E N D P I E C E
The Romanies of Central Europe have lived through a long history of persecution.
David Vaughan argues that their recent treatment as asylum seekers in Britain is little better.
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 Romany 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, easy-going 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 stated: ‘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’. In their view these criminal rackets feed the asylum seekers with invented stories carefully calculated to arouse sympathy. Such charges miss the point entirely. These people – few of whom are highly educated or verbally articulate – are arriving in a foreign land with a language they do not speak, and have no idea what people want them to say, what is expected of them, what is the magic formula that will open the door. A third-generation American Jewish friend of mine once told me how he came to have the name Berg. As his grandfather got off the boat in New York, the man in front of him said his name was Berg. He was let straight in. Jon’s grandfather tried the same, and it worked. A bogus claim if ever I heard one, but should he have been sent back to Nazi Germany?
The tone of the British authorities’ response to the ‘flood of gypsies’ (a ‘flood’ which in reality never amounted to more than a few hundred people) has changed Britain’s image in the Czech Republic. Some Czechs – like the senior Prague police officer I recently spoke with who said that ‘Romanies are genetically more likely to commit crimes than other Czechs’ – see Britain’s ‘anti-gypsy’ stance as a justification of their prejudice. Those Czechs and Romanies who have been trying to battle against prejudice and improve Czech-Romany relations have responded with despair.
I translated one particularly venomous speech made by Immigration Minister Mike O’Brien for a young Romany colleague from Czech Radio. When I saw her expression I wished I had kept it to myself. And I should stress that Britain’s anti-Romany tone has not been echoed in Canada, which has also been the destination of many Romanies seeking asylum.
A quick glance into recent European history should be enough to remind us why such behaviour is so deeply offensive. Just 55 years ago the Romanies were being sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz because of the colour of their skin; just ten years ago Romany women throughout Central Europe were being sterilized against their will – sometimes even without their knowledge; just four years ago the Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar said of the Romanies that it was ‘necessary to curtail the extended reproduction of the socially unadaptable and mentally backward population’; just three years ago a 17-year-old boy was drowned in a river by skinheads in the Czech town of Pisek, just a few miles from the World War Two Gypsy concentration camp of Lety. He was one of well-over 20 Romanies who have suffered a similar fate in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since the fall of communism.
Romanies have a bitterly raw deal throughout Central Europe. Nobody, least of all the Romany representatives and leaders in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, feels that mass emigration is the solution to the Romanies’ ills. Britain has seriously failed the European continent’s largest and most deprived minority
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS PICTURES
David Vaughan is a BBC correspondent in Central Europe who has made a number of radio documentaries on the problems faced by Romany minorities.