Thursday, April 30, 2009


[This piece was largely written by my excellent colleague in Prague, Katerina Zachovalova. Any mistakes are mine]

The Roma in eastern Europe

Canada home and dry
Apr 30th 2009 | PRAGUE
From The Economist print edition

How Roma fleeing persecution win asylum in Canada

EMIGRATION to Canada was a well-trodden road for dissidents after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is 20 years since the country’s leaden communist regime perished in the velvet revolution. The Czech Republic is a regional success story. Yet rising numbers of Roma (gypsy) citizens are making the same journey to the same faraway country, because life at home is intolerable.

Around 250,000 Roma live in the Czech Republic. Their problems include poverty, lack of education, centuries of prejudice and, now, attacks by far-right extremists. According to the Canadian embassy in Prague, 861 Czechs applied for asylum in Canada in 2008, and 84 won it. Canada does not record their ethnic origin, but officials say most were Roma. That exceeds figures from countries such as Afghanistan (488 applicants) and Iraq (282). For communist Cuba, much scolded by the Czech government for its poor human-rights record, the figures were 184 applicants and 93 given asylum. The numbers for the first quarter of 2009 are even more startling: 653 applications, of which 34 were granted.

Admittedly, getting to Canada is easier for the Czech Roma than for Afghans or Iraqis (in October 2007 the Canadians lifted visa requirements for Czechs that had been imposed ten years earlier after a previous Roma exodus). But the figures are also higher than from other ex-communist countries with large Roma populations and visa-free travel to Canada. Last year only 288 Hungarians made applications, with 22 granted.

Some Canadian officials say asylum has become a business, with middlemen charging Roma to arrange it. But nobody has produced evidence of this, and the Czech authorities say they have seen no sign. Anna Polakova, who heads Romani-language public broadcasting in Prague, says the claims are absurd. She also questions the idea that Roma asylum applicants are motivated by Canadian welfare payments. “Even if you have little, your family has been here for two, three generations. You know the language. We have our graves here,” she says. In her view, it is middle-class Roma who are leaving in frustration. “Despite all the talk, the fascists are walking down the street.” She herself considered emigration after her son was badly beaten up by skinheads.

The Czech record is no source of pride. Not only has far-right extremism been rising, but so also is segregation. A government study in 2006 found that 80,000 Roma live in over 300 ghetto-like communities, four-fifths of which came into existence only in the previous decade. Roma activists blame Jiri Cunek, a Christian Democratic leader and former deputy prime minister, for making anti-Roma prejudice acceptable in mainstream politics. A mayor of Vsetin in the east, Mr Cunek ordered the eviction of dozens of Roma families from a run-down building in the town centre into containers on its edge.

Recently police blocked a confrontation between Roma activists and a neo-Nazi march in Krupka, in the north-west. Last November a similar event in Litvinov, in the north, turned into a riot, with police fighting 500 right-wingers trying to get to a Roma neighbourhood blamed as a hotbed of crime. A firebomb attack on a Roma dwelling in Vitkov, one of three in recent months, badly burnt a 22-month-old girl.

Roma are suffering in many other countries in the region. Hungary has witnessed a spate of especially nasty murders. But the rich, well-governed Czech Republic, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, can surely do better.

1 comment:

Lukavetz said...

You know, the high number of application of Czech Roma for asylum in Canada is probably the result of their higher rather than lower education than Roma in the other CEE countries. It's because they are more educated, they know about the opportunity, even if they are largely naive about Canada's social system. During communism, the Czech Roma were target of affirmative action unrepeated anywhere in the world which left their lives on much higher standards than anywhere else. Just go to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania to visit Roma villages and you'll see a stark difference. The Czech society is one of the most equal in the world (by the Gini index it's 4th most equal society, after Denmark, Norway and Sweden,for examle, look at It's a huge accomplishment for a East European country, sadly hugely unreported