Czech Roma are travelling - and many choose not to return

Roma or Romany people form one of the largest minorities in the Czech Republic. Ethnic Czechs and Roma live side-by-side in many Czech towns and villages. But the two groups are not always comfortable bedfellows. Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Czech Roma have been making the most of their increased mobility and moving out. And as Rosie Johnston from Radio Prague reports, many are not returning home from their travels.

The Romany have a long tradition in the Czech lands, where they are said to have arrived around 500 years ago. At last count, there were over 11,000 Roma registered in the Czech Republic, though unofficial figures suggest that there could in fact be up to twenty times that number.

But this number is in decline. Markus Pape is the head of the European Roma Rights Centre in Prague. He says that there has been a mass exodus of Roma from this country since 1990:

“Between 1995 and 1997, there was a huge wave of tens of thousands of Roma who left the country; many of them went to Canada. And when the Canadian government found out that some Czech municipalities were trying to make the Roma go to Canada, and using the Canadian asylum system to get rid of citizens of their own towns or country, then Canada introduced a visa system.”

Canada later reversed its decision on visa requirements. However, in response to a new wave of Roma migration, Ottawa is considering re-introducing the restrictions.

But, as Markus Pape explains, in recent years, Czech Roma have been seeking refuge a little closer to home:

“There was another wave of migration which began when the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union. Czechs no longer had to apply for asylum abroad; they could go and work there as they wished. And there are, at the moment, tens of thousands of Czech Roma in Great Britain, and many in Ireland.”

One such Czech Roma is Petr Torak. Having left Liberec just under ten years ago, he is now being touted as the ‘new face of British policing’. The British press has also taken notice of his story:

Petr Torák, photo: www.dailymail.co.uk
“I moved to Britain in 1999 because of the persecution my family faced here in the Czech Republic. My father was active in politics, and because of his opinions, I was attacked by a group of skinheads. Passers by just watched and did nothing, they didn’t even say anything. Then a few days later, my mother was beaten up by a group of skinheads as well. So we went to the police and they said ‘Well, do you know the names of the people who attacked you? If you don’t, then it doesn’t make any sense to even make a statement. There’s nothing we can do’. So, that’s why we decided to leave the country.”

Petr Torak is about to become a fully-fledged police officer, working to accommodate the immigrant community in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. Why does he think that so many Roma continue to leave the Czech Republic?

“I think that the Roma were fed up, and when they saw that there was the option of having a better life abroad, then they took that option and left the country. At first it was just a few Roma who left, and they gave this example to others. They showed that there was a better life out there and that people could really achieve something if they wanted to.”

Markus Pape points out that Czechs and Czech Roma have similar emigration habits. Both groups, he says, plan on moving abroad only temporarily before settling back on Czech soil. But, as Petr Torak has highlighted, it may be far easier for ethnic Czechs than Czech Roma to return to a place which they have, for hundreds of years, considered their home.