BYSTRANY, Slovakia (Reuters) - Bystrany, a town in eastern Slovakia with a majority Roma population, has thrived in the past decade thanks to remittances from locals who grabbed the benefits of European Union membership and sought work in Britain.
Colorful brick houses with satellite dishes, new cars parked outside, have filled once-rundown neighborhoods that had lacked running water, supported by the more than 1,000 people - almost one in three residents - who have moved to work in England.
Locals have even named a small open-air amphitheatre “Sheffield Square” in reference to their preferred English destination.
But after Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Bystrany Roma are worried they might have to return home to what they call the harsh reality of unemployment and discrimination.
“My sons have renovated their houses in Slovakia, furnished them with luxury; they don’t drink, they have jobs and invest everything in housing,” said Jan Sandor, whose three sons, a nephew and their families have moved to Britain.
“It would be a disaster if they had to return for good. There’s no work, nobody wants to employ the Roma but they keep saying it’s us who don’t want to work.”
There are around 400,000 Roma in Slovakia, the second largest minority in the country of 5.4 million. Large numbers are cut off from society, some living on the outskirts of towns without electricity or sewerage.
Roma are also more likely to be unemployed. In the region where Bystrany is located, unemployment is 13 percent, above the national rate of 9 percent. Bystrany residents say almost all Roma who remained are out of jobs.
Experts say one of the main reasons is discrimination and lack of education. In Britain, they encounter fewer obstacles.
Up to 10,000 Slovak Roma live or work in Britain, said Peter Pollak, the first Roma lawmaker in Slovakia’s parliament.
With Britain wanting control over immigration, the free movement of people will be a major sticking point in talks over future British-EU relations.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has said free movement must remain to keep an estimated 80,000 Slovaks working in Britain from becoming “second-class citizens”.
Frantisek Ziga, Bystrany’s mayor for 16 years, said Roma started leaving immediately after Slovakia and nine other mostly central and eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004.
“The town has changed a lot. Not only have the Roma refurbished their homes ... they have even bought houses in the previously mostly non-Roma main part of town,” he said.
Roma face integration challenges across eastern Europe. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said last year Roma children were subject to chronic and pervasive segregation in Slovak schools.
A United Nations Development Programme survey showed almost one in five Slovak Roma did not finish primary school and only 17 percent continued past that.
Pollak said Roma children were often placed in schools for people with mental disabilities in Slovakia, while in Britain they managed to integrate into the education system.
In Slovakia, Roma also face being labeled as lazy. But for Sandor, his family’s case disproves that.
“When people travel thousands of miles for work, they are hardly lazy,” he said.
Editing by Jason Hovet and Janet Lawrence