Magazine article New Internationalist

Prejudice: The Romanies of Central Europe Have Lived through a Long History of Persecution. Their Recent Treatment as Asylum Seekers in Britain Is Little Better

Magazine article New Internationalist

Prejudice: The Romanies of Central Europe Have Lived through a Long History of Persecution. Their Recent Treatment as Asylum Seekers in Britain Is Little Better

Article excerpt

The British council in Prague recently screened Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach's influential film from the 1960s. The film's portrayal of how a family gradually becomes homeless and destitute is a vivid illustration of what can happen when a country's social-support mechanisms fail to work.

'It seems a long time ago,' a friend said as we came out, but again and again during the film I had a vivid sense of familiarity. I had just come back from a few days staying among Romary families in the industrial city of Ostrava in the far-eastern corner of the Czech Republic.

Dozens of families are homeless, living in shelters after the most devastating floods this century swept through their homes in July. All of them have stories of how, in a matter of minutes, the waters appeared from nowhere and took everything with them. Nearly all Ostrava's other families have already been rehoused, but not so the Romanies. The local deputy mayor Petr Kudela, who is in charge of housing, told me why quite openly. Local authorities are not prepared to allocate their scarce flats to Romany families. Mr Kudela was laughed out of the room when he suggested to a neighbouring authority that it might consider offering flats to Romany families from his part of the city. 'You're not going to unload your gypsies on us,' he was told.

Although the Czech Republic is in many ways a liberal, easygoing country, the idea that minorities have the right to be different is not widely accepted. Not long ago I went to lunch with a colleague, a university professor and his wife, a primary-school teacher. As we sat in their garden, enjoying the summer sun and freshly picked vegetables, the subject turned to what in the Czech Republic is universally known as the 'gypsy problem'. 'Their brains are different,' I was informed, 'they'll never adapt to our ways and there's no place for them in our country.'

The depth of Central European prejudice against the Romany minority often shocks British sensibilities. But events have proved that in Britain things are no better. Over 30 years after Cathy Come Home, men are still being forcibly separated from their families. On applying for asylum in Dover many Czech and Slovak Romany families were broken up, and the men were put in custody in Rochester Prison. They had committed no crime. These people were, after all 'gypsies' and, in the words of a Home Office press release, 'the worst enemy of the genuine asylum seeker'. Another press release staled: 'Shoplifting is no way to repay the British tax payer', in a tone that wholeheartedly embraced the traditional stereotype of gypsies as thieves. In fact Dover police have recorded no increase in the percentage of crimes committed by non-British nationals since the Romanies arrived.

Home Office press releases are scattered with such words as 'unfounded', 'bogus', 'meritless' and 'racketeer'. As proof, immigration authorities have pointed to the similarity of people's stories as evidence of 'organized criminal rackets'. …

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