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New Czech immigration law could leave Gypsies in state of limbo


USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic -- Cyril Bily's hot temper and quick fists landed him in jail and an opponent in the hospital after a brawl two years ago. Now, a delayed counterpunch from that same bar fight has marked him as an alien in his homeland.

Mr. Bily is one of thousands of Czech Romanies, or Gypsies, who will be deprived of Czech citizenship when a new immigration law comes into effect next year. To be granted citizenship in the Czech Republic, applicants must have lived in the country for two years and have no criminal convictions for five years. Because of the fight, Mr. Bily doesn't meet the second requirement.

"I was born here, I've lived here all my life, and now I'm going to be a foreigner," the 19-year-old said. "It's terrible."

After Czechoslovakia was partitioned a year ago, all citizens were declared either Czech or Slovak, based on their parentage rather than their residence. Few "white" Czechs have citizenship problems, because their parents and grandparents were Czech.

For Romanies, whom many here call "blacks" because of their darker skin, the problem is acute. Nazi genocide in World War II wiped out all but 4,000 Czech Romanies.

After the war, the Czechs expelled many Sudetan Germans living in this northern industrial city of 100,000 and in other factory towns just below the German border and some 70 miles north of Prague.

To replace the lost workers, officials sent in Slovak Romanies, who survived the Nazis in greater numbers. Thus, most of the 150,000 to 500,000 Romanies here are considered Slovak, even if they've never set foot in Slovakia. The exact number is uncertain, since many are afraid to acknowledge their ties.

There is little doubt that the law effectively discourages Romanies from citizenship, even if it doesn't single them out. The requirements can be tough to fulfill even for those with no criminal record.

Many Romanies are illiterate or lack formal education. In Usti, only 60 of the 10,000 Romanies have finished high school, so filling out the required papers and negotiating the bureaucracy can be daunting. And since many Romanies are officially Slovak but were born here, gathering necessary documentation from the Slovak side takes effort.

A report in October by the independent Tolerance Foundation estimated that in many Czech cities fewer than 20 percent of Romanies had applied for citizenship.

"At the legal level, reading the text of the law, you cannot say that there is discrimination," said Ina Zoon, who is heading a project to help Romanies with registration. "But if you consider the situation of Romanies, you can say the intention of the legislators was to limit as much as possible the ability of these people to become Czech citizens."

Czech officials say the law was not intended to discourage Romanies from gaining citizenship.

"At the time the law came into existence, there was no ill will intended," said Jitka Gjuricova, who oversees Romany problems the Czech Interior Ministry. "No one even thought about the effects it would have."

Furthermore, she says, the deadline for applications for citizenship has been extended for six months, until July 1. After that, the law will require a five-year residency and a Czech-language test of all applicants, including Slovaks.

Romany activists acknowledge that the deadline extension will help, but it will be of little consolation for Mr. Bily and his family, which has been split by the law. Mr. Bily's mother, younger brother and sister were granted Czech citizenship after a six-month wait for papers from Slovakia. His father's application was denied because of a drunken-driving conviction four years ago.

For the Bilys and others who are denied citizenship or who fail to apply in time, life is certain to become more difficult after the deadline. Already, Romanies in the Czech Republic feel discrimination at nearly every turn. Even many educated, open-minded Czechs occasionally snap about "dirty Gypsies."

And while few establishments post "White's Only" signs anymore, as was the case just after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that ended communism here, many bars and restaurants still won't let Romanies in.

Without citizenship, the ability of Romanies to fight back against racism will be limited.

And as foreigners, Romanies could lose their right to work. Burly, good-natured Cyril Bily is the only one in his family with a job. Although he was trained as a bricklayer, he took a job as a garbage collector after being turned down for countless jobs -- and he considers himself lucky, since Romanies make up 70 percent of Usti's unemployed.

"What's going to happen to these people?" asked Marta Tulejova, head of the Prague-based Foundation for the Improvement of the Status of Gypsies. "They won't be able to get jobs. They won't have the right to look for a job. They won't have the right to get state medical care."

Another fear is that anti-Romany local officials may decide who splits social benefits, which often means that Romanies, many of whom are dependent on the benefits, would get short-changed. Mr. Bily's father, who receives disability payments for a spine injury, fears he may be cut off since he is now a foreigner.

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