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The Roma in the Czech Republic from 1993 to 1997
26-02-2000  historie


According to research in 1993 by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the liberalization of the labor market doubled the rate of unemployment among the Roma. The Roma were also laid off from unskilled, though for them typical, positions as "gastarbeitry" (migrant workers) from the countries of Eastern Europe. The Roma looked for help from the employment offices, but they didn't fulfill the conditions to acquire the status of job seekers, particularly the first - permanent residence in the town or city in which they requested work.

The majority of Roma who came from Slovakia to the Czech region stayed in the country as visitors to their relatives. This situation was complicated further by the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1993, when the citizenship law was passed in the Czech Republic, and when the tens of thousands of Slovak Roma became as of July 1, 1994 homeless.

Apart from the economic collapse among the Roma, freedom also brought a growth in violence and other displays of racial intolernance towards the Roma. In 1991, 25 offenses were recorded where the motivation was racial, or as the case may be, ethnic intolerance. In 1992, this figure was 31 and in 1993, 55. The alarming fact is, however, that the number of racially-motivated crimes committed was far more than the isolated cases punished. (Czech Helsinki Committee's Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic, 1994)

The ratification of the Czech citizenship law and the increasing physical violence directed toward the Roma didn't escape the attention of the international governmental and nongovernmental organizations engaged in defending human rights. Although the Western democracies and international institutes looked with admiration on the blossoming of democracy in the Czech Republic after the fall of communism, they also warned of the dark side of the new freedom, that being racism.


The annual report of the U.S State Department, which has been drawn up for the U.S. Congress since 1977 and which is concerned with the status of human rights in 193 countries of the world, has called attention to the status of the Romani minority in the Czech Republic since 1993.

According to the 1994 report, the Roma are the subject of pronounced public prejudice in the Czech Republic. The Roma are the poorest minority and the crime rate among their population is very high. Efforts by a variety of foundations and individuals in the areas of schooling and health to improve their standard of living have had little impact. The same can be said of the essentially failed attempts at mobilizing individual Romani communities. The report included the protests of the Roma, who considered the requirement of a clean criminal record over the previous five years for Czech citizenship to be discriminatory. It also recorded the edicts in several Czech towns directed against Roma and the violent clashes between Czechs and Roma. The American report surmised that the Czech government wasn't only anti-Roma in its public statements, but that its domestic policies have a tendency to ignore the seriousness of the Romani problems.


The Czech citizenship law was also criticized in the fall of 1994 by the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress, which released a study on human rights in the Czech Republic for the first time, entitled "Human Rights and Democracy in the Czech Republic." According to the report, the Czech citizenship law demonstrates a lack of respect for minority rights and violates the standards set by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. While human rights are the privilege only of the minority, the transition to democracy in the Czech Republic won't be complete or firmly rooted.

The report recalled that after the split of the Czechoslovak Federation, Slovakia passed a law enabling all former citizens of Czechoslovakia to acquire citizenship, while the Czech Republic approved a more restrictive law which determined according to place of birth who was Czech, without regard to whether a person spent their entire life in the Czech Republic. Those citizens designated as Slovaks by the law, if applying for Czech citizenship, had to meet two conditions - prove at least two years residence in the country and have a clean criminal record for the previous five years. It was highly forseeable that these conditions would apply practically only to Roma, the report claims.

While a number of countries exclude applicants for citizenship on this principle, it doesn't correspond to international practice for a country to strip citizens of their citizenship for breaking its own laws. What's more, the current refusal of citizenship because of past offenses adds to the deed an additional punishment that didn't exist when the crime was committed. In this context, the report cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that a sentence cannot be passed higher than that which corresponds to the crime at the time it was committed.

Although Czech spokespersons have claimed that the citizenship law conforms to the immigration processes of other European countries, it isn't a matter of setting conditions for granting citizenship to new immigrants, but conditions by which citizenship is denied to those who had it before.


In February 1995, the U.S. State Dept. Report described the main problem in the area of human rights in the Czech Republic to be the prejudices of Czech society against the Roma and the inability, or unwillingness, of the government to confront them. According to the report, the most well-known example of this discrimination was the Czech citizenship law, which required applicants to meet conditions that for almost all Roma originating in Slovakia and living in the Czech Republic were impossible to fulfill.

The best known is the requirement of a clean criminal record for the previous five years, which is certainly in variance with the Fundamental Document of Rights and Freedoms, as this condition is punishment after the fact - the convicted serve their punishment once in prison, but if they apply for citizenship, the state applies another punishment for the offense, the refusal of citizenship. It's necessary to point out that the Roma, who were required by the Czech citizenship law to apply for citizenship after the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation, were originally forced to leave Slovakia after the Second World War by government decree and to settle in the areas abandoned by the deportation of the Sudeten Germans to work in industry as a light, unskilled work force.

The report also mentioned skinhead attacks on the Roma and discrimination against them in access to education, housing, and employment.

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus described the report as distorted and oversimplifying. "I can't believe my eyes, what's written there," he declared. He stated that he had at his disposal only xeroxed clipping of the material. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexandr Vondra, described the report as "valuable information, but without any directive." The Chairperson of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, regarding the criticism connected to Czech prejudices against the Roma, said that the principle of a civil society was a "traditional attribute of Czech democracy" and nobody in the country practices any discrimination against the Roma. He emphasized that any displays of racism that occur are immediately prosecuted. (Lidove Noviny, Feb. 3, 1995)


The situation of the Roma who remained in the Czech Republic without any citizenship and thus without any rights was also brought up by the Czech Helsinki Committee in its annual report for 1994. Their report on the state of human rights in the Czech Republic in 1994 declared that the Czech citizenship law affected thousands of people, making them foreigners in their own homes. The fact that mostly Roma lost their rights to citizenship, along with the administrative arrogance in the application of the law, arouses the suspicion that behind the law lies a racist motivation. According to the Committee, the law should be amended as soon as possible according to the principle of territoriality, as it violates the inalienable rights of a part of the population, and even weakens the concept of state citizenship itself. The report also warned of the growth of violence and other displays of racial intolerance, and the attitude of state bodies in resolving clearly racially-motivated cases.


The brutal assault on 34 year-old Roma Tibor Berki, who was beaten by four men with baseball bats in his own home in May 1995 and died from his injuries several hours later in the hospital, forced the government to draft a specific measure to halt the growth of racial violence.

The government condemned the death of Tibor Berki and proposed increased sentences for racially-motivated acts of violence, and its proposal led to the establishment of a new division of the police to deal directly with extremist movements.

At the beginning of June 1995, the number of people charged with racially-motivated crimes rose dramatically, and the State Prosecuter was empowered to ask for stricter sentences.

In 1995, government functionaries started to pay greater attention to the problems connected to the Romani minority. The government met with a delegation from the Council of Europe, which came to deal with the citizenship law.

President Vaclav Havel and three ministers took part in a solemn event at the former concentration camp at Lety na Pribramsku to honour the memory of the Czech Roma who died during the Second World War. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus met with Romani representatives to discuss their concerns.

In October, the government also condemned an attack by skinheads on a Romani couple in Breclav, which left the pair with concussions and cost the man an eye.


The U.S. State Department Report for 1995, which was presented to the U.S. Congress in March of 1996, appraised the efforts of the government, which moved more energetically against racially-motivated attacks than in previous years - when official state bodies put forth minimum effort - as improving the protection of the Roma against the growing threat of racially-motivated violence.

The report continued to say that among the Roma there were disproportionately high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. A great part of the Roma are not integrated into society and are not represented at all in politics. Czech political culture traditionally approaches them as ousiders. The report went over all the racially-motivated attacks of 1995, and it also mentioned the increased attention the government paid to racially-motivated crimes and social problems. As in past years, however, the report described the Czech Citizenship Law as disciminatory, and that it resulted in from 10 to 24 thousand people being deprived of their citizenship, the majority being Roma.

The Chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Jiri Payne, described the report as objective. "This report encourages us to do more in several areas," he said. Regarding the problems of the Roma he said: "As far as there are critical reservations, ... let's look for ways to actually overcome the prejudices against the Roma. I would like to see, for example, more Roma among our television newscasters, so that they show up more often in public life," and he added that society can only speed up this process. "It's only a question of finding educated Roma who can become leaders of their community." (CTK, March 7, 1996)


In April of 1996, the government reacted to the three-year criticism of international institutions (the Council of Europe, OSCE, UNHCR, U.S. Congress) and Czech nongovernmental organizations (the Czech Helsinki Committee, HOST, Tolerance and others) and proposed an amendment to the Czech citizenship law, which Parliament passed on the 26th of April. Thanks to the amendment, the Ministry of the Interior was empowered to waive the requirement of a clean criminal record for the previous five years, which was considered the largest obstacle for Roma attempting to obtain Czech citizenship. This amendment, however, didn't eliminate the problems international human-rights organizations had with the law.

In 1996, according to the report by the Czech Helsinki Committee, the position of the Roma still hadn't changed, in regards to their high unemployment and frequent poverty. In May, the Ministry of Education addressed the inadequate admission of Romani pupils and quietly approved criticisms that the Czech schools lacked any elements of multiculturalism (in civics textbooks there is no mention of the Roma minority, and Czech history also fails to mention the historical presence of the Roma on Czech soil or their slaughter during the period of the Second World War).

In 1996, state agencies recorded a large growth in racially-motivated crimes, which isn't necessarily evidence of any actual increase, simply a reflection of the fact that in 1995 the state administrative bodies started to prosecute racially-motivated attacks as such, and not merely as individual attacks without a racial motive.

That the United States is really alarmed about the discrimination against the Roma in the Czech Republic that has been referred to in recent years in the U.S. State Department's reports, is evidenced by the fact that Roma have been receiving political asylum there, as well as in Canada and Australia.

The year 1996 in the Czech Republic was evaluated positively by the U.S. State Department overall, but in its annual report issued at the end of January 1997, it again took exeception to the situation of the Roma and warned again of the continuing prejudices within Czech society, the violence of extremist groups against the Roma, and the difficulties the Roma face in obtaining Czech citizenship.


In June of 1996, a nongovernmental organization for the defense of human rights, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki released a detailed report on the discrimination against the Roma in the Czech Republic entitled Foreigners in Their Own Land, which came to the conclusion that the consequences of the citizenship law and the unwillingness of the government to fight racist violence exposes an indisputable element of ethnic discrimination.

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