A report of a parliamentary meeting on the Roma experience of flight from the Czech Republic and settlement in the UK.
Czech National Day – 28 October – was marked in 2013, as for many years past, by neo-Nazi parties openly marching and terrorising Roma districts of rundown former industrial cities of the Czech Republic, often with the support of the local mayor. This year Pilsen and Ostrava were the sites of fierce battles where the courageous Konexe civic association successfully defended Roma families in their homes. Two days earlier, a new populist far-right party called Dawn (Usvit), with a radical anti-Roma programme, entered parliament with almost 7 per cent of the vote. It was bolstered by supporters of the neo-Nazi, ironically named, ‘ People’s Party for Social Justice’.
In Westminster, on 28 October, Czech Roma from community groups around the country stepped forward for the first time as an organised national organisation, and gave their side of the story. Roma Voices explained why they came to the UK, giving searing snapshots of the everyday injustice, harassment and racist contempt which had led them to leave their country. The speeches gave a compelling picture of segregation and exclusion, with widespread passive acquiescence in the majority to a background of outright murder, the torching of Roma houses and the mainstreaming of genocidal views first heard on the Internet but since entering the media and Czech parliament.
Many sessions in Parliamentary committee rooms are low-key and disappointing, This one was vivid, with a quality of concentrated attention and a determination to take action. Hosted by Baroness Janet Whitaker of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, and with MPs Jeremy Corbyn and David Blunkett present, there was a strong sense that the European conventions on human rights – attacked relentlessly by this government – could be made to mean something real.
The horror of racism
Liz Fekete of IRR, who had helped organise the meeting, hailed the resistance of this ‘fantastic people’ who have survived the Holocaust and are now being made scapegoats for the economic crisis across Europe. The film Captive Audience, made especially for the event by Barbora Cernusakova and Phillip Loman, showed neo-Nazis fighting pitched battles with police in the Roma quarters of Ostrava this August. Barbora, a researcher at Amnesty International, explained how in Duchcov, a town of only 9,000 people, a march of 1,000 had stormed through calling for ‘Gypsies to the Gas Chambers’.
In Vitkov, a 3-year-old girl was left with burns over 80 per cent of her body when skinheads burned her family’s house down. Her family’s justice campaign had been led by Ladislav Balaz, now Chair of the new Europe Roma UK organisation which has brought community groups from Birmingham, Derby, Halifax , Margate, Newcastle and Sheffield together in one organisation. He pointed out that on that very day, Nazis were marching through the towns of Ostrava and Pilsen again, traumatising Roma children who are now too terrified to go to school.
‘Like all my friends, I came here to save my children, who are our future. Czechs are building walls in their towns to separate off the Roma; Czech politicians are only thinking of themselves, and not the whole of the country. Our organisation needs to send a message to the Czech government: stop racism. Please – let us stay here, and change minds.’
More Roma speakers gripped an audience of activists, parliamentarians and NGOs. Petr Jano from Margate showed how the neo-Nazi DSS party vilifies Czech democrats like Vaclav Havel as well as the Roma. ‘Other countries in Europe are giving Roma families a chance, not to live in fear. Roma people have been living here in the UK for up to twelve years now, able to send their children to normal schools. But 300,000 people – 40 per cent of our community – have had to leave the Czech Republic to find multicultural societies where our children can do ordinary things like playing football and going to college.’
Jan Tiser, now 24 years old, explained why his parents had left for the sake of his future, as he is their only child. His parents worked hard for years, his mother in a clothes factory and his father as a miner. At school, he and other children were shouted at by teachers and always given the lowest marks. ‘My ears were constantly pulled by the teachers. When Roma kids are bullied at school, the worst thing is that the head teachers know about it, but will not do anything to stop it.’
There are segregated Special Schools for Roma children in the Czech Republic. ‘In those schools you have no future, you can never take exams or get qualified. When my Czech teacher wanted to transfer me to a special school, I was so upset because I would have been nothing. My parents made the choice to come to the UK, and I thank them.’ In London, Jan has taken the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, been a police cadet, and is planning a Roma community centre for young people.
The UK experience
Michael Daduc, of Roma Community care in Derby, emphasised that Roma have also started to hide their ethnicity over here, after lots of negative media and stigmatisation. ‘There is a lack of UK and EU funds for integration’, he said – and the meeting called for Jeremy Corbyn’s Early Day Motion to include a demand for the government to access the funds that were available.
As Baroness Whitaker reminded us, Roma are now citizens of the EU. The new Salford University report on Roma communities – funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust since the government failed to do so – shows that Roma and Travellers have become as large a section of the UK population as Bangladeshis. Suresh Grover of the Monitoring Group promised to campaign to overcome the anti-Gypsy prejudice inside Black and Asian communities too. He proposed an audit of anything Parliament had actually done for the Roma since 1989!
A moving speech, by Ivan Czigany and Pavel Botos of Halifax Roma Group, showed how Gypsies are taking the place of Jews. ‘In 1941 the Nazis set fire to synagogues, now it is the Roma housing estates … Today it is nothing extraordinary to see patrols of extremists in T-shirts with slogans like “Black pigs”, or “Burn the Gypsies”. Mutual coexistence in the Czech Republic has become even harder, because 87 per cent of the people are assessed as very poor. In these conditions, the Roma are exposed to violent attacks, intolerance, rejection … We are putting down roots in the UK and beginning to have confidence to raise our voices and to work together with British friends and partners.’
A European phenomenon
One such ally is Ruth Barnett, who came to England as a child refugee on the Kindertransport and has just written Gypsies and Jews, a book aimed at school students and their teachers. She called for a new task force on anti-Gypsyism, like the 2000 commission on anti-Semitism which succeeded in establishing Holocaust education. The Roma genocide or Porrajmos must be taught in depth alongside the rest of Holocaust history. Janet Whitaker called for the Roma tragedy to be commemorated in all Holocaust memorial activities, and pledged to ask a parliamentary question about including it in the national curriculum.
Gypsy hatred is sweeping across western Europe too: attacks, deportations and human rights violations in Sweden, Greece, Italy, France, and now a revival of the myth that Gypsies steal children. In the UK, some social service departments are threatening to take Roma children from their parents, while the Spectator magazine allows its columnist Rod Liddle to pen unabashed hate speech. Media and politicians attempt to squeeze the vital space in which Roma refugees and migrant workers have been able to live freer lives.
Miroslav Hmilansky stepped from the floor to give a picture of how it feels to be dark-skinned in the Czech Republic today. ‘It doesn’t feel like my home. However well I did at school, the teachers always stigmatised me. There is no chance to work, even manually – if you answer an advertisement the manager will just say “Sorry, no vacancy”. I had to move to the UK. I started with a job in a factory, it felt really good. Now I’m an interpreter for Bradford schools.
‘In the Czech republic, if they even see you with a full basket of fruit they say you must be a drug dealer. They call you “black pig” if you go into a supermarket, and the security guard stands right in front of you. I came here not to be pointed at and called a thief. We can change our lives here. In the Czech Republic we can’t get opportunities, here we can. In my country they call me foreign – I tell the Czechs, here in Bradford is my home.’
Here to stay, then.
To follow the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, email: email@example.com
To read and report on the Early Day Motion for Roma rights, and plan a parliamentary delegation to the Czech embassy, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To call for the Roma genocide or Porrajmos to be included in all Holocaust memorial activities, email: WhitakerJ@parliament.uk
See a petition for an apology from the Spectator for Rod Liddle’s anti-Gypsy rant, and a right to reply, here.
To support Europe Roma UK, email email@example.com