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Discrimination of the Roma in Slovakia

The Roma are the second most numerous ethnic minority in Slovakia. According to a 1989 survey by city and local councils of the state administration 253,943 Roma (4,8%) lived in Slovakia. These statistics, however, registered only socially handicapped citizens. Therefore we can assume that the number of Roma living in Slovakia is higher. At present the official estimates range between 420,000 and 500,000. Taking into consideration the high birthrate of the Romani population, these numbers are constantly increasing. As a percentage of the total population, Slovakia has the largest Romani community in the world (8-9%).

 

History of the Roma in Slovakia

 

The Roma began to settle in the territory of Slovakia as early as the 14th century. The original positive attitude of the majority population disappeared very quickly. In 1427 the Roma were excommunicated from the Church. They were ruthlessly persecuted, declared outlaws and murdered. This continued with more or less intensity until the last half of the 18th century. The situation for the Roma was more favourable in the Hungarian monarchy than in West Europe and therefore the Roma from various countries sought refuge here. During the Enlightenment period of Maria Teresa and Joseph II, various Hungarian regional rulers decreed that the Roma should end their nomadic way of life. The purpose became assimilation and not expulsion and the Roma were subsequently recognised as legal inhabitants. Because of more favourable treatment in the central and southern Europe, the majority of the Roma lived in these areas. As their numbers increased, they experienced difficulties making a living. They supported themselves mostly with part-time jobs, surviving at the fringe of the society and by depending on other inhabitants. This situation aroused hostility towards them and resulted in their social isolation. Because they settled in the least developed parts of the country the Roma were less and less able to find sources for living. The future decline of Romani craftsmen followed as a result of industrial development.

Poverty persisted in Romani families during the period between WWI and WWII in the capitalist Czechoslovak Republic. Several legislative changes were made during this period which discriminated against the Roma and treated them as social outcasts. The state government passed repressive and prohibitive legislation. Gypsy identity cards and fingerprinting were introduced, nomadic licenses were required and a Central Register of Gypsies was established. During the WWII under the clerical-fascist regime of President Tiso the Roma from Slovakia were not transported to Nazi concentration camps as they were in the Czech occupied territory. However, their life was in many ways brutally restricted; they could not travel by public transportation nor enter public buildings and parks. They could enter towns and cities only during fixed days and hours and were required to move their dwellings as far as two kilometers from the roads. In 1941 several work camps were established for them. Following the occupation of Slovakia by the German army in 1944 several mass murders of Romani inhabitants were committed in different locations in Slovakia. From the territory of South and Southeast Slovakia, which belonged to Hungary during the war, the Roma were transported to the concentration camp in Dachau.

 

The period following the WWII was the time of the socialist construction. There was a crucial discussion on the national question in the beginning of the 1950s. There were voices in the Communist Party defending the example of the Stalin´s national policy to the so-called small nations in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time the Roma in the USSR were given their national identity and cultural autonomy which was reflected in publishing Romani books, journals and running Romani theatres. However the pro-assimilation policy won in Czechoslovakia. The state concentrated its efforts on solving the problems of Romani residence, employment and education. Nevertheless these well-meaning intentions were performed unprofessionally, insensitively and more or less violently. The state refused to acknowledge the Roma as a particular nationality. The government and the Communist Party assumed that the Roma could overcome their backwardness only by giving up their way of life and by assimilating into the majority population. One of the state´s efforts involved the domestication of the then nomadic Vlasika Roma. Politicians came to the conclusion that being domesticated was better than a nomadic life style. Without asking those whom it concerned, the Roma, in 1958 the state issued an act intended to ”settle down” the Roma by taking their horses and wagon wheels from them. Later, the state moved unsettled Romani families into new apartment blocks in the cities. The Roma did not adjust to these new conditions which were a sort of culture-shock for them.

 

 

The Roma in the period of the capitalist restauration

 

In 1991 the Slovak government accepted the ”Guidelines regarding the Approach towards Roma”. This document equated the Roma with other nationalities in Slovakia and promised them state support for the development of their culture. In 1991 the Roma were given the opportunity to claim their Romani identity in the national census. However this is only one side of the coin. The other is that of an extreme unemployment, social exclusion and isolation, racist attacks and murders, etc.

According to sociological surveys researching the relation of the majority population towards minorities, the social distance toward Roma was the most significant and reached very high percentages. Every research study dealing with this topic since 1990 has shown that the social distance towards the Roma is universally distributed in all social classes regardless of age, education, sex, occupation, religion, economic status and political preference. According to several public opinion polls the Slovaks have generally the most positive attitude towards the Czechs and the most negative toward the Roma. As many as 80% of Slovak inhabitants indicated that they would be uncomfortable if Roma moved into their neighbourhood. The Roma receive negative evaluations, as regards their criminal activity, avoidance of legitimate jobs, poor hygiene, drinking, noisiness and craftiness.

One of the typical manifestations of latent discrimination of the Roma is the use of nationality data. When the Roma are in contact with the government they are required to provide this data. For example, the common practice of government employment offices is to mark the letter ”R” in the files of Romani applicants who are requesting employment assistance. Such procedures, however, are not supported by the law and they further inconvenience the Roma who are seeking employment. The Roma also confront discrimination when in contact with local government. This is often evident when the Roma attempt to change their permanent residence status in the settlements. In 1998 the city council in Jelsava refused five families´applications for permanent residence although they owned real estates and had residences there. 37% of Jelsava inhabitants are Roma and the city representatives wanted to prevent an increase of Romani inhabitants in the town. Another obvious example are two East Slovak villages Nagov and Rokytovce. In 1997 both local governments prohibited entrance of the Roma into these villages. Although the Slovak parliament has the right to invalidate the generally binding directives of a local government, none of the deputies proposed to nullify the actions taken by the village authorities. According to the Ethnic Minorities Legal Protection Office in Kosice, the Constitutional Court has refused twice to adjudicate the cases due to technical reasons and the Attorney General has refused to deal with them depending on the Constitutional Court decision. Finally three Romanies involved in the case passed a complaint to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Only then the local governments repealed their discriminating acts.

 

Another form of Romani discrimination involves repressive actions against them by the police. The Roma have repeatedly reported that the police deal with them differently than with other citizens. Romani leaders mainly claim unwillingness by the police to investigate racially motivated attacks against them. Although Roma make up only 8-9% of the Slovak population, their percentage in Slovak prisons is 40% (according to a research of the Department of Justice, summer 2000)! Roma also accuse the police of a number of discriminatory behaviours occuring during investigations.

These are typicaly:

The most horrible example of the state´s racism was the incident in the Polichno village in central Slovakia in 1991. A villager shot dead four Roma because they trespassed his ground and allegedly threatened to his family. The man was liberated from jail after few months because the judge classified this brutal murder as a ”necessary defence”. The racist was even later elected for mayor of the village!

In mid August 1998 the Ethnic Minority Legal Protection Office reported that since the beginning of 1998, 333 cases had been registered regarding the violation of the human and civil rights of Roma. The Office director, Anna Koptova, said that the state administration was not interested in the regular monitoring of such cases.

The racial hatred has been observed by the government authorities in Slovakia since 1996. The collection of the information is being done by the county courts and the district courts. The complaints of the victims are being monitored by the Department of Justice, The Interior Department and the Attorney General. There were 45 crimes noticed by the Attorney General in 1990-98 which are suspected as racially motivated. From the total number of 132 health injuries the Roma represent 71,2%. In 1998 there were 32 persons on trial for racially motivated crimes, in 1999 43 persons. However it is almost impossible to prove the racial motivation: the police assert that attacks against the Roma do not have a racial dimension because the Roma are not a separate race but instead belong to one Indo-European race along with the Slovaks. In May 1999 the District Court in Banska Bystrica used similar justification in deciding a case involving a racist attack by a skinhead against a Roma. Although the judge declared the act of the malfeasant to be racially motivated, he did not determine the need for more severe punishment according to the law, as the respective law adresses race not ethnicity. The judge interpreted the case from the anthropological point of view that the Roma do not belong to a special race.

The exact number of racial murders is not known. The most brutal case of a neo-nazi attack in the last two years happened in Zilina in summer 2000. At night three young men attacked a Roma family house beating the daughters and killing Anastasia Balazova -the mother of 8 children - with baseball sticks!

But the top brutal act happened in summer 1995 in Ziar nad Hronom where a group of skinheads burnt alive 18-years old Roma Mario Goral.

Yes, one dead Mario is enough. One hell is enough...

 

There exists an unofficial apartheid in Slovakia. The Roma can not enter in pubs, shops and churches in many villages and towns of East Slovakia. Special classes for Roma children are being built. In some maternity hospitals women are separated according to their colour. The most visible way of this apartheid is the segregation of Roma in their poor settlements in central and East Slovakia. According to the Office of the Commissioner for the solution of the Romani minority problems there were 616 such Roma settlements with 126 000 inhabitants in Slovakia in 2000. There were ”only” 278 of such settlements in 1988. The existence of these purely Romani locations should not be ascribed to a systematic segregation policy but it should be rather considered as a reflection of poverty and inadequate housing. This is one of the most serious problems of Roma in Slovakia. The majority of urban and rural Roma reside in inadequate and substandard housing. Such settlements of makeshift dwellings often lack running water and sometimes even electricity (more than 100 settlements).

 

Health conditions in these settlements are alarming. Because of poor hygiene, increased epidemics threaten many settlements. Since 1989 the incidence of bronchitis has increased and in some settlements tuberculosis has begun to spread. Frequent injuries, dermatological problems and sexual diseases confront the population. Some Romani children suffer from contagious and parasitic diseases which no longer occur in the majority population. A great danger is the spread of meningitis. Major problems affecting the health of the Roma are:

One can not wonder that the life expectancy of the Roma is only 55 years by men and 59 by women.

 

The newest research on Roma poverty (the results are not published yet) has shown that the poverty in segregated areas is absolute (according to the EU standards). It has reached such a level that the top Slovak expert on poverty and social policy with liberal orientation had to acknowledge recently that without state intervention the Roma will never get out from their social exclusion. This is a strange claim by a person who is otherwise a supporter of market-driven social policy, private insurance funds, etc. One could say that the poor Roma were able to turn a blue intellectual into a pink bureaucrat.

 

Sources of all information:

Mann, A. ed. : Neznámi Rómovia (The unknown Roma). Ister science press. Bratislava 1992.

Vašečka, M. : The Roma. Working papers. Institute for public affairs. Bratislava 1999.

Vašečka, M. : Rómovia. Súhrná správa o stave spoločnosti (The Roma. A Report on the state of society). Institute for public affairs. Bratislava 2000.

Seminar on Roma poverty, Bratislava 2001.

 

 

 

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