ERRC Press Release. European Roma Rights Center Press Release on Events in Great Britain, October 22, 1997
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) is an international public interest law organisation which monitors the human rights situation of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse.
In the past six months, the ERRC has received reports that groups of Roma are arriving in English ports and applying for asylum. In recent days, Roma applying for asylum have become the focus of alarmist and racist articles in the British media, including organs noted for their seriousness.
The ERRC is concerned that inflammatory statements in the British press sensationalise the issue of the flight of Roma from eastern Europe, especially the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and portray this summer's movements of Roma from eastern Europe to Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom as purely an instance of "economic migration", or worse, describe Romani refugees as schemers attempting to exploit the British public.
Usually serious newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent have played with racist stereotypes by publishing headlines such as, "Gypsies Invade Dover, Hoping for a Handout", "They Speak little English, But Know Exactly How to Play the System" and "The Travellers Have Developed New Tactics".
The ERRC is additionally concerned about reports that Kent County Council, the district authority in an area in which many of the refugees have arrived, has invited officials from the Slovak embassy to Dover.
ERRC research conducted in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia countries. Roma fall victim to racially-motivated attack in the Czech Republic.
The Czech non-governmental organisation HOST has documented 1250 racially-motivated attacks on Roma, especially attacks by racist skinheads, in the period 1991-1997. Of these, at least nine Roma died as a direct result of attack, and a group of skinheads also killed a Turkish man they mistook for a Rom.
These attacks have been increasing in frequency in recent years, and as recently as September 1997, a Romani woman died during a skinhead attack.
Since Roma tend not to report racially motivated attacks to the police, the real number of attacks against Roma is probably considerably higher. State response to the alarming situation in the Czech Republic has, to date, been inadequate.
The Czech Republic has not acted promptly and effectively to provide either protection to Roma or legal remedy when Roma are attacked. The following tendencies are evident in the criminal justice system: when large groups of racists attack Roma, often only a few individuals are charged with crimes; the racially-motivated crimes provisions are frequently not applied; the charges brought against racist skinheads are often too light to reflect the true gravity of the attacks; racially-motivated crimes provisions in the penal code are brought against Roma, rendering doubtful the government's contention that it is acting to combat racist violence; there is court bias when weighing the testimony of Roma; police officers who abuse Roma are generally not punished, and when they are punished, punishment is not adequate.
The views of skinheads are supported by a palpable racism in the wider society.
Additionally, discrimination is evident in almost all walks of life. Reasonable estimates put the number of Romani children being educated in schools for the mentally disabled at well over 50%.
A recent study by the aforementioned HOST documented twenty-four restaurants in which Roma were explicitly refused service. There are, additionally, widespread credible allegations of discrimination in the criminal justice system, in such areas as: length and likelihood of pre-trial detention, likelihood of guilty verdicts, length of sentence, and length of time of court proceedings when hearing cases in which Roma have been victims.
Finally, despite the fact that members of both the ruling coalition Civil Democratic Party and the main opposition Social Democratic Party have made recent statements endorsing the de facto ghettoisation of Roma, and these statements have not been met with strong criticism by either these parties or by the government.
Until 1993, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were both members of one common country, the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. The present wave of racism and racist violence has its roots prior to the break-up of the Federation, and Roma presently face similar abuse in Slovakia.
As recently as August, a Romani man was beaten to death by skinheads in his home in the central Slovak town of Banska Bystrica. In Slovakia too, however, the state has been reticent in combating the persecution of Roma.
In Slovakia, despite similar levels of skinhead violence to those witnessed in the Czech Republic, ERRC research revealed that when Roma fall victim of attack, their complaints stand little chance of receiving adequate judicial remedy.
Slovak authorities tend to deny that racially-motivated crimes have taken place; minimise the role of racism by describing attacks as youthful pranks; charge Roma who are lodging complaints with crimes; sentence the minimum possible number of skinheads; and deny that episodes of community violence have taken place.
In mid-Summer, at least two municipalities near the town of Medzilaborce in northeastern Slovakia passed ordinances banning Roma from settling within town limits.
The Roma affected had evidently been evicted from housing following their dismissal from a local co-operative farm in 1990, and have been repeatedly expelled from places in which they had attempted to settle since. Immediately following the bans, a nearby Roma settlement burned to the ground in unclear circumstances.
The International Helsinki Federation Bratislava office has also documented instances in which Roma were prevented from moving to cities through the use of mandatory residence permits.
Members of the present Slovak government have used language which tacitly or explicitly endorses the present precarious human rights situation of Roma in the country. Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar at one point hinted at a deluge of Romani children, stating, "If we don't deal with them now, they will deal with us in time."
More recently, in November 1996, Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family Olga Keltošová told a public gathering in London that Roma "simply do not want to work" and went on to imply that Roma were thieves who stole state benefits intended for their children.
Current attempts to dismiss the flight of Roma from the Czech and Slovak Republics as a spurious attempt to burden western asylum procedures with false claims of persecution are therefore not substantiated by the human rights situation of Roma in the two countries.
The ERRC urges that all Roma fleeing eastern Europe be given the right to have their claims heard before an impartial tribunal, should they so choose. The ERRC is concerned that British authorities may seek to exploit the lack of clarity in European norms on asylum by returning individuals to another country, especially by using so-called "safe third country" clauses which require asylum-seekers to apply in the first "safe country" in which they arrive.
The ERRC notes that present European norms do not rule out regarding the first "safe country" for Slovak Roma as the Czech Republic. Authorities in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom should not be influenced by distorted and inflammatory press reports.
They should take into account reports by non-governmental organisations on the human rights situation of Roma in eastern Europe and make such reports easily available to competent border authorities and persons related to the immigration and asylum process.
Finally, illegal interference with individuals who may have legitimate asylum claims should be strictly sanctioned by the British authorities.