Government agency to fight problem of discrimination, ghettos in Czech towns

The government has announced plans to found an agency aimed at fighting discrimination and social exclusion of minorities, especially the Roma, in Czech towns. The announcement was made by Dzamila Stehlikova - the minister responsible for human rights - on Tuesday. The plan has also been approved by the government Council for Romany Affairs. One report estimates there are some three hundred neighbourhoods in the country (although activists say there are many more) where some inhabitants live in unsuitable conditions. In the pilot phase of the project the agency will take on the problem of ghettos in ten Czech towns.

Kumar Vishwanathan
A little earlier Jan Velinger spoke to Kumar Vishwanathan, an Indian-born community worker long recognised for his work within the Roma community. Jan asked him whether he saw the creation of the new government agency as a positive step:

"I think that this is a very welcome development. I think it was high time that such an agency was created because for the past sixteen, seventeen years things have been going from bad to worse for the Roma. Social exclusion has been on the rise, people have lost their jobs - the Roma not being really prepared for the democratic changes and the coming of the free market (they all had jobs under communism). The Roma were the first to lose jobs, lose homes, their education level is very low, so I think that this is a clear sign that the state sees that the problems are really very bad and that something needs to be done."

RP: How have Roma organisations greeted the developments?

"I think that many Roma organisations are quite thrilled and I also see that some municipalities are also happy about it and are joining. The fall of communism saw a rise of Roma organisations, a rise of Roma 'awareness' and Roma identity, and there has also been a kind of compassionate approach from non-Roma to do something for the Roma who are in a very bad situation.

"A lot of NGOs sort of mushroomed until the time the Czech Republic joined the EU, and then a lot of funding stopped and much of the external funds moved to Ukraine and Romania, meaning some NGOs here had to cease. Now, many surviving and small NGOs which have been doing a lot of brave work at the grassroots level hope they will be able to access funds helping them carry on their work. Eu funding should also have a particular percentage of co-financing. That is where local municipalities are very important key players and partners."

RP: The commissioner for human rights has stressed that the task of the agency should be to work with whole families: what do you think such work might look like?

"Working with whole families doesn't mean 'pampering' anybody; I think it means identifying needs and overcoming barriers whole families feel in the process of integration. The Roma find it extremely difficult to move into some spaces, the social space is very limited for the Roma, coming from marginalised localities. So the people with a will to get out, with a desire to improve themselves, face a lot of barriers. Entering the police force, entering the social services, entering the job market on equal terms with everybody else: that is what the Roma need and that is still a dream."