Thousands of Roma from Slovakia seek better life in the Czech Republic

Village of Jarovnice after the flood in 1998

Consider these images from eastern Slovakia: Romany children playing in a dirty stream. Across the street another gazes through a glassless window frame of a decrepit building. Or: Romany youth gathered on a dead-end street of ugly high-rises. While many Roma people from the Czech Republic flee to the West for a better life, more and more members of this ethnic group from Slovakia are seeking a brighter future in the Czech Republic.

According to the Slovak newspaper Pravda, over the past nine months, approximately 20,000 Slovak Romanies have sought a new life in the Czech Republic. One of the reasons for the exodus are recently introduced restrictions in the Slovak social welfare system. The majority of the Slovak migrants are from poor families, dependent on social benefits. Some Slovaks feel it is a shame for their country and the government should do more to improve their situation. Katarina Britnakova who works in the travel industry in Bratislava believes many of the Slovak Roma use the Czech Republic only as a transit country to travel further west.

"They are trying to find a better life in Britain, Belgium and other countries where they apply for asylum. It is a negative phenomenon and the Roma are a big problem for Slovakia. Of course it's something negative about a society that doesn't know how to look after them or find a solution that would convince them to stay in Slovakia."

But is the Slovak government to blame for the growing exodus of Romany to their Czech neighbor? Stefan Hrib, editor-in-chief of the Slovak weekly Domino forum that regularly devotes space to Romany-related issues, considers the problem to be a much broader one. He admits that the Slovak government could do more to support charities that help the Romany population. On the other hand, he doesn't think that the government itself can solve this problem which is deeply rooted in the former Czechoslovak Communist past. The Communist regime tried to re-define Romany identity in a socialistic manner, causing the present identity crisis among Romany people, he says. Another factor the Roma themselves often quote when applying for asylum is racism in Slovakia.

Many of the Roma fleeing to the Czech Republic come from Eastern Slovakia, where their concentration is higher and the overall situation is at its worst. Katarina Britnakova again:

"In eastern Slovakia it's possible to see Romany children bathing in fountains, they are dirty and hungry and rude, uneducated. I think that the main problem is a lack of motivation from their parents. There isn't a sense of tradition in the family itself and parents don't encourage children to become more educated, to develop a cultural and social background."

For now the Czech government isn't meddling in the Slovak government's decisions on Romany-related issues. Instead, the Czech cabinet is setting its own example. Two weeks ago, it approved a new project to help integrate the Roma minority into the majority society, focusing on housing, crime and education.

Author: Tracy Burns
run audio