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The Roma Exodus to Canada
26-02-2000 - Josef Klíma
Seeing Canada With Your Own Eyes
On Tuesday, August 5 (not Aug. 6 as widely reported), the private television station Nova, by far the most-watched in the country, broadcast a documentary portraying the life of Czech Roma who'd emigrated to Canada as carefree and comfortable. The 15-minute report, by reporter Josef Klima on the Na vlastni oci (With Your Own Eyes) program, showed Czech Roma families living comfortably on state support as they waited to be granted asylum by the Canadian government.

Within days, there were reports of large numbers of Roma, reportedly 5,000 in the large east Moravian city of Ostrava alone, selling their property and possessions in preparation for emigrating to Canada. By the following week, the Canadian Embassy in Prague was receiving hundreds of calls a day, 90% from Roma, and flights to Canada from Prague were booked into October. The situation was also fuelled by offers by the mayors of some towns to contribute funds to buying airline tickets for the Roma who wanted to leave. The mayor of Ostrava-Marianske Hory, Liana Janackova, told Mlada fronta dnes, "we have two groups of people -- Gypsies and whites -- that live together, but can't and don't want to. So why can't one group take the first step toward finding a solution? I don't think it's racist. We just want to help the Gypsies."

The far-right Republican party was less ambiguous about their pleasure with the situation. The Deputy Chairman of their parliamentary club, Jan Vik, (pictured right) said:"We're pleased that TV Nova, by presenting the sweet life of Gypsies overseas on its Na vlastni oci program, awakened in the blood of that ethnic group their wandering past, which unfortunately brought them to us so long ago." "What (Republican party Chairman) Sladek wasn't able to acheive in seven years, TV Nova acheived in 15 minutes", said Viktor Dobal, the Deputy Minister Without Portfolio and Chairman of the government's Council of Nationalities.

Lucie Cermakova, spokeswoman for the Canadian Embassy in Prague, denounced the program as one-sided. "The program presented only one side of the matter and picked out only nonsensical ideas," she said. A similar opinion was voiced by a spokeswoman for the Czech Embassy in Ottawa, Marie Jurkovicova: "According to our information, the program was full of half-truths, which strongly distorted reality and practically invited the exodus of large groups of Czech Roma. It concealed a number of facts." (Mlada fronta dnes, August 13, 1997)

Full Spectrum of Reactions

"I don't know of any respectable state in the world that would incite and help inhabitants to emigrate," said Viktor Dobal. The reaction of other politicians varied. Some politicians didn't see any evidence of racism in the actions of mayors such as Ms. Janackova. President Vaclav Havel was alarmed at the situation in Ostrava, however, because he said it revealed hidden as well as apparent elements of racism, and the Czech Republic had already been a target of critics from the USA and other countries for its alleged insensitivity approach to the Roma. (MFD, August 13, 1997)

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, while distancing himself from members of his Civic Democratic Party, such as the above-mentioned Ms. Janackova, and their statements, still denied that the problems faced by the Roma in the Czech Republic were due to racial discrimination. "The Government has done everything it can for the Roma in the last few years, but it isn't a problem with an easy solution," he told the Lidove noviny newspaper. (LN, August 13, 1997)

The Chairman of the Council for National Minorities, Viktor Dobal, described attempts to encourage Romanies to leave as irresponsible. He said it is up to the state to try to improve conditions for a deprived minority. He heavily criticised one member of the council, Ondrej Gina, who is the representative of the Roma minority on the council, and who said he would actively encourage Romanies to go. Gina had also said that it was similar to the migration of the Roma from Slovakia to the Czech Republic after the Second World War. He said that Roma would leave for somewhere else if the situation here didn't change. On August 13, a Justice Ministry spokesman said that Czech criminal law does not discriminate again minorities, as some Romanies are arguing as their reason for seeking asylum.

Lawyer Klara Samkova-Vesela, described the surge in interest in emigration among the Roma as the product of the hitherto lack of interest of the Government of the CR in the problems of national minorities and a number of opposition politicians and political analysts agreed with her. "The government shouldn't be surprised at all that the Roma are fleeing the country. There are displays of racism here which are unbearable for them," declared Samkova, a former activist in the Romani Civic Initiative, which has been concerned with the problems of the Roma for the last six years and which claims the government has yet to adopt any kind of solution to the Roma question. "Klaus and his government are to blame for the current Roma crisis," declared Samkova-Vesela. (LN, August 13, 1997)

On August 14, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus (left) met with Romany representatives, in an attempt to persuade them not to leave. One of the Romani leaders, Emil Scuka, Chairman of the Romani Civic Initiative, though he described the situation as "very unfortunate and very dangerous," praised Klaus for the meeting and urged Roma not to leave. He said that the Roma must stay and work to resolve their problems with the majority, and that emigrating to Canada was no solution.

After the meeting, Klaus rejected as too general the report on the state of the Romany community in the Czech Republic, drawn up on the order of the government's Council for Nationalities. He said he would like the modified report to be discussed at a cabinet meeting within two to three weeks. He said the modified version should contain concrete proposals concerning education, employment, housing, everyday cases of discrimination, means of Roma coexistence with the rest of the society and fighting crime. He also said that the Roma had not been sufficiently represented in the state administration, so he supported the idea of establishing a secretariate to coordinate Romani issues at the government level. He refused to give any details on the powers of the proposed secretariate or the extent of its operations, because he said the discussion ofthe project was still at its very beginning.

Exposed By the Flood

The problems had already begun to surface in the eastern parts of the country, after floods ravaged the area in the first week of July. Roma who lost their homes were less than welcome in the areas to which they were re-located, and there were widespread rumors of Roma being involved in looting in the flooded regions. One community in Ostrava petitioned the city government with thousands of signatures to remove the Roma housed in a dormitory in their neighborhood, citing the undesirability of a "criminal element" in their midst.

On August 13, the Helsinki Committee human-rights organization called on Czech Roma not to leave. A exodus of Roma from the Czech Republic would be a loss for Czech society from the perspective of protecting human rights, Czech Helsinki Committee representatives Libuse Silhanova, Anna Sabatova and Ivan Gabal said in a statement. The Committee called on Roma to stay in the country, and attempt to change the unsatisfactory conditions in the country with the help of their fellow citizens.

The Helsinki Committee also advised the government to "condemn outright the attempts at segregation by some public authorities and other parties and individuals," and to introduce an active policy of integrating the Roma minority into society.

However, on August 14, it was reported that less than 40 percent of public officials believe that the Roma can be integrated into society, according to a poll conducted by the government's Council for Nationalities.

Over one thousand policemen, members of local and municipal offices, heads of job offices, specialists on Romani problems and members of Romani organizations took part in the poll which asked them what caused the problems of co-existence with Roma and how the situation should be settled.

Twenty-five percent of those polled believed that the problems were mainly based in an inability to achieve mutual understanding, regardless of whether the inability was caused by language or cultural barriers. They also believe that Romani mentality, traditions and customs differ so much from those of the majority that the Roma should be given an opportunity to live according to their own ideas, if this does not conflict with the law.

Canada No Bed of Roses

The first Roma began returning to the Czech Republic from Canada on Aug. 16 after being turned back by Canadian officials. "I will not comment on anything," a 50-year-old Rom who returned from Canada with his wife and four children told journalists. He only said that the trip overseas cost him 130,000crowns. "They said they would not discuss anything with us," was all he told journalists. Eva Hendrychova, head of the Czech Embassy Consulate in Ottawa said on Aug. 15 that Canadian authorities had turned away six Romanies the day before. She said that no reasons for the move had been given. (CTK, Aug. 16, 1997)

Canadian officals in the Czech Republic are attempting to convince Czech Roma that emigrating to Canada is no easy or safe path to follow, Terry Mooney, charge d'affaires at the Canadian Embassy in Prague told the Canadian Press. "We're trying to stop them by indicating that they're taking an enormous risk in going," he said. "They may not be accepted. And if they are returned, they will return, generally speaking, to impoverished circumstances...We're trying to tell them that life in Canada is not a bed of roses, even if they are accepted. They need to think very soberly about whether all of this is worth it." (CP, Aug. 26, 1997)

There were also reports in Canada that the Canadian immigration officials were delaying the processing of asylum claims by Roma to make checks for criminal records. During this delay, the Roma applicants are left without any legal status in Canada and they cannot apply for working permits or social aid. And the hostels in Toronto, for instance, are already beginning to run out of space to house them.

The Canadian immigration department also said it was investigating claims that some of its officers at Pearson International Airport may have improperly discouraged Roma from making refugee claims in Canada and sent them back to the Czech Republic. So far, the department claims that not one Roma has been denied application for refugee status on the grounds of having a criminal record. For a person to be denied entrance to file a claim for asylum, they must have been convicted of a crime punishable by a sentence of 10 years or more if that crime had been committed in Canada. (CP, Aug. 26, 1997)

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