In late 2006, Jiří Čunek, then mayor of the eastern town of Vsetín and later Christian Democrat chairman, made a controversial decision to move several hundred Romany rent-defaulters out of a dilapidated block of flats in the town centre and relocate them in a complex of portacabins on the outskirts of Vsetín. Now, five years on, most of them are choosing to move even further – as far as the United Kingdom.
According to the Vsetín municipal authority, a hundred and thirty Roma have left the town for Great Britain and another hundred say they want to follow suit, such as this young woman interviewed by Czech Television.
“I am thinking about leaving. But we will wait and see what happens in January. There will be a lot of new laws in January, so we will wait until January. I myself would go happily.”
Members of the local Roma community say they hope not to face racial prejudice in Britain and to find a job. Many of them are unemployed and their debts are soaring. Local community coordinator Marian Tulej says it is easy to condemn the Roma for not working and living on state welfare but according to him finding a job is hard.
“It happens that we arrange a job interview for someone, but when they turn up they are told the position is no longer vacant.”
Those leaving are hoping to create a better life for themselves in Britain, seeing the example of Irena Grunzová, a relative of one of the families, who moved to London 12 years ago and works for a cleaning service. Speaking over Skype, she told Czech Television that she, too, could not find a job back in the Czech Republic.
“When a company here advertises vacancies and needs people, they don’t care whether you are Roma, Pakistani or black. But it’s not what some people think – that they will come here and immediately receive social benefits and welfare. Here, one has to work. And when you do work, the state will provide you with help and support.”
Christian Democrat Senator and former Mayor of Vsetín Jiří Čunek who was behind the move of the Roma families to the portacabins five years ago says those leaving now are just using their right to free movement.
“I hear they are seeking jobs. That surprises me, but it also makes me happy at the same time.”
According to the head of the government’s Agency for Social Inclusion in Romany Localities Martin Šimáček, this kind of rhetoric only increases tension in society. At the moment, the Vsetín exodus is one of several areas of friction between the Roma community and the majority population. Ethnic unrest has been troubling the northern district of Šluknov following a number of violent attacks in the summer, which the locals blame on members of the Roma minority. Most recently, the eurasiareview.com site quoted the Hindu statesman Rajan Zed calling for the immediate withdrawal of a Czech primary school textbook, which reportedly stereotypes Roma and is offensive.