Mayors from 51 communities across the Czech Republic met this week to discuss problems their constituencies are having with transients, loiterers and petty criminals, most of whom the towns say are Roma. The result was a letter to the government asking for greater local authority to dissuade and punish problematic citizens. The specific measures though are controversial.
The East Bohemian town of Nový Bydžov was not chosen for the site of the mayors’ conference at random: a consistently turbulent relationship with the Roma community there came to a head recently when violent crime spiked and a young woman was raped, allegedly by Roma.
The blame has been put squarely upon transients – the majority of which are Roma. The document that the conference produced makes brow-raising demands for greater power to deal with people who commit misdemeanours in a community where they do not have permanent residence. In it, the 51 mayors ask the government to allow prohibitions similar to a restraining order in the US or an anti-social behaviour order in the UK to ban individuals from towns or parts of towns. It suggests halting the social welfare payments of people who demonstrably misuse them. And it looks to create a central register of misdemeanours, so that repeat offenders do not remain anonymous.
Enter Ivana Řápková, former mayor of Chomutov, whose outspoken and hard-line stance on Roma issues in that city has made her a spokeswoman of sorts for similar problems nationwide. Now a Member of Parliament, Ms. Řápková has put forward an amendment to the Law on Misdemeanours to introduce the new penalties endorsed by the mayors’ conference. She protests that the media has twisted her proposal to suggest that she wants to force people out of their homes.
“The ban could be applied by communities upon people who do not have permanent residence in the area and repeatedly commit misdemeanours. The ban could apply to the whole community or a part of it and would give the communities an effective tool against prostitution, against groups of drunks or homeless people loitering in parks or around schools. But it does not have anything to do with their place of residence. They would only be ordered out of places where they harass decent people or set a bad example for children.”
Ms Řápková also says that the proposal regarding social welfare benefits has been misunderstood. She says that there are people on welfare who regularly commit misdemeanours, in some cases ten times or more, and simply never pay the fines that are the only possible punishment for them. Her proposal therefore involves blocking transfers of welfare payments in such cases while leaving an “existential minimum”. The head of the government’s office for social inclusion in Roma communities, Martin Šimáček, is vehemently opposed:
“Regarding the proposal targeting social welfare payments, social welfare is for people who are in crisis situations, who need real and quick help in order to build their new existence. I think these proposals really work against any possibility of integrating people into society. They bring the Czech Republic closer to the situation we had 20 years ago under communism.”
The proposals may not be passed of course – Ms Řápková puts her faith in the government’s campaign pledge to stop the misuse of welfare. But once again they highlight the perennial discord between the frustrated citizenry that Ms Řápková refers to as the “decent” ones and the transient communities, often but by no means always Roma. The prime minister’s advisor on human rights, Roman Joch, suggests that the merit of the proposals may lie elsewhere than in practical application.
“First of all, I’m convinced that this should be a good start for a debate – for an honest discussion on the issue of welfare benefits and the misuse of welfare benefits. But I honestly cannot image that in the Czech Republic, in which we have a centralised system of welfare, that local authorities like mayors or city halls would have the ability to interfere with the system of benefits. So if their initiative is to start a national conversation about a more effective system of distributing welfare benefits, then that’s welcome. But I don’t see a reasonable change of the Czech Republic leaving it’s centralised system.”