Czech Roma returning from Britain due to Covid-19 fears, bureaucratic delays

Photo: kalhh, Pixabay / CC0

Many Czech Roma long living in Great Britain have begun returning home in part due to Brexit, in part due to fear that the novel coronavirus is spreading unchecked in the UK. Misinformation about both phenomena is also playing a role, a Czech educator there says – and fraudsters are preying on the panic.

Photo: kalhh,  Pixabay / CC0

The Comenius School UK, a non-profit group in Leeds founded to support the education of Czech children living in Great Britain in their native tongue, estimated in mid-February its volunteers had helped over 1,500 people navigate the application for “settled” status post-Brexit.

Tomáš Kostečka,  photo: archive of Tomáš Kostečka
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. While the death toll in the United Kingdom is in the tens of thousands and rising, back in the Czech Republic, as of today there have been fewer than 300 confirmed related fatalities.

Tomáš Kostečka, head of Comenius, says several hundred Roma people from the Leeds area have returned home in large part out of fear of contracting Covid-19. He told Czech Radio that in the rush to leave, many have fallen victim to scams.

“I would estimate that 300 to 350 have already left England for the Czech Republic and another 500 to 800 are seriously considering it. Many advertisements are spreading here in which people offer a ride home. Many of them are fraudulent – they take the deposit and are never heard from again.”

Before Brexit, over 100,000 Czech nationals were living in the UK, according to estimates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As EU citizens need not register their ethnicity upon arrival, just their nationality, the percentage of Roma people is unknown.

A high percentage of Roma are believed to work in the UK’s informal economy, and many are leaving the UK because such work has disappeared, while others have trouble accessing social services, Kostečka says.

“This community of ours is quite vulnerable because currently people cannot process benefits paperwork at offices in the UK. I have just dealt with three similar cases of people who have been here in Britain for 10 years but are unable to make in-person appointments with the authorities. So, I have been acting as an interpreter.”

Petr Torák | Photo: Jiří Hošek,  Czech Radio
Closed or limited hours at offices also has delayed the “settled” status application process, and some many be returning to the Czech Republic out of frustration with the bureaucracy.

In an interview with the Romani-centred station ROMEA TV last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Tomáš Petříček appealed to Czechs to reflect carefully about whether returning home is the right decision at this moment.

Czechs who have not received settled status in the UK by the close of 2020 risk not being able to return to Britain, and those returning must count on being in quarantine for two weeks, at their own expense.

Romani émigré Petr Torák, awarded the MBE British honour for his work as a police officer in the English city of Peterborough, told ROMEA TV that his organization KOMPAS is to doing its best to provide the accurate information to counter the widespread disinformation regarding quarantine – including that Romani parents will be separated from their children.