"I realised that for me and my family there was no future in the country," Robert says. "Our biggest problem is fear. We cannot go out after dark; we can only leave the flat in the daytime."
Robert is an educated man in his thirties, a Gypsy, or, as they call themselves, a Roma, living in the Czech Republic. Last August he and his family came to Britain to ask for political asylum. Although family problems forced them to return to the Czech Republic, Robert still talks regretfully of what might have been: "In England I was happy. I did not see these racist attitudes on the street. I saw how life could be."
The media coverage that greeted the Czech and Slovak Roma as they arrived in Dover last autumn portrayed them as hell-bent on ravaging our social security system, illiterate, disorganised and threatening. Little attention was paid to the country the Roma were fleeing.
The Czech Republic has one of the worst skinhead problems in Europe; racist attacks have been on the up since the 1989 revolution. Roma women and children have been persistently targeted. In the past five years there have been an estimated 40 murders and thousands of attacks.
Josef Sivak, from Most in industrial north Bohemia, describes how his community was terrorised: "Every Saturday evening there come a group of 25 skinheads with armbands, torches in their hands and drums. They march through our town and shout, 'Send gypsies to be gassed.' Skinheads almost never attack a group: they wait until you separate, then follow you until you are alone. They mostly target children."
Joseph believes this violence is not merely ignored, but sanctioned by the police. "Sometimes the police are actually happy that somebody beats up the Roma people so that they don't have to do it themselves."
In February a Roma woman was beaten over the head by skinheads who forced her into the icy, swollen river Elbe "for a wash". The woman drowned. Four months later, the charges against her attackers were reduced from racially motivated murder to "extortion resulting in death". The drowned woman was, posthumously and without proof, accused of pickpocketing; the white men involved were exonerated of any racist motivation on the grounds that they were drunk.
Unfortunately, this judgement reflects popular feeling towards the Roma. According to one survey, 45 per cent of Czechs wanted to expel all gypsies from the country.
Following a happy childhood in a small, mixed community, Drahdmira Zigova began training as a dental technician. "I had a professor who said, 'You have no place in this school, you are taking the place of a white child. All the black pigs should be burned at the border and have their ashes sent back where they came from.'"
Such racist abuse has affected even the small rural community of Drahdmira's home village. "When I was pregnant with my first child I went with my husband to a dance in the village. During the evening we were surrounded by a group of about 10 skinheads. We were the only Roma people in the place. The skinheads took my husband. They started to beat him very heavily with a baseball bat. Then some of them took me aside as well and started beating me. All I could think of was how to stop my child getting hurt. I was crying and crying, and the skinheads were making fun of me. Nobody in the place helped me, even though they knew us and knew we were normal people like them. I was not crying because I felt pain or fear, I was crying out of a sense of helplessness. Even in a community where I had friends, where people knew me well, nobody was willing to help when we needed it."
Outside the skinhead and Fascist movements, official attitudes towards non-Roma immigrants are overwhelmingly positive. Six months ago when a Sudanese student was stabbed by skinheads, the event was treated as a national scandal. Politicians took to the platforms and new anti-racism initiatives were implemented. The high-profile public figures who attended the student's funeral were notably absent when the drowned Roma woman was buried a few weeks later.
These incidents spurred the Roma communities to get organised for the first time. Activists around the country set up community centres and started initiatives to negotiate with local authorities. Top priority was education: it is still common practice for Roma children to be sent to schools for the mentally handicapped, and only 5 per cent attend secondary school.
Chanov, a notorious suburb built behind a sewage-processing plant in Most, is a ghetto in all but name. A group of young fathers from the district have formed an activist group called "Drom" (The Way). Drom's ostensible objective was to break down the isolation of the Roma community and open up future possibilities. "We used to have dance groups and bands," said Jan Vasko, "but after the revolution of 1989 they took all our instruments away. All our life, all our sentiments, all our joy are expressed through our culture and our songs; if we cannot express our life we might as well be dead."
Roma have recently started appearing on the Czech television news, threatening violent retaliation. "What else can we do if nothing else is helping?" said one Drom member. "Violence creates violence. There is no other way."
President Vaclav Havel and his government oppose racism and promote the peaceful integration of the Roma into white Czech society. All the necessary legislation to prevent racist attacks and prejudice are in place. But they do not seem to be enforced.
"This is not a problem of legislation," said Jana Chalupova, ombudsman for the president's office, "this is a problem of application. I talk to the police and the prosecutors, and I think that while sometimes they are naive, other times they secretly approve; maybe not of the violence, but of the motivation."
Jitka Gjuricova, director of crime prevention for the Ministry of the Interior, vehemently denied that there was any racism or partiality within the police and legal system: "It is a myth that the police don't intervene in situations of racist violence. The problem is almost the opposite - the police almost fall short of their legal duties because they try so hard not to arrest Romanies. It is completely untrue that there is lenience for racist violence towards Roma."
I was invited to meet Jan Solc, vice president in charge of security and one of the three senior advisers to President Havel. Over coffee and dainty biscuits I politely asked him why the Czech administration was apparently incapable of enforcing its own laws. Mr Solc smiled and quoted the Voice of America radio station: "Our moral capital has collapsed," he said. "The repression of the last 50 years has degraded people in their own eyes. For a state of law, for a judicial system, there must be a moral basis to society; when there is no moral acceptance of the rights of the individual, the law cannot be enforced. This is only the start of a very long process."
For the Roma, the process already seems to have taken too long. "I cannot stay here and watch my children being killed like rats," Mr Sivak said. "What kind of democracy is this, if I cannot go for a walk with my daughter in the evening? How can we stay here if it is impossible to live a normal life?"
Where the means are available, it seems likely that the Roma will try to leave; if they are not given asylum in Britain, they will try elsewhere. As Europe is split ever further into states of ethnic purity, it is the Roma who are being squeezed out.Reuse content