Groups worry about potential abuses against historically marginalized population
By Brandon Swanson
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
When the government watched young Arabs, Turks and blacks rioting in Paris late last year, it saw a city in flames over long-simmering racial and economic issues. Czech officials worried that a similar situation could arise domestically with Roma, or gypsies.
In response, the government implemented a Roma monitoring program Jan. 4 to gather information about the group ranging from employment to education.
"Unless we want to allow a similar conflict to happen in the Czech Republic, we have to take action immediately," said Katerina Beránková, Labor and Social Affairs Ministry spokeswoman. "And to introduce any permanent changes, we need to know their position and to what extent they are socially outcast."
Historically, Roma have been marginalized from society here, as they have been throughout Europe, but there has never in the nation's history been an incident of the group rioting.
Lacking reliable information
The announcement of the program immediately raised eyebrows in the Czech press, which questioned whether the government was trying to carry out a Roma-only census, something that has led to discrimination in the past.
"It is nothing of the kind," said Czeslaw Walek, director of the government's Office of Council for Roma Community Affairs.
Walek said the government will analyze living standards without taking down personal data, but the program has drawn criticism from Roma rights advocates, who say such data could be used for discriminating against Roma.
"The anonymity of such monitoring is just an illusion," said Ivan Veselý, chairman of the Dženo, a Prague-based Roma advocacy group - one of several that have spoken against the program.
"Even if there is no name or address given, there are still other social and economic data - a given location, and so on - and from these data it is not really all that difficult to figure out who the monitored people are," he said.
Walek said that Roma have complained that the government either does not contribute enough money to improving their lives or wastes the money it disburses. Indeed, internal government inspections have shown that many Roma programs and subsidies had no impact because they were originally based on poor information about the Roma.
"The aim is to improve the effect of measures already taken, to use available funding in a more effective way," he said.
Walek said his office has not received any complaints about the monitoring program outside of "traditional concern," and that all Roma Council members were informed of the project before its implementation.
But the very thing that makes the program necessary - the government's inability to collect reliable demographic information about Roma - may also be its biggest obstacle.
It could prove difficult for the government to gather information on an ethnic group that has historically been suspicious of its motives. Only 11,000 Czechs declared themselves Romany in the latest population census while an estimated 250,000 Roma live in the Czech Republic.
Unemployment of Roma in this country runs anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent, depending on the region, and many depend heavily on welfare.
The monitoring is legal so long as it remains a sociological analysis, said David Strupek, a Prague lawyer who has experience with Roma issues.
"It becomes a legal problem only if the project amounts to collecting personal data of particular citizens," he said.
The program will cost about 1.5 million Kc ($62,630) per year. Initial data will be submitted to the government this summer and a full report will be released in 2008.
The new year has already been a tumultuous one for Roma in the Czech Republic.
Romany families were evicted from municipal apartments in the Neštemice district of Ústí nad Labem, north Bohemia, this month for owing back rent.
That district became the epicenter of an international human rights controversy in the mid-1990s when city officials began building a concrete barrier to separate Romany municipal housing from private housing after residents complained about the Roma.
When the city refused to halt construction on the wall, the government sent 10 million Kc in aid to improve coexistence between the two groups. The city used part of the money to buy the private houses surrounding the Roma and the residents moved away.
Also in the Ústí region, 10 Romany women filed suit in criminal court over sterilizations that took place between 1979 and 2003.
One woman said that government officials asked her to be sterilized because she had seven children, and she signed an authorization form; later, she said she had trouble reading and writing.
More than 50 Romany women were sterilized in the Czech Republic during that period.
Meanwhile, Roma are now considering creating a human shield to prevent the right-wing National Party from building a memorial in Letý, south Bohemia, at the site of a former Nazi concentration camp for Roma.
On the existing plaque that commemorates the deaths of hundreds of Roma there, the Nationalist Party plans to erect another plaque that reads: "This place was a collection camp, not a concentration camp. History is a question of truth, not interpretation."
The party plans to erect the memorial Jan. 21.
Strupek said that the planned memorial appears to be legal, but police may interpret it as provoking Roma.
"The statement is politically incorrect, to say the least, and perhaps this is a far too mild way to put it," he said. "It is on the edge of expressing hostility toward Roma. It is on the edge of the law."
Petr Kašpar and Iva Skochová contributed to this report.
The entire situation of the forced registration of all Roma(ni) detail smacks of the Nazis of the Third Reich but then it does not surprise me one bit whether for the Czech Republic nor should it happen elsewhere. It is after all an E.U. country and no one says a word.