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Desegregation Court Victory

25 October 2005

ERRC Prevails in Court against Bulgarian Ministry of Education on School Segregation of Roma

On October 25, 2005, the Sofia District court released its decision on Case 11630/2004 finding that the Bulgarian Ministry of Education, the Sofia Municipality and School Number 103 of Sofia have violated the prohibition of racial segregation and unequal treatment provided in Bulgarian and international law.

Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, said: "After a period of fifty-one years, the soul of Brown v Board of Education crossed the Atlantic and was reborn in Europe. For the first time, a civil court in a European country, Bulgaria, found that separate by coercion means unequal."

The Bulgarian anti-discrimination act in force since January 2004 explicitly defines racial segregation as a type of racial discrimination. Racial segregation consists in actions or inaction leading to coercive separation, distinction or isolation of a person on grounds of race, ethnic belonging or colour of skin. The 2003 Act on Protection against Discrimination further introduces a positive obligation of the authorities to take measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination (Article 29). In the instant case, the court found that the Bulgarian authorities have committed racial segregation against the Romani children of Sofia School 103, a typical ghetto school with one hundred percent Romani students, situated in the poor Romani settlement Filipovtsi in the larger Sofia. The Court ruled that the Romani children who have attended and are attending School 103 have been and continue to be subjected to segregation and unequal treatment and that their right to equal and integrated education has been violated.

The civil suit against the Ministry of Education, the Sofia Municipality and School 103 was filed by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in October 2004. The ERRC, testing the procedural possibility provided by the 2003 Act on Protection against Discrimination (APAD), filed the case as an independent and sole claimant in its own capacity as an international public interest law organisation, represented by lawyer Daniela Mihailova of the Sofia-based Romani Baht Foundation, working on a joint project with the ERRC funded by the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The ERRC challenged the failure of the Bulgarian authorities to terminate the conditions of racially segregated education of the Romani children attending School 103 and ensure that the Romani children have equal access to education and equal treatment in education. The ERRC claimed that the fact that 100 per cent of the student body of School 103 was Romani constituted segregation on racial grounds prohibited by Article 29 of the APAD. Furthermore, the ERRC claimed that inaction on part of the Bulgarian authorities, namely – substandard material conditions in the school, lower expectations for the students' performance, lack of training for working with bilingual children, and lack of control on school attendance, violated the right to equality in education and the right to equal treatment in education of the Romani children in School 103.

The Court ruled that the separation of the Romani children in the Roma-only School 103 "was not the result of their free will but of circumstances beyond their control, accompanied by inaction on the part of authorities obliged to take measures to remedy this situation". The Court accepted that the separation of the Romani children in School 103 was the result of lack of opportunity to attend other schools caused by residential segregation in an all-Romani neighbourhood, obstacles for enrollment in other schools, and fear of racist abuse by non-Romani children.

Further, the Court affirmed that the poor material conditions in School 103, the low educational results of the children, and failure of the school authorities to exert control on truancy are manifestations of unequal and degrading treatment of the children in School 103. Regardless of the fact that the national standard educational criteria were applicable to School 103, the available evidence indicating that the Romani children could not meet the standard educational requirements to a degree comparable with that of children in other schools, was sufficient to prove violation of their right to equal and integrated education. The Court also rejected the argument that the poor educational performance of the Romani children was due to irregular school attendance, stating that the Sofia municipality and the Ministry of Education had been required by law to exert control on the school with regard to such matters. Finally, the Court stated that "the negative consequences for society resulting from the existing situation are tremendous."

Mikhail Georgiev, Executive Director of Romani Baht Foundation, commented: "From now on we must work hard to ensure that this historic court decision marks the start of real change to eliminate segregated schooling for Roma. The law is on our side. There are dozens of schools in Bulgaria that are similar to School 103. It will take time and hard work to give effect to the law, but the road is now open."

For details, contact:

Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director, ERRC, Tel. +36 1 413 2200; Dimitrina.petrova@errc.org; or Daniela Mihailova, Legal Director, Romani Baht Foundation, Tel. +359 2 231303; email: baht2000@rtsonline.net.

The full text of the decision in English:  Download it (zip file)!

Decision was translated in English by the ERRC.

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