Eye witness

October 16, 1998

Britain slapped visa restrictions on Slovakians last week in the wake of a disturbing influx of gypsy refugees. Ironically, the clampdown coincided with the publication by the University of Hertfordshire Press of the first anthology of Romany poetry, reflecting the Roma people's 1,000 years of wandering.

The media portrays Roma as economic migrants. They see themselves as asylum-seekers escaping from prejudice, marginalisation and victimisation.

Tom Acton, professor of Romany studies at the University of Greenwich, says anti-Roma prejudice is endemic among Czechs and Slovaks.

The Roma presence in Slovakia and Czech lands dates back 500 years. Under the Nazi occupation of Moravia and Bohemia most gypsies perished. In Slovakia, however, the Roma survived. Under postwar communism they were enticed back to work in Czech industry. When Czechoslovakia split after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" these Roma found they were aliens in the Czech Republic.

Citizenship laws permitted their naturalisation but few Roma could meet the requirements, according to Willy Guy, sociology lecturer at Bristol University. Applicants had to be free of debt and have a clean criminal record. But petty theft of state property was endemic in the communist system.

Some were deported back to Slovakia, others encouraged to leave. In both states Roma are seen as outcasts and "skinhead" attacks on Roma have increased. "One can compare it to northern and southern attitudes in the the United States. Slovakian racism is rural. Czech racism is modern and industrial," Professor Acton said.

But the greatest expression of racism is ethnocide, or forced assimilation, which bears more heavily on educated and employed Roma than the poor.

The Slovak authorities say they are working to assimilate the Roma into mainstream Slovak life, but that the general low level of education and criminal propensities make this difficult. The British seem to have accepted this line, not realising "the absurdity of treating the racist comments of the Slovak government as evidence of non-racism", Professor Acton said.

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