Many experts believe that the Roma (gypsies), who make up about 0.3% of the Czech population, originated in India, but it is still uncertain how they came to arrive in Central Europe in the 15th century. As soon as they arrived, they were seen as “different” and were cut off from the rest of society, mainly because of their different customs, different clothes and their nomadic way of life. Since their arrival, they have suffered persecution and discrimination in Central Europe.
Many people in the Czech Republic are incredibly distrusting of the Roma, as they are often involved in petty crimes, such as theft, plus they are also often seen as being unwilling to work for a living. It is also the case that many of the Roma living in the Czech Republic are not properly educated and many don’t even manage to get through the compulsory stage of schooling. It is wrong to cast a stereotype over a whole race, but most Czechs have heard stories about the Roma committing crime over and over again. Of course, some Roma do work, but they mostly fill unskilled and poorly paying jobs.
Persecution of the Roma
In modern history, the persecution of the Roma began in 1927, when a law was passed on Wandering Gypsies. This law meant that they had to apply for permission to stay overnight and also to have to apply for identification. The darkest hour for the Roma came during World War II though, as they were forced to work in labour camps by the Nazis. These were later replaced by concentration camps at Lety u Písku in Bohemia and Hodonín u Kunštátu in Moravia, and many Roma died in these, from malnutrition, disease or brutality. Many were also transported to Nazi death camps. After the war, only about 300 Czech Roma remained, from a population of about 6,500 before the war. It is often seen as an embarrassment to the Czech nation that this was virtually unspoken about after the war ended.
The Communists made attempts during their rule to integrate the Roma into mainstream society, although the way that they were “educated” was obviously with a heavy bias towards Communist ideology. This means that their traditions and language was suppressed and they were encouraged to stop living their nomadic lifestyle. Their traditional jobs, such as weavers, musicians and blacksmiths, were taken from them, and instead they were forced to work as labourers, while also being moved from their rural lands into the large cities. During the Communist regime, the Roma were partially integrated into society, even if they didn’t want to be – they were even forced to attend school and participate in the community as a whole.
After the fall of Communism, the Roma were left without any kind of support in society and with nobody to fight for their cause. This has led to the children of Roma often being refused entry into many mainstream schools, as well as employers being very reluctant to allow Roma to work for them.
Today, the rate of unemployment for Roma is around the 70% mark and they are seen by the vast majority of Czech citizens to be drunks and thieves. They often suffer violent attacks simply because they are Roma. It is now the case that many Roma are leaving the country and heading to Canada or Western Europe to start new lives.
Human Rights and the Roma
In 1998, a wall was constructed in Ústí nad Labem with the intention of separating the Roma population of the town from the rest of the citizens, which caused much embarrassment for the country as a whole. It was criticised heavily by human rights groups and the wall was torn down after just a short time, but these human rights groups still say that there is much work to be done when it comes to the rights of the Roma people.
Neo-Nazi groups are also assaulting members of the Roma community more than ever, both in the Czech Republic and in neighbouring Slovakia. It is also doubted by many people whether the police and the courts are taking this problem seriously. A Roma support group entitled “Dženo” has stated in a report that Roma language and culture is receiving the support that it needs, but there has been a decline in the quality of housing and work conditions over the past few years. It also stated that extremism has risen alarmingly.