Romany ghettos in the Czech Republic getting bigger, and more numerous

Europe's Roma often live on the margins of society, suffering a variety of problems from high unemployment to relatively low life expectancy. In the Czech Republic a new report highlights what seems to be a disturbing trend - the creation of Roma ghettos. The study, ordered by a Czech government ministry, shows that more and more Romanies in the Czech Republic are finding themselves literally living on the edge of society. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron reports.

Ivan Gabal
More and more Romanies are finding themselves pushed to the very margins of Czech society. The country's Labour and Social Affairs Ministry has just published the most in-depth study ever into what sociologists call social exclusion - in other words, the creation of ghettos. And the results do not make pleasant reading. The study was overseen by leading sociologist Ivan Gabal:

"Czech society and economy are undergoing a huge transformation, privatisation of housing, restructuring of the labour force. And in all of these advancing process, the Roma minority remains backward. So the relative distance between the Roma minority and Czech majority society has increased."

Ivan Gabal says his teams of sociologists found a total of 310 neighbourhoods inhabited almost exclusively by Romanies, usually run-down housing estates or ramshackle buildings on the edge of town. The study put the total population of these areas at 80,000 - that's around a third of the country's total Roma population. But the most alarming fact was that the number of ghettos is growing. One person who isn't surprised at the findings of the study is Gabriela Hrabanova, director of the Roma student organisation Athinganoi:

"It's terrible but what did people think the analysis would show? Because we are working in this kind of sector, the non-governmental sector dealing with Romani issues, we're facing this fact every day. In fact I'm happy that this analysis has been produced, because now it's on paper, and it's showing facts with graphs. And people can understand than just 'the situation is really bad'."

The study say the ghettos exert a powerful gravitational force; they tend to suck in poor families living on their margins. The bigger the ghetto, the more powerful the force. Inside the ghettos researchers found communities blighted by sub-standard housing, poor health and high employment - between 95 and 100 percent of the inhabitants were out of work.

It's a vicious circle - poor, badly-educated kids growing up into poor, badly-educated adults who then have more poor, badly-educated kids. Ivan Gabal says the Czech education system - wittingly or unwittingly - plays a major role in perpetuating the problem:

"Czech schools are simply legitimising the deficit of cultural and educational capital in the background. This is what we have to change. Czech elementary schools have to be able to resupply the insufficient educational background. This is not the current situation and a lot needs to be done in this field."

So how can the situation be improved? Cestmir Sajda, from the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry, says the study - the first complete map of Roma exclusion - is an important first step:

"I think every problem is serious. I don't think the problem of the Roma population is the biggest problem in the country, but of course we have to solve this problem and we would like to solve it. That's why we started to do a proper analysis to know the situation, and we've now fulfilled this target. The next thing is to decide what instruments are effective to diminish social exclusion."

As for concrete proposals, they vary from reforming the education system to introducing positive discrimination in the labour market. Such ideas are likely to meet with a hostile reaction among politicians and the Czech public, who on the whole have little patience or understanding for the Roma minority. Athinganoi's Gabriela Hrabanova concedes there are no easy solutions. But change, she says, must start at a grass roots level, and that means the local authorities:

"The responsibility for changing the situation lies with the local governmental representatives. They are the ones responsible for the region, and they are the ones who are actually sending the Roma out of the cities, or even to a different region so they don't need to deal with it anyone. We can see this from the past two years - it was really happening."