With post-Brexit transition period coming to end, future still uncertain for thousands of Czech Roma living in UK

Photo: kalhh, Pixabay / CC0

With the post-Brexit transition period due to end in less than two weeks’ time, what does the situation look like for the thousands of Czechs living and working in Britain, particularly the large Czech Roma community? Do most of them plan to stay in the UK? And will they manage to apply for settled status in time?

Photo: Jiří Hošek,  Czech Radio

According to the estimates of the Czech Foreign Ministry, there are over 100,000 Czechs living in the United Kingdom and those who plan to stay have just over six months to register for “settled status” in order to be allowed to remain resident in the country post-Brexit.

A sizeable number of the Czech citizens living in Britain are Romanies. As EU citizens are not required to register their ethnicity upon arrival, the percentage of Czech Roma is unknown, but it is believed there are around 45,000 of them living in the country.

They started moving to the UK in 1995, but the biggest wave came after the Czech Republic’s entry to the EU, in 2004. Most of them are living in the north of England, in Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester.

Tomáš Kostečka,  photo: Archive of Tomáš Kostečka,  Facebook

One of the people who have been working closely with Roma communities in Britain is Tomáš Kostečka, the chairman and CEO of the Czech Comenius School in the UK, who lives in Leeds.

Over the past months, he and his colleagues have helped hudnreds of people from vulnerable communities to apply for “settled status”. They have also been providing information and advice concerning Brexit.

“We estimate that there are currently around 46,000 Czechs with Roma background living in Britain. Many of them are very successful, but there is also a big group of those who we call newcomers, who haven’t yet managed to integrate.

“At the moment, there are some 45,000 people who are supposed to be registered with the settlement scheme if they want to stay in the country. We think about two thirds of them have Roma ethnic background.”

Consulate in Manchester,  photo: Czech Consulate General in Manchester

In order to help the sizable Czech community in the north of the UK, the Ministry of Foreign affairs opened a consulate in Manchester in 2019. Ivo Losman, the general consul, says the biggest problem the Czech Roma are facing at the moment is that they lack official documents needed to apply for settled status.

“I would say the main problem for Czech citizens is that many of them do not have a valid ID or Czech passport. The situation is that many of them, including members of the Czech Roma community, came to the UK many years ago, contacted the local authorities, registered their children in schools and since then did not need their ID or passport any more.

“In my opinion, the biggest problem is the lack of time. Actually, many people left everything until the last minute and they only now realize what kind of documents or papers they need to get a new Czech passport to register themselves and their children.”

Tomáš Kostečka, who is in daily contact with Roma families, says one of the reasons why so many of them left the application until the last minute is that they are growing increasingly tired with Brexit.

Photo: ČT24

“They don’t believe it will change anything. There are all kinds of rumours spreading within the community and we spend a lot of time fighting fake news.

“And to be honest, the conditions many of these people are living in are not that great and when I ask them why they haven’t applied yet for the settled status, they tell me:

“I can do it at the end of June or actually, if they send me back home, it doesn’t really matter to me whether someone is helping me here or in the Czech Republic.”

But while the living standard of adults may not change that much if they do return, for most of the second generation of Roma children, who were born and raised in the UK, the change would be quite drastic, says Mr Kostečka:

“These children have really good results in school, many of them are brilliant. They have high potential to get to colleges and universities. I am afraid these children will not have a positive start in the Czech school system. They will be hugely affected by being taken out of the British system.

Illustrative photo: Wilmer López/Pixabay,  CC0

“Most of them don’t speak Czech fluently. They speak Roma at home and English at school. So the possibility they will struggle is high and it will definitely affect their lives.”

While Mr Kostečka says most of the Czech Roma are not planning to leave the UK at the moment, the situation may change significantly after June 2021, when they stop receiving social benefits:

“When I ask them, they actually don’t want to leave, but when I ask what happens if they stop receiving their social benefits, they say they will leave. That will be around 25,000 potential individuals at risk. The number is huge, because we are talking about families.

“Another problem is that the children themselves don’t have any IDs. Over 60 percent of Roma children are not registered in the Czech evidence, they can’t hold a Czech passport and there is a big risk that from July 2021, they won’t be covered by NHS and eligible for social benefits.”

A number of families, who have long-lived in the United Kingdom, have already returned to the Czech Republic over the past few months as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, he says:

Photo: tookapic/Pixabay,  CC0

“We already have families which have returned to the Czech Republic. To our knowledge, over 360 families came back. We questioned many of those families and around two thirds said they came back because of Brexit, so we can probably talk about 200 families.

“Many of them are struggling because there is shortage of housing in the Czech Republic. Many people don’t have evidence of their employment and lack the essential form for claiming any social benefit.

“What is interesting is that many of those who returned to the Czech Republic were actually well-established families. That’s because of the cost of transport. Moving back to the Czech Republic costs each family around 3,000 British pounds.

“We don’t have many families among the vulnerable communities who have 3,000 pounds they can use to move to Europe. So a larger number of people who are now at risk of being forced to return to the Czech Republic are those who actually don’t have any finances.”

Tomáš Kostečka says that while the number of people who have left the UK is not that high, their return has already had an impact on local communities in the Czech Republic:

“It’s not just about those who return, but it’s also about the local communities. It affects local schools in the Czech Republic but also the community of Gypsy Romas who have been living in the country for decades. Since the returnees have nowhere to live, they stay in their relatives’ houses and the houses are overcrowded, so it is really difficult.”

Ivo Losman  (left),  photo: Martin Plocek,  MZV

While the general consul in Manchester, Ivo Losman, agrees that the onset of Covid-19 has complicated the situation, he is confident that the authorities have things under control and believes there is still time to process all the applications in time:

“Since the start of the pandemic in spring, when many restrictions were introduced, it has been strange for everyone and a lot has changed in communication with different institutions.

“But I can say that the local authorities are doing their best. They are providing a lot of support in spreading information or giving advice about who should do what and who can eventually help in special cases in specific areas and localities.

“We are trying to publish as much information as we can on our website, Facebook, and over the phone. We are using the network of Czech societies and their webpages and Facebook to spread as much information and advice as we can.

“There are ongoing discussions among the Czech embassy in London, our headquarters in Prague, respective institutions in the Czech Republic, such as ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Interior, special registry office and others about how to process as many applications as quickly as possible.”