Government’s Roma inclusion agency head Martin Šimáček: most mayors
not ready to work hard on integration|
One of the gravest problems facing Czech society is the situation of the
country’s Romany minority. According to official estimates, there are
between 150,000 and 300,000 Romanies living in the country; they face
disproportionately high unemployment and continued discrimination in
housing and education. Some 80,000 of them live in socially excluded
locations. To assist the local authorities in improving the living
conditions in such cities and towns, the Czech government set up in 2009
the Agency for Social Inclusion in Romany Localities. The agency has been
active in more than 20 such areas, and this year, 19 more applied to join
“There are two target groups. These are people threatened with social
exclusion, especially Romanies but our primarily focus is on our partners
on the local level – the local authorities, NGOs, town hall officials,
the police, those who can offer employment, and so on.
“We operate what we call local partnerships which are teams of all those
local actors. They analyze the situation and involve the local Romanies in
the process; then we prepare a plan of measures and activities tailored for
the particular place. That’s what we do during our first year in a place.
In the second year, we push for all those measures to be put to work so we
only see some results after two years.”
Which of the two groups – potential employers, local authorities and so
on, or the socially excluded people - is more difficult to approach and
“That’s totally different but the issue is of the same importance.
It’s not easy to motivate the people living in social exclusion but
it’s also difficult to motivate the majority population to reflect the
situation, and to be open to social inclusion and to the solutions that we
offer. So working with both target groups is very different, but it’s
You are very good at helping with the immediate consequences of social
exclusion – but can you also help remove its causes?
“Our activities don’t only target the visible problems. In education
for instance, we push schools to think about the big picture; when we
prepare a strategy to include Roma children in a school, we have in mind
all the children at that school. So our activities open schools for all the
children who need any sort of special support. We believe we tackle the
issue in the whole context.”
Do you work to change some things on the central level? For instance, one
of the big problems is usury; another is gambling. If you achieved changes
to the legislation, it would affect all these communities at once…
“Part of our work that is not that well known is collecting information
in the field and bringing it to the government. We communicate with
ministries, suggesting changes to the system. Our proposals include changes
to the legislation, the methods of state authorities, and so on. One of our
agency’s most important activities is the preparation of a strategy to
fight social inclusion. That strategy includes about a hundred measures
that will, in cooperation with the government, change the system.”
You recently took part in a debate on Czech TV with two mayors – one
from the town of Nový Bydžov that has acute problems with the Romany
minority, and the other from Obrnice, a place outside Most where things
seem to be going well. What is the difference – is it in the attitude of
the local authorities or are there some other factors at play?
“It’s the attitude. I have to say that the situation in Nový Bydžov
is not as difficult as that in Obrnice. There, out of some 2,500 people,
some 1,000 are Romanies threatened by exclusion, and we can see that the
activities that were put in place there actually help those people connect
with the society.
“In Nový Bydžov, around 400 people are threatened by social exclusion
out of the town’s population of 7,000. So the problem there is not as
grave as in Obrnice. Also, many of the Romanies in Nový Bydžov have jobs,
they send their children to school, and so on. But the authorities in Nový
Bydžov are not doing their job well. So the problem is in the attitude.”
This year, 19 communities across the country have applied to join your
programme, out of which you will pick seven. First of all, are you
disappointed that you didn’t hear from all the municipalities that face
similar problems, and second, shouldn’t you accept all who apply?
“That’s a crucial question. I think that mayors and local authorities
are simply not ready to work hard to improve the situation in their towns.
But I also have to say that people from another 30 or 40 places have been
calling our office to get more information; that means they are getting
ready to do something, which is very important. Our agency can certainly
better inform the authorities about what we do.
“As for the second part of your question, that’s a big problem. If 19
towns call for assistance, we should be able to help them. That’s
something that should be resolved in the future.”
Well, you are directly run by the government – should the government
basically increase your funding so that you can extend your operations?
“It would be great but I’m not sure if I am able to comment on this.
I’m really happy that this government is helping the agency to grow and
to operate in more localities. Another issue is whether they can help us to
work in all the localities that are ready to cooperate with us.”
At about the same time that those 19 communities applied to join your
programme, more than 50 mayors signed a declaration asking the government
for more powers in dealing with what they call the “inadaptable”
people. They basically want power to control who gets social benefits and
who doesn’t, based on their behaviour. Do you think this is a risk for
what you are doing, that the authorities will want to go this way, rather
than join your programme?
“Those 51 mayors, who gathered in Nový Bydžov to ask for more
repressive tools, they don’t speak on behalf of all Czech mayors. There
are more and more town officials who realize that if they don’t deal with
the situation, the problem will grow much bigger in the future. So I think
that those 51 mayors are those who are unable to work on integration, and
they are not the voice of all Czech mayors.”
But are you concerned that there will be more and more mayors who identify
with this voice?
“Yes, to some extent. But we just have to react to their activities by
offering other ways of solving the problem. I see it as our task to be able
to communicate with those 50 mayors as well, and to offer them a different
kind of solution.”