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Canada calling

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Hundreds of Czech Roma have applied for refugee status in Canada in the last year, citing racism and discrimination. A Pardubice family explains why they too are prepared to leave.

Coming home late one Saturday after a night out with friends, Aleš Horváth was attacked by a dozen white youths hurling insults and cobblestones as he tried to get to his car. “Pojď sem, ty černá hubo, zabiju tě,” he remembers one shouting before they knocked him down and beat him. “Come here, blackie, I’ll kill you.”

“They were kicking me like a dog,” he says. “Extremists say they’re fighting against society’s ‘parasites.’ But why attack me? I’m not a parasite. I run my own business. I pay taxes, and employ both Czechs and Roma.” That attack in September left the well-built Romani businessman from Pardubice badly bruised and with a concussion. It was hardly an isolated incident, he says, and could have turned out far worse. The skinheads scattered when a police cruiser arrived, flagged down by some Roma passersby.

“I’ve been beaten twice by skinheads and gotten into fights just because I’m a Roma a hundred times,” says Horváth, who drives his children to and from school, fearing they’ll suffer worse than the dirty looks and racist remarks they’re accustomed to. “There isn’t one Roma in Pardubice who has not had some bad experience with extremists, been bullied at school or attacked by skinheads,” he says. “Life here for Roma is a battle. I don’t want to teach my son how to fight. I want to teach him other things. All my life I’ve been fighting, and I don’t want my children to be fighting all their lives.”

Hate crimes have intensified over the past year in the Czech Republic, according to Amnesty International and other organisations, with marches and statements by far-right groups – including “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” – increasingly leading many Roma to say they fear for their lives. “One significant reason behind the rise in extremism here is a decline in mutual trust between the Czech and Romani communities, which leads to these departures for Canada,” Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb said in a recent televised debate. “What has not been emphasized enough is that a statement by the government of good will towards the Roma community is missing.”

It’s not just the constant and rising threat of violence that pushes Horvath and hundreds of others to sell their property and move their families to Canada. It’s what he sees as pervasive discrimination – and de facto segregation – in schools, the workplace and society. “We are decent people. But we can’t go out into society like normal people. This is why we want to leave, for Canada, France, Ireland – anywhere is better for Roma than here,” says Horváth, who runs a construction business. “I’m so tired of explaining myself. I have to convince potential clients [to give me a chance]. I always say [in advance] that we are a Roma company, rather than surprising them. It is humiliating.”

Rise of the far right
In the village of Vitkov, three Molotov cocktails thrown into a Romani home on 18 April left 2-year-old Natálka Siváková comatose and severely burned. The attack sparked nationwide Romani protests, bringing to boil simmering racial tensions, says Ostrava-based community organiser Kumar Vishwanathan, whose organisation works to create affordable housing and bring Roma and Czechs together. “Right-wing extremism is blatantly on the rise. There is a feeling that right-wing extremism is out of control, and I think the fears are legitimate,” Vishwanathan says. “At the same time, a part of the Roma youth is arming themselves for confrontation. So what we’re really seeing is an escalation of tensions here.”

Before a march by some 500 far-right demonstrators in Přerov 4 on April, “young Romani men collected machetes and axes, placed at their doors, because they were concerned the neo-Nazis would break the police barriers,” Vishwanathan says. The march cut through a Romani neighborhood, where demonstrators stopped a few times and chanted “Czechs come with us”, as well as anti-Roma statements, according to Amnesty International. The increasingly politically savvy far-right Workers Party had organised the rally, but later distanced itself from the event.

Through their websites, subsequent rally organisers from various groups called on members and sympathisers to join the march against “gypsy terrorism” and referred to “gypsy ethnicity” as “parasitic”. Dozens of protests have targeted Roma in the past 18 months, especially in towns with high unemployment, such as Chomutov and Litvínov. And they’ve become increasing bold. “The last half year has been marked by attempts to openly attack Roma communities, preceded by political gatherings, in particular of the Workers Party – that is new, new, new,” says activist Gwendolyn Albert, who writes an annual country report on the Czech Republic for the European Network Against Racism. “The recent rise in Czech Roma asylum claims in Canada is primarily due to the rise in Czech public officials, from mayors to ministers, taking a page from the tactics of fringe neo-Nazi political parties,” she says. “They are specifically targeting the issue of the proportionally large number of Roma citizens on welfare in this country as part of their populist political agendas.”

‘No one notices the educated Roma’
The Horváths don’t want to leave, and keep hoping Czech attitudes toward Roma will change. But they see little progress, despite improvements on paper. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, in November 2007 found the Czech Republic guilty of routinely sending Romani children to schools for students with learning disabilities.

“The psychologist who assesses who is suitable for such schools spoke a mix of Czech and Romani and was trying to persuade me that my daughter [Lucie] would be better off there, that she’d feel more comfortable there. But I didn’t give in,” says Horváth’s father, Andrej, who left Slovakia for Pardubice in 1946. “Most members of our family are educated – we have a doctor, a nurse, an economist – but no one notices the educated Roma, and there are many of us.”

Lucie graduated university and is a Green Party candidate in the European Parliament elections, Aleš Horváth says with pride, hastening to add he experiences the same pressures from school officials with his son, now in the fifth grade. “Year after year, not a half term of school goes by without a school official suggesting I send my son to a special school, that he’ll be better off there,” he says. “I see no reason why. Sometimes his grades are better, sometimes worse, but he has never failed a grade.”

Horváth says bars and restaurants openly bar Roma, and even going to public events such as sports matches poses a risk. After a hockey match, for example, his brother was hospitalized by a beating. “That’s why Roma stick closely together. Discrimination is so common here that people don’t even recognize it as discrimination. It has become normal,” he says. “Society is pushing us into a corner more and more. As a person who knows life abroad, having already lived in Belgium – where my children weren’t recognised as Roma, but now know here that to be ‘Gypsy’ is something bad – I’ve had enough.”

O Canada!
In late 2007 Canada lifted the visa requirement on Czechs – a regime it imposed over a decade ago after some 4,000 Czech Roma sought asylum their – due to pressure from the European Union, a major trading partner, to extend visa-free travel status for the newest member states. Last year, the Czech Republic eclipsed war-torn Somalia, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka to become the seventh-biggest source of asylum seekers in Canada, with 583 applications, nearly all by Roma. By this April, the country rose to fourth place, with 653 current claims.

“This is ridiculous, and not because there aren’t bona fide asylum seekers in Eastern Europe, where the Roma face a level of exclusion and persecution that really has no analogue in North America,” pundit Chris Selley wrote in a recent column for Canada’s National Post. “Rather, it’s ridiculous because no system that purports to help the world’s most downtrodden should be expending more resources on Czech citizens than on, say, Somali, Zimbabwean, Iraqi or Burmese citizens.”

A Czech government study in 2006 found that about 80,000 Roma live in more than 320 socially deprived communities, some 80 percent of which came into existence in the 1990s after municipalities on a grand scale privatised public housing, relocating many Roma, along with “problematic inhabitants,” such as rent defaulters, to concentrated areas – creating ghettoes. With so many Roma here living near or below the poverty line, an even larger exodus may come, community organiser Vishwanathan says. “The present wave [of asylum seekers] comes from fear; by July it will come from money,” he says, predicting tighter restrictions for social benefits under the newly revised Law on Emergency Benefits as the trigger.

“The problem is not that the law aims to encourage people to work, but rather who will employ them? They go to the municipalities and they offer no work, no solutions,” Vishwanathan says. “In June or July we’re going to see a drastic change in the economic situation. … For the Roma community, it is like an earthquake, a tsunami rising up against them.”

Canada has already cautioned that it may again impose visa restrictions as Czech refugee claims far outnumber those from other new EU countries with visa-free travel to Canada and large Romani populations. Last year, for example, only 288 people from Hungary – a country with its own rise in right-wing extremism and deadly attacks on Roma – made applications, with 22 granted. To varying degrees, Czech politicians have implied that the majority of Roma seek to take advantage of Canada’s welfare system through “false” claims, while the Canadian Embassy has urged the Czech government to act on “unscrupulous mediators” who facilitate the flow of people. “It’s very easy to get asylum in Canada: For that reason it is being targeted by individuals who seek economic [gains] rather than any other type of asylum,” then Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said on 6 May after talks with his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, adding that government must create opportunities at home for Roma.

“What’s unfair is for the prime minister to proclaim that the reason is economic when he doesn’t know, first of all, and especially when the country is experiencing this dramatic rise in extremist behavior which his own government was so incompetent in addressing,” activist Albert says. “It’s also unacceptable for [Canadian Immigration Minister Jason] Kenney to speak in blanket terms about these refugee applications as ‘false’ claims,” she says. “It’s just irresponsible, because it’s especially important that no stigma is attached to people seeking asylum. The procedures they have in Canada evaluate people on an individual basis and for good reason.”

Those fleeing in droves, Horváth says, include decent families with financial means, adding that his cousin wants to go by July but must close his business and sell three houses. “It’s nonsense to claim that Roma go there just to claim social benefits. Only those who have the money go. It’s expensive to move a family overseas,” he says. “We know many people who’ve been in Canada for 10 or 12 years. Half of our family is there – in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto. They have their own businesses. They work. They didn’t go there to get social benefits.”

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