Refugees or Migrants?: The Roma of Eastern Europe. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

When Czech national television ran a story on the leniency of British asylum laws in 1997, hundreds of Gypsies entered Britain asking for recognition of refugee status.

By claiming ethnic oppression in their countries of origin, they brought the issue of discrimination against the Roma minority in Central and Eastern Europe into question. Although Gypsies do face discrimination within their home region, they are often perceived as deliberately applying for asylum in countries with the most favorable conditions for the claimants rather than desperately seeking refuge from persecution. Many EU countries have recently tightened their asylum laws in order to prevent migration that is not based on persecution. Instead, the Gypsies' countries of origin should work on improving the living conditions for the Gypsies and end the discrimination that does in fact still prevail.

The Czech Republic is one of several Central and Eastern European countries struggling to define its relationship with the large Roma minority. Living in their own communities in poorly built rural housing and accounting for disproportionately high shares of unemployment and petty crime, the Roma population is sometimes viewed with contempt by the larger public. Bulgaria and Romania have the worst problem with Romas committing 20 times as many crimes as non-Roma citizens. In Central Europe, many of these tensions are caused by a lack of education and employment. In the Czech Republic, for example, the general unemployment rate currently stands at 5 percent compared to 70 percent among the Roma citizens; only about 1-2 percent of Romani children complete a full secondary education, with less than 0.5 percent receiving a college degree. With the demand for unskilled labor constantly falling, the Roma are increasingly dependent on government unemployment benefits. This strains the countries' budgets and is an ad ditional factor behind the widespread prejudices and anti-Roma sentiment.

Due to their problematic status in these countries, Roma communities often face verbal abuse by the general public as well as physical attacks by Neo-Nazi and skinhead groups. The Roma are often simply stereotyped as lazy and prone to crime, and the atmosphere is further exacerbated by open expressions of hate and prejudice by many prominent political figures. In the August 2001 conference of the Slovak National Party, a representative openly criticized Roma citizens for their relatively high birth rate.

However disdainful the politics may be, they do not pose the only real danger for the Roma. The most radically racist and nationalistic individuals, especially among the young, have created groups that constantly seek targets for violence, directed generally against people with dark skin, the Roma in particular. In the Czech Republic, for example, an estimated 5,000 active skinheads often attack individual Roma citizens in groups, brutally beat them up, and cause deaths in many cases. Over the past eight years 1,800 racially motivated attacks have been reported, in which more than 32 people died.

It is for these reasons that large groups of Roma families have left their home countries, basing their claims for asylum on ethnic oppression. According to the 1998 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Roma Asylum Seekers, the Roma may well be able to substantiate refugee claims based on severe ethnic discrimination, together with discrimination by authorities in areas such as housing and education. Nevertheless, the vast majority of applications in Britain, Denmark, and Finland was regarded as manifestly unfounded.

The problem is that many believe Roma citizens are seeking refugee status for economic reasons. Asylum seekers receive benefit payments that are far above the unemployment support of their "home" countries. Even though British asylum laws were significantly restricted recently, asylum seekers are still treated relatively well. …