Illegal money-lending - a crucial problem among Czech Roma

Czech Roma leaving the country, photo: CTK

The number of Czech Roma leaving the country to seek political asylum in Western Europe has again increased in recent weeks. Those who leave say they're discriminated against and don't feel they're protected from attacks by skinheads. But the government's Human Rights Commissioner, Jan Jarab, says excessive debt is another reason why Czech Roma are leaving the country. The Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla appealed to the Roma not to leave the Czech Republic on Thursday, saying while they had come to the region in the 14th century, their roots were now here. Mr Spidla called on the Roma to cooperate with the government to help the authorities improve their living conditions. On Thursday the Government Council for Roma Affairs met to discuss the latest developments, and agreed that unsuccessful asylum seekers should not be allowed to claim back the social benefits they missed while abroad. Radio Prague's Pavla Horakova spoke to Kumar Vishwanathan, an Indian community worker living and working with the Roma community in Ostrava. She began by asking him what he thought about the government's recommendation.

Czech Roma leaving the country,  photo: CTK
"I can see the reason from the point of view of the state, why the state is interested in not allowing the Roma to claim the social benefits twice, once here in the Czech Republic and simultaneously in Britain for example. But on the other hand, there are two problems. One: when these people come back from abroad after having been denied their asylum status they come back the Czech Republic where they will face debts on rents and different services. And this will only increase the problem of for example evictions etc. Number two: if this law is specifically orientated - and it seems to be orientated - against the interests of the Roma community who are actually fleeing from a situation, I'm not sure whether it is in accordance with Czech law either because it could be understood as discriminatory."

Illegal money-lending in the Roma community is said to be among the reasons why Czech Roma are leaving the country. Can you explain that in more detail?

Czech Roma leaving the country,  photo: CTK
"Yes, I think this is a very big problem among the Roma or among any poor community in the world. The Roma don't have access to low-interest loans because most of them are unemployed - the unemployment level of the Roma in Ostrava reaches almost 100 percent. No bank is willing to lend them any money. These people are on the social benefits and when they are faced with some kind of immediate, unforeseen expense, for example a funeral, they have nowhere to approach for a loan and the local money-lender makes use of the situation. So we have a huge, flourishing loan-shark economy and the loan sharks are very brutal in claiming back their deals. They don't stop at threatening people, attacking them brutally, most of the victims are women because women are forced to seek their help for food and so on. So in order to appease on loan shark they go and borrow from another loan shark and they get into this vicious circle of borrowing from one in order to appease another. So an escape becomes a more and more important avenue for these people."

The government is planning to establish a special police body in order to tackle illegal money-lending among the Roma. Do you think that's the right approach?

"I think it is a good approach but then there are two sides to the problem. From my point of view, the security issues which the police can address, such as protecting the victims should also go hand in hand with efforts addressed at the core cause of why people go to the usurers. Basically, the fundamental problem is that the Roma don't have access to certain very crucial financial services and that has to be addressed simultaneously."