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Behind the Tensions in Northern Bohemia

During the last month, we have seen increasing tensions between the majority and the Roma population of Northern Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Attacks, demonstrations, anti-Gypsy speeches, and police reinforcements fill the daily reports there. Should we worry that the message bearers are “ordinary” citizens instead of extremists and populists? What difference does it make if a young, educated mother with her children is demonstrating against Roma as opposed to an uneducated teenager with a shaved head? What might be the consequences and what position we should take?

Two separate events in Novy Bor and Rumburk escalated the recent tensions in Northern Bohemia. The post-industrial region has the highest unemployment rate in the Czech Republic, an increasing crime rate, and a growing number of Roma inhabitants. On Sunday, August 7, a group of Roma men in Novy Bor attacked three ethnic Czechs in a bar with machetes seriously injuring them.  Two weeks later in Rumburk, a group of 20 Roma attacked six ethnic Czechs after attending a disco. Both incidents made headlines across the country, in part because they involved attacks by Roma, who are more frequently the target of racially motivated violence rather than the perpetrators.

The incidents prompted a number of demonstrations in Northern Bohemia which criticized the municipality for ignoring the smoldering tensions for too long. Some of the demonstrations were peaceful, but others were not—fueled by the right wing extremists and neo-Nazis in attendance. The police sent reinforcements to the region which only further escalated tensions. What has been unusual at these demonstrations are calls from some in the crowd for sustainable solutions and measures to the ongoing problems. Rather than just regurgitating the typical extremist rhetoric, ordinary people have also wanted to speak out and talk about real solutions.

While the Czech government has been criticized and many have called for more support, the Czech Commissioner for Human Rights, Monika Simunkova, has visited the region only few times without ever showing any sign of deeper engagement. The Agency for Social Inclusion, which operates under the office of the Human Rights Commissioner, is capable of supporting further engagement but does not have sufficient capacity to do so. Evidently there is not enough political will to improve the situation.

Winds of Change

Something else is also different this time around. Apart from the typical biased criticism of Roma and calling the state for taking action, people are starting to ask questions about the conditions under which the Roma live as well as their treatment. The police, for example, have begun investigating a case in one North Bohemian city of a housing administrator accused of charging Roma inhabitants fees for heating and water that are two times higher than those charged to non-Roma residents; some even wonder if the supply company is selling the services for a standard price. Another point of concern is the rent in Roma settlements; why is it so high? It seems that the landlords, housing administrators, and even municipalities are pumping the social benefit system providing accommodations for Roma.

Other articles have raised the issue of how it is that Roma come to live in certain areas. For example, some developers move Roma families into historic buildings, letting (maybe even encouraging) them damage the building and appliances so as to make it pointless to keep the building. No one holds the developers responsible for this kind of manipulation. Instead they are free to move Roma from one building or settlement to another, just as they need. The state must take steps to end this practice.

EU Funds for Inclusion of Roma

A weekly newspaper, Tyden, recently published an article reviewing the impact of EU funds dedicated to social inclusion of Roma in the Czech Republic. To our surprise the paper revealed that much of the EU funds devoted to inclusion of Roma are not actually being spent on Roma. Too often the “inclusion” of Roma is actually nothing more than an excuse to access these funds. Take for example the case of Kladno, a city in Central Bohemia: out of 250 million Czech crowns requested for Roma inclusion only 3 millions will be actually spent on Roma, the rest will go to the reconstruction of the nearby settlement that houses ethnic Czechs—not Roma—and building of a pedestrian zone. Another example from Ostrava, in the eastern part of the country, shows how 180 million of EU funds intended for the inclusion of Roma went instead to the construction of parking places and revitalization of public spaces totally outside of the ghetto where most of the Roma in Ostrava live.

Who Should Bear the Responsibility?

The Czech Government recently claimed that it had no intention to elaborate on the National Roma Integration Strategy, which is due to the European Commission by the end of this year. The Concept of Roma Integration 2010-2013 is considered to be the most accurate, comprehensive, and up-to-date material we have. We hardly believe that. Or else we have missed a commitment to goals, specific impacts, and outcomes, and the monitoring and evaluating indicators. Isn’t this the right moment to develop further strategies on Roma integration? Especially when the former Minister of Human Rights and Micheal Kocab, the man who was behind the concept document, have stated that the strategy is not being implemented.

The Agency for Social Inclusion has developed and submitted to the government what it alleges to be the most comprehensive Strategy of Social Inclusion in the Czech Republic. We look forward to reading it and we hope the government will support this effort, but even if the government did, would it be enough?

The events in Northern Bohemia have shone a light on the problem of inclusion in the Czech Republic. Tensions have gone unaddressed for too long—not just in Northern Bohemia, but throughout the country. They are supported by an environment where it is okay to mistreat the Roma and where the government is apathetic when it comes to this issue. It is up to the police to take seriously accusations, lead investigations, and fight for justice, but it should be up to the state to take responsibility. And it is the responsibility of all Czechs—both Roma and non-Roma alike—to call on the government to do just that.

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