romani Minority - Most Frequently Untrue Myths

We are members of a Social Democratic Party. From the historical point of view, as well as from today's pan-European point of view, this party stands for certain principles. Every Social Democrat should, for example, be aware, that everyone's position is influenced to a great degree by social conditions. When those conditions are a positive influence (which is one of the main aims of social democracy), they positively influence not only people's fates, but also their behavior.

It is only natural that the situation in regions with a high proportion of socially excluded localities is very complicated. Local politicians in such regions are doing their best to satisfy their electorates.

Nevertheless, Social Democrats should never, in their speeches, let themselves be pushed to making populist declarations or proposing apparently simple solutions to problems. Work with the residents of excluded localities (and also with those who live near them) is demanding, both on a daily basis and in the long term, but taking the long view, society as a whole will definitely benefit from it. That work must not include only repressive measures, but primarily should involve preventive actions for the purpose of achieving long-term stability and gradual improvement. (One such example is the project initiated on 1 February 2012 by the Mayor of Ostrava, Petr Kajnar of ČSSD).

1. Using the concept of "inadaptables"

It is not possible to give precise instructions for the use of a single expression and there is always a need to adjust to concrete situations. Be that as it may, the concept of "inadaptables" creates the impression that "every socially excluded Romani person is inadaptable and therefore a criminal". It is necessary, therefore, to express yourself in such a way as to not use a stereotyped view tarring all Romani people with the same brush just because they are Romani. It is possible to speak, for example, about "Romani people living in socially excluded localities", or sometimes about "the Romani minority".

As for the use of the word "gypsy" (“cikán”), that is considered defamatory and politicians should not use it at all, even though some Romani people use it to refer to themselves. At the same time, we must realize that most residents of socially excluded localities did voluntarily choose to live in them. Many of them would like to live in normal environments, but their situations do not make that possible. The situations in those localities are pathological, with residents frequently victimized by loan-sharking, having to deal with organized crime, etc.

2. Myth: Billions are being spent on welfare for "gypsies" who don't work, their numbers are rising geometrically, but there is not enough money for police officers and teachers.

The degree to which welfare is abused is a phenomenon which is itself being abused by the right wing in order destroy the welfare state. Materials posted to the website of the Office of the Government show there are approximately 180 000 Romani people living in the Czech Republic, or about 1.6 % of the population (elsewhere expert estimates range from between 150 000 and 240 000; even at this highest number, the percentage of the population is only 2.5 %). In the case of Romani welfare users and non-Romani ones, it is necessary to know that a large portion of welfare payments are intended for children who are not to blame for the environment into which they were born. For example, the annual disbursal of welfare by the state is roughly CZK 40 billion, of which CZK 27 billion is contributions to parents.

Welfare assistance to those in material distress, intended for the poorest of the poor, represents "only" CZK 3 billion. Even if every single Romani person in the country received some sort of welfare, which they do not, we definitely cannot say they are the recipients of "billions" of crowns. It is also not the case that the Romani population has grown. (See our detailed article on "welfare abuse").

At the same time, we must realize how much money was stolen from our state in the various "tunnelling" operations, in which absolutely no Romani people were involved. Just at random, here are some examples of this asset-stripping: Opencard (CZK 1 billion), the bailout of the banks in the 1990s (CZK 370 billion), the Pandur Armored Vehicles (CZK 14.4 billion). The National Economic Council estimated last June that the extent of corruption in the Czech Republic is costing the state as much as CZK 64 billion annually.

3. Myth: "Gypsies" with gold chains around their necks drive Mercedes to pick up their welfare

For several years now, very strict rules have applied to determining people's assets for the purpose of determining welfare eligibility. The existence of assets automatically excludes people from entitlement to welfare. On the contrary, many Romani families are finding themselves in continually deteriorating situations. Welfare was cut back once again as of January 2012, and these families have no way of getting out of the vicious circle of welfare dependency. In recent years it has already happened that many children have been coming to school hungry whose families are simply in desperate straits.

4. Myth: A Romani family who has never worked gets welfare of up to CZK 30 000 per month.

This is essentially impossible. That kind of welfare payment could only be paid out to a family that applied for every single kind of subsidy possible. They would have to have a severely disabled child at home, a senior citizen incapable of caring for himself or herself, a guide dog, etc. Welfare disbursal is guided by very strict rules, and extensive fraud in this area is highly unlikely. If someone wants to use welfare to that degree without deserving it, it is up the relevant control bodies to discover the fraud.

5. Myth: It is necessary to cease the "positive discrimination" of Romani people who are unjustifiably privileged when it comes to various stipends and subsidies.

There is not now and never has been any "positive discrimination" of Romani people in the Czech Republic. Welfare is determined for all applicants identically according to the conditions prescribed by law. The law does not distinguish between non-Romani people and Romani people. The only example of Romani people being "privileged" by public finances is a Czech Educational Ministry Program entitled "Support for Romani high school pupils".

This program has existed for about five years. Through it, Romani students who attend high school daily have the opportunity to request reimbursement for expenditures connected with their studies. To do so, they must submit receipts (for example, of having purchased transportation, school supplies, food in the school cafeteria). The reason for this program is that people with low levels of educational achievement predominate in the Romani population, and as a result cannot find work and are often dependent on welfare. Support for the education of the Romani minority is essential, and many renowned international institutions (e.g., the World Bank) recommend support for educating socially excluded groups as an investment that will give an enormous return to society as a whole.

6. Myth: Romani people receive pensions calculated on the basis of the current average wage even when they have never worked.

This myth recently made the rounds on the internet as a "reliable report". It was so widespread that the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry published a statement denying it on their website and it was voted "biggest hoax of the year". The conditions of qualifying for a retirement pension, i.e., for an old-age pension, a disability pension, or a bereavement pension, just like the rules for calculating such pensions, are established by Law No. 155/1995 Coll., on retirement insurance, as amended. One of the main principles there is that people must have been insured for the necessary length of time in order to be awarded a pension and must also have reached retirement age (in the case of an old-age pension).

The length of insurance is determined by one's salaried activity, i.e., one's work. The amount of the pension itself, to put it simply, depends on how long one has worked and the salary base from which one's retirement insurance was paid. A person who has spent their entire life on welfare will have a minimum salary base or may have none at all. Unfortunately, there are more and more such people in our country, both non-Romani and Romani. (The same people who wrote this e-mail also released other "reliably truthful reports", including rumors that Romani people were receiving medicines for free or could travel on public transportation for free in some towns.)

7. Myth: "Inadaptable" Romani people hold parties into the early morning hours, disturbing upright citizens, but the police are powerless to intervene.

If someone repeatedly disturbs public order in a community, including nighttime quiet, it is a matter for the relevant authorities. If the authorities intervene, they must do so irrespective of the racial affiliations of all involved. It is also necessary to work with such people in the community to limit their impact on those around them.

8. Myth: The vast majority of crimes per capita are committed by "gypsies", who attack children, pensioners, and women around the country on a daily basis.It is logical that crime is higher within socially excluded localities and their environs. The poorest people have been moved into those localities and many are living on the fringes of society. Of course, one problem is that police often leave these localities alone. When they do engage actively in these places, in collaboration with other authorities (social departments), the situation changes for the better (one example is the Janov housing estate in Litvínov). It cannot be claimed that Romani people are given lesser sentences by the courts than non-Romani people are. The opinion exists that the opposite is the case, but there is no hard data for either claim. It is also important to know that the Police of the Czech Republic have also revealed in recent months that in several cases, non-Romani people falsely claimed to have been attacked by Romani people and later confessed to having invented the incidents entirely (for the most recent case see the 31 January 2012 edition of Právo).

9. Myth: After destroying a municipally-owned apartment, Romani people are able to get another from the authorities automatically which a "decent" person in desperate straits can't.

Municipalities have clearly determined rules for allocating the apartments they own. Most municipalities today, however, own as few such properties as possible or none at all, because they have either privatized or sold them all. Romani people during the past 20 years have been moved by municipalities and real estate speculators into excluded localities - this has happened most severely in North Bohemia, where speculators have made a great deal of money this way.

Today, on the contrary, what is happening is that municipalities are moving Romani families out without offering them any alternative accommodation. Usually this is a Romani family that had work until not long ago but lost it, was unable to pay the rent, and no one took any interest in them. For these people too, the only chance is to move into an excluded locality, where they do not want to live and where they would never have chosen to live. Many municipalities also intentionally sell buildings in which Romani people live, and the new owner then concludes inappropriate contracts with tenants who are incapable of paying the rent... and the same scenario repeats itself.

10. The next time you meet people on the street who are cursing the "gypsies", it's a good idea to ask them this:

Would you like to have been born a Romani person with dark skin in an excluded locality?

For more information, please see the ČSSD document entitled "Oranžová kniha – Rámcový program pro záležitostí Romů a sociálně vyloučených lokalit" (Orange Book - Framework Program for the Affairs of Romani People and Socially Excluded Localities") in Czech only, at http://www.cssd.cz/ke-stazeni/volebni-programy/oranzove-knihy-cssd-pro-volby-2010/ramcovy-program-pro-zalezitosti-romu-a-socialne-vyloucenych-lokalit/.

Gwendolyn Albert, Michaela Marksová - Tominová, Shadow Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities, and collective, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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