Government’s Roma inclusion agency head Martin Šimáček: most mayors not ready to work hard on integration

Martin Šimáček, photo: CT24

One of the gravest problems facing Czech society is the situation of the country’s Romany minority. According to official estimates, there are between 150,000 and 300,000 Romanies living in the country; they face disproportionately high unemployment and continued discrimination in housing and education. Some 80,000 of them live in socially excluded locations. To assist the local authorities in improving the living conditions in such cities and towns, the Czech government set up in 2009 the Agency for Social Inclusion in Romany Localities. The agency has been active in more than 20 such areas, and this year, 19 more applied to join the programme.

Martin Šimáček,  photo: CT24
“There are two target groups. These are people threatened with social exclusion, especially Romanies but our primarily focus is on our partners on the local level – the local authorities, NGOs, town hall officials, the police, those who can offer employment, and so on.

“We operate what we call local partnerships which are teams of all those local actors. They analyze the situation and involve the local Romanies in the process; then we prepare a plan of measures and activities tailored for the particular place. That’s what we do during our first year in a place. In the second year, we push for all those measures to be put to work so we only see some results after two years.”

Which of the two groups – potential employers, local authorities and so on, or the socially excluded people - is more difficult to approach and work with?

“That’s totally different but the issue is of the same importance. It’s not easy to motivate the people living in social exclusion but it’s also difficult to motivate the majority population to reflect the situation, and to be open to social inclusion and to the solutions that we offer. So working with both target groups is very different, but it’s equally difficult.”

You are very good at helping with the immediate consequences of social exclusion – but can you also help remove its causes?

“Our activities don’t only target the visible problems. In education for instance, we push schools to think about the big picture; when we prepare a strategy to include Roma children in a school, we have in mind all the children at that school. So our activities open schools for all the children who need any sort of special support. We believe we tackle the issue in the whole context.”

Do you work to change some things on the central level? For instance, one of the big problems is usury; another is gambling. If you achieved changes to the legislation, it would affect all these communities at once…

“Part of our work that is not that well known is collecting information in the field and bringing it to the government. We communicate with ministries, suggesting changes to the system. Our proposals include changes to the legislation, the methods of state authorities, and so on. One of our agency’s most important activities is the preparation of a strategy to fight social inclusion. That strategy includes about a hundred measures that will, in cooperation with the government, change the system.”

You recently took part in a debate on Czech TV with two mayors – one from the town of Nový Bydžov that has acute problems with the Romany minority, and the other from Obrnice, a place outside Most where things seem to be going well. What is the difference – is it in the attitude of the local authorities or are there some other factors at play?

“It’s the attitude. I have to say that the situation in Nový Bydžov is not as difficult as that in Obrnice. There, out of some 2,500 people, some 1,000 are Romanies threatened by exclusion, and we can see that the activities that were put in place there actually help those people connect with the society.

“In Nový Bydžov, around 400 people are threatened by social exclusion out of the town’s population of 7,000. So the problem there is not as grave as in Obrnice. Also, many of the Romanies in Nový Bydžov have jobs, they send their children to school, and so on. But the authorities in Nový Bydžov are not doing their job well. So the problem is in the attitude.”

This year, 19 communities across the country have applied to join your programme, out of which you will pick seven. First of all, are you disappointed that you didn’t hear from all the municipalities that face similar problems, and second, shouldn’t you accept all who apply?

“That’s a crucial question. I think that mayors and local authorities are simply not ready to work hard to improve the situation in their towns. But I also have to say that people from another 30 or 40 places have been calling our office to get more information; that means they are getting ready to do something, which is very important. Our agency can certainly better inform the authorities about what we do.

“As for the second part of your question, that’s a big problem. If 19 towns call for assistance, we should be able to help them. That’s something that should be resolved in the future.”

Well, you are directly run by the government – should the government basically increase your funding so that you can extend your operations?

“It would be great but I’m not sure if I am able to comment on this. I’m really happy that this government is helping the agency to grow and to operate in more localities. Another issue is whether they can help us to work in all the localities that are ready to cooperate with us.”

At about the same time that those 19 communities applied to join your programme, more than 50 mayors signed a declaration asking the government for more powers in dealing with what they call the “inadaptable” people. They basically want power to control who gets social benefits and who doesn’t, based on their behaviour. Do you think this is a risk for what you are doing, that the authorities will want to go this way, rather than join your programme?

“Those 51 mayors, who gathered in Nový Bydžov to ask for more repressive tools, they don’t speak on behalf of all Czech mayors. There are more and more town officials who realize that if they don’t deal with the situation, the problem will grow much bigger in the future. So I think that those 51 mayors are those who are unable to work on integration, and they are not the voice of all Czech mayors.”

But are you concerned that there will be more and more mayors who identify with this voice?

“Yes, to some extent. But we just have to react to their activities by offering other ways of solving the problem. I see it as our task to be able to communicate with those 50 mayors as well, and to offer them a different kind of solution.”