Why have Ukrainian and Roma minorities in Czechia been clashing?

Recently there have been a lot of Czech media reports about tensions and conflicts between the Roma and Ukrainian refugee communities in the country. In early June, a young Roma man was stabbed in Brno, according to unverified reports by a Ukrainian national, and died afterwards as a result of his injuries. The attack prompted a wave of anti-Ukrainian reactions and protest marches in Brno and other cities demanding increased security for Roma people. Further incidents, protests, and rumours followed, prompting the Czech Interior Minister to call on those affected not to allow themselves to be manipulated into prejudice and hatred.

Roma organisations appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to call on Ukrainian refugees to respect diversity and refrain from violence, and to the Czech police and Interior Ministry to thoroughly investigate the incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice. Meanwhile other leading Roma public figures condemned the anti-Ukrainian protests and the spread of misinformation.

So what is at the bottom of these tensions between two minority groups in Czechia? And will the expert working group being set up to tackle the situation be enough? To try to get a better understanding of what’s been going on, I spoke to Barbora Vegrichtová, an expert on terrorism, extremism, and radicalisation from Prague’s Technical University.

Barbora Vegrichtová | Photo: Matěj Skalický,  Czech Radio

“The incident which occurred in Brno served as a trigger for open debate about the situation of Roma people in the Czech Republic. What we know right now is that a Roma man was stabbed to death and allegedly the perpetrator was a man from Ukraine. I say ‘allegedly’ intentionally, because at the moment we don’t have enough information and details about the incident, because the police investigation is still ongoing and we are still waiting for the official result.”

And where did the tension come from? You said this was a trigger, so is this something that goes back only as far as the start of the war in Ukraine, or were there tensions even before that?

“Of course, the war in Ukraine affected not only the Roma minority here in the Czech Republic, but also other Czech citizens. But this conflict in Brno revealed tensions between the Romany and Ukrainian minorities. The Roma minority has been discriminated against for a long time and many Roma people now feel frustrated, they feel something like a sense of injustice and grievance.

Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  iROZHLAS.cz

“In the last decade, many Roma people were also the target of many extremist organisations and incidents. At this moment, they feel that they are not protected enough and they are starting to be more active in order to publicise their situation.”

It’s fair to say that the Roma are still a group, as you say, that suffers from discrimination and structural racism. But why have the Ukrainian community become a target in particular?

“Disinformation and conspiracy theories are also the reason why now Roma people are more active in this way. It is also connected with digital literacy and information knowledge. Now we are observing that many Roma people, especially iconic persons and different authorities from the Roma community, are presenting their opinions online.

Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  iROZHLAS.cz

“But not only Roma people – this situation is also being misused by different extremist organisations and adherents and members of populist movements. Disinformation is also presented on pro-Russian online platforms and it could lead in some extreme cases to some violent incidents. There is a huge risk in this area.”

To complicate matters further, some of the Ukrainian refugees who have come to Czechia are in fact Roma themselves. Do you have any idea how the Czech Roma perceive the Ukrainian Roma, and do the groups who have been protesting feel the same way about them as they do about any other Ukrainians or do they view them more positively?

“The Czech Roma community are a very heterogeneous subculture. Some of them do understand the situation of Ukraine’s Roma and they are trying to help them. They have a lot of solidarity and they are very loyal.

Ukrainian Roma refugees | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“But on the other hand, we have seen some opinions to the effect that Ukrainian Roma are not so important as the Czech Roma, because many Czech Roma express the opinion that they are Czech citizens and they are very proud of this, and that they should have priority.”

What hope is there for deescalating the situation? Is there anything that can be done?

“It’s not an easy question. Of course, it is very complex. At this moment, it is of utmost importance to react on time and to take appropriate measures, not only from the side of governmental institutions but also from non-governmental organisations, to explain the situation of Ukrainian refugees here in the Czech Republic and the reasons why the country and the government are trying to help them. To show the concrete cases, speak about the concrete stories of Ukrainian refugees.

Ukrainian Roma refugees | Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

“And on the other hand, it is also a message for us to remember the needs of the Roma community here in the Czech Republic. We have to help and support the Roma minority more, because Roma children especially are continuously and have been for a long time segregated in sub-standard schools. It is a huge problem and the Czech Republic still doesn’t have the mechanisms in place to change it.”

“It could be a very important preventative measure if we don’t want to escalate this problem more or to face violent incidents in the future.”