Alarming rise of Roma ghettos fuels debate

Business and tourism now boom in the inner cities of the Czech Republic but sociologists say it comes at a cost to Czech natives, and an even higher cost to the marginalized and underprivileged groups of Czech society.

Research by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs shows that Romas, Czech’s poorest minority group, are being closed out of the housing market, and forced into the growing ghettos of the Czech Republic. This escalating issue is fueling a great debate of how to bring about social inclusivity.

Four beds to one room. Twenty rooms, to one bathroom. Eighty mouths to feed but one kitchen. Sounds like a hostel, not a home.

But many Roma families in the Czech Republic live in these conditions. A report that examined the progress of social inclusion of Romas in the Czech Republic reveals that gentrification of Prague neighborhoods has pushed Romas to leave the city. With rising rents, the increasing cost of living, and a deregulated housing market, the Civil Society Monitoring Report says Romas are moving out of city centers and into the poorest parts of the country.

“There is, of course, Roma that are well off and then there are Roma that live in a situation where they fight everyday for the roof over their head and food on their table.”

Sitting in a crowded coffee shop, it’s easy to pick out Darina**. She has long, thin black hair and is a shade darker than other people sitting in the café. She’s a native Roma living in the Czech Republic, and she says she is among the lucky ones. She’s educated, lives comfortably, and financially is doing okay for herself.

But this is not the case for most Romas, and she adds she still faces many blocked opportunities. She says the concerns facing her people only just begin with discrimination.

“No one really wants to live next to Roma family. This may be over saying,” Darina explains, “but there is 80 to 90-percent of Czech population that say openly that they do not want to live next to the Roma people.”

The number of impoverished ghettos in the Czech Republic has doubled in the last nine years. According to a new study by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, there were 300 socially excluded localities, or ghettos, across the country. Today there are 606, a mass majority of them Roma.

A survey conducted in 2011 by non-profit organization Konexe ranks the Czech Republic as the worst for ethnic housing discrimination among five European countries including France and Italy.

One phone call after another, surveyors found landlords just weren’t renting to Romas. Money was not an issue here, yet six out of ten cases, Romas had been shut out. Shut out and forced to rent in suburban ghettos. The cost to live in these ghettos, reports show, is much higher than other parts of town. Of the adults living in these ghettos, up to 85 percent are unemployed, a statistic Darina says is unacceptable.

“We are in a really bad situation now with all these ghettos, with all the Roma and non-Roma that are living in suburbs and in temporary hotels, but they are more hostels than hotels. You have a building that is in really bad condition like, one toilet, one bathroom, and each family has one room where they sleep and live and everything and then they have a common kitchen. And then it can be on one floor, each family has one room but they all share the bathroom.”

The trend isn’t something new. California native Gwendolyn Albert has seen what she calls a continual cycle of racism and abuse against the Roma. Curious about her familial past and what life was like behind the iron curtain, Albert moved to the Czech Republic fifteen years ago. She is a Roma activist and has consulted for international civil rights organization including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. She says there was something jarringly apparent about her neighborhood when she first moved here.

“I was living in a small town in South Bohemia and I immediately saw that there was this population that was being treated in a very disturbing way. It was disturbing to me. They were visually distinct from everyone else, they were not white. You would see them only, for example, doing really hard labor on the construction sites and then you never saw them anywhere else. You didn’t see them in the pub, you didn’t see them in the supermarket. There was a part of town where they lived and everyone knew that and you were not supposed to go to that part of time, because it was their part of time.”

She says state money given to underprivileged Romas is directly paid to hostel owners for subpar living conditions.

“It’s not even a matter of people not being able to pay,” she continues. “The state has a system for helping low-income people live. But what the society is doing is saying okay all you people who look like this, you’re all going to go into this kind of housing. And that means there is spatial segregation in these various towns and villages.”

With the end of communism 25 years ago came the end of affordable state housing. The government has no housing policy, but the Social Democrat-led government plans to implement a new housing policy in 2017. The policy would require municipalities and private property owners to reserve approximately 5-percent of apartments for social housing.

The future of the housing policy is uncertain. And one social worker says there is only one sure thing that can eradicate the dim prospects of those living in Czech’s ghettos and is answer is not housing. Martin Kovalcik of People in Need, a non-profit organization, says you must start at the root to solve such a complex issue.

“In their current situation, there’s no solution.” He adds, “If you want to change it you must start with education.”

A disproportionately high number of Roma kids have been systematically placed in special schools, also commonly known as practical schools meant for children with learning difficulties. Few Romas like Darina end up in grade school, and even fewer to high school and college.

Darina agrees education is of great importance. But she says — from being bullied to keeping up with school and life at home — the journey of a Roma in regular schools is very difficult. She also says the job market is as unfriendly as the housing market. If you are Roma, you are less likely to be housed or be hired.

With five years of experience, Kovalcik knows the odds that Romas are up against, but again he says that success doesn’t come by handing out benefits that last momentarily, but by giving children what they need to be successful employees. And to do that, he says, you must start somewhere.

“It takes a long, long time, about three generations or so. But when we start to change it right now, there will be more and more examples that somebody found some Roma people to do really great jobs for the companies, and it will be the first point of the change.”

Education, Darina says, is far down on the list of priorities for many Roma families who cannot afford to put food on their tables at night. She says families living in the ghetto need government help, just temporarily, to help them get on their feet.

“First you need those people to feel that they have some certainty, like the roofs over their head and work, so that they can make money, their money, money they worked for. Then they can start thinking more about the education of their children. Without those two things you will not get them to the point to start thinking about the education for their children.”

Four beds to one room. Twenty rooms, to one bathroom. Eighty mouths to feed but one kitchen. Sounds like a hostel, not a home. This exists in as many as 4,000 low-income hostels in the Czech Republic.

If the ghettos continue to grow, it’s tough to know what the numbers will be in the future. But the numbers aren’t just numbers — they’re people.