Prior to the alarming disturbances in northern Bohemia over the past few weeks, way back in January, I wrote a post discussing the conclusions of a report on the educational opportunities for the children living in ghettos or excluded communities in the Czech Republic. I quoted the author of the study, the well-respected sociologist Ivan Gabal, who had told the Romea website: “We currently have more than 16,000 Roma pupils in the ‘special’ schools, and last year less than 50 of them managed to return to mainstream schools – in other words, a miniscule number. This shows that the current state of affairs is not in order.”

Those words were foreboding, as should have been the shocking results of a landmark Gabal study from 2006 that concluded that 80,000 Roma—roughly a third of the country’s Roma population—live in ghettos, with between 95 and 100 percent unemployment. For a number of years, however, the consequences of that situation were largely hidden: attacks on Roma were down, the extremist movement on the downswing, and the country’s economy was booming.

Recent incidents—violent attacks by young Roma, extremist marches on largely Roma-inhabited housing estates, locals complaining of Roma criminality—have finally brought the ghetto situation more out in the open. The media have been full of politicians, commentators, and other assorted individuals who suddenly know how to fix things. Most of them can be safely ignored.

But today Mlada fronta DNES, the country’s most popular, non-tabloid daily, published an op-ed by Gabal on the situation in north Bohemia’s Sluknov area. And as I’ve made clear earlier, when Gabal talks about solving the “Roma problem””, people should listen.

As Gabal points out, the authorities have most publicly emphasized repression these past few weeks, talking of “zero tolerance” for misbehavers; stricter requirements for those receiving social handouts; pledges to regulate the number of inhabitants in given localities and apartments, and so on. Gabal lists five recommendations that, instead, get at the roots of the problem:

1. The government needs to outline a vision and concrete goals, rather than a mish-mash of policies that manage to only react to problems instead of head them off.
2. The government should renew the position of minister responsible for coordination and implementation of integration policy.
3. The government Agency for Social Integration is finishing up its pilot phase and needs to expand to enable communities that actually want to integrate families from the ghettos to have a well-equipped partner with well-educated personnel.
4. Assistance in the ghettos shouldn’t go exclusively to the Roma or tensions between those inside and outside the ghettos will grow.
5. In the medium-term, the educational system has to play a strategic role.

Not surprising given his earlier dissection of the educational opportunities for young ghetto inhabitants, Gabal slams the Czech educational system, which he says hasn’t been doing its job teaching children from poor and less educated backgrounds. The Czech Republic, he says, is among the most underdeveloped among the OECD countries in this regard. “And if we don’t pay teachers, we will have to pay more to policemen,” he wrote. “According to international comparisons and experts the Czech educational system is traveling on the West European educational highway in the opposite direction.”
 
Reading through Gabal’s prescription, I felt a little disappointed to see this leading expert without a wonder drug to cure society’s ills. Surely, he could suggest something more innovative, something more groundbreaking than advising the government to come up with a vision, set aside funds for a special agency to implement it, and emphasize, above all, education. But then it hit me: if successive Czech governments had actually been doing their jobs the past 20 years, doing nothing particularly spectacular but slowly and determinedly integrating the country’s neglected minorities, then we wouldn’t be in the precarious situation where we are now.

The photo above appears on the homepage for Common Ground, a student journalism project between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Charles University’s Media Studies Program in Prague.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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