Construction of a concrete wall to separate unemployed Gypsy families from the rest of the community is threatening to destabilise the delicate political balance of the Czech Republic.
The two-metre-high, 60-metre-long "wall of shame" was erected in the northern industrial city of Usti nad Labem last month after an earlier attempt ran into opposition from Gypsies and human rights groups.
It separates 160 Gypsies
living in council flats from
residents in nearby private
The two local councils that built the wall after a petition from residents have ignored demands from the Czech
parliament for its destruction and dismissed criticism from president Vaclav Havel and prime minister Milos Zeman.
Gypsy community leaders said that many of the country's 300,000 Roma may head for asylum in Britain and other countries unless the wall is torn down.
Ondrej Gina, a leading Gypsy activist, said: "The wall is a signal that we're not welcome in the Czech Republic and we want it destroyed."
Czech opposition groups
are seeking to make political capital out of age-old ethnic
tensions that 40 years of
communism and ten years
of democracy have failed to eradicate.
Ivan Gabal, a sociologist and member of the Czech Helsinki human rights committee, said the row over the wall exposes faults in Czech society.
"Usti nad Labem is an extra-
ordinary case, characterised by the inability of government and
officials to stop the building of the wall. Certain quarters have criticised intellectuals and
others who protest against the wall for damaging the image of Czechs abroad."
The wall reflects the long process of destruction of Roma language, culture and community stretching back to Hitler's Holocaust, he said.
"Social tensions are building, and in Usti nad Labem social and economic pressures are acting to create a marginalised Roma underclass that lacks
the cohesion to protect itself effectively," added Mr Gabal, one-time adviser to President Havel.