Racial Segregation in Croatian Primary Schools: Romani Students Take Legal Action
7 November 2002
On April 19, 2002, a group of 57 parents of Romani pupils in Međimurje County, Croatia, assisted by local counsel, Ms Lovorka Kušan, and the European Roma Rights Center, filed an action with a Croatian court challenging their segregation into separate Roma-only classes in what are otherwise "regular" primary schools.
The lawsuit, filed with the Čakovec Municipal Court, charged the Croatian Ministry of Education, the Međimurje County local government, as well as four primary schools in Orehovica, Macinec, Kuršanec and Podturen, with segregating the plaintiffs and numerous other Romani children into separate and educationally inferior classes based solely on their racial/ethnic identity. The complaint further alleged that the result of this practice is the denial of equal educational opportunities for most Romani children.
In this article I will focus on both the specific facts of this case and the more general context. I will also outline the main legal arguments included in the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, discuss what would constitute adequate and comprehensive redress, and explain briefly the legal nature of the proceedings currently pending before the Croatian courts.
The Situation as Described by the Ombudsman
In his annual report for 2000, the Croatian Ombudsman described the Romani predicament as follows:
"Romani people meet with many more difficulties than others in exercising their human and civil rights, and particularly … the right to compulsory elementary education … Due to discrimination, which several schools in Međimurje carry out in the form of segregation and under the excuse that Romani children do not have a minimum of hygienic habits and do not speak Croatian language well enough, Romani children themselves often perceive school as a place of unpleasant occurrences and experiences. This, inter alia, leads to the early abandonment of schools even by those children who have already been incorporated into the educational system. Although the problem is publicly known, adequate action by the authorities is absent. Quite frequently, justification is given to the effect that the segregation of Romani children is for their own good as they attend smaller classes and class teachers can therefore pay more attention to their needs. However, the fact that the curriculum for Romani children in such 'pure' classes is based on a special programme, devised for children with developmental disorders, always remains concealed. Naturally, after two to three years of such education, even exceptional children find it very hard to compensate for what they have missed and to catch up with their peers who were not educated under the so-called special programme. Such a situation, which is utterly unacceptable from both a moral and a pedagogical standpoint, is not only tolerated, but is also approved of by the school authorities …"2
It has now been more than months since the case was brought before the court. Throughout this time, and in particular during the last several months, the Romani plaintiffs themselves, their families, as well as their local communities, have all been subjected to a concerted and sustained campaign of intimidation aimed at forcing them to give up their legal case.
In the same school year, there were a total of 24 separate Romani classes at the county level. They were organised both for the more junior grades, where Romani children make up a higher percentage in the overall number of pupils, and for higher grades, where Roma account for a lower percentage of the total student population.4 In particular, there were 9 separate Romani classes in the primary school in Kuršanec, 6 in the primary school in Macinec, 2 in the primary school in Orehovica and 1 in the primary school in Podturen.5
As regards the school year 2001/2002, there was one separate Romani class in the primary school in Podturen, two in the primary school in Orehovica, seven in the primary school in Macinec, and nine in the primary school in Kuršanec.6 Also, and just for illustration, we note that in the primary school in Macinec, of the total number of Romani pupils (191), 83.33% attended separate Romani classes, and 16.67% were placed in ethnically mixed classes.7 Similarly, in the primary school in Kuršanec, of the total number of Romani pupils (191), 88.49% attended separate Romani classes, and 11.51% were placed in ethnically mixed classes.8
Finally, in the school year 2001/2002, and again based on official statistics, in the four primary schools in Međimurje county, Romani children accounted for 73% of the total number of pupils in the first year, only 17.34% of the total number of pupils in the seventh year, and 8.86% of the total number of pupils in the eighth year. These figures clearly demonstrate that Romani pupils have a much lower chance of finishing primary school as compared to their non-Romani peers.9
Finally, we note that the non-Romani parents whose children attend the primary school in Macinec have recently themselves publicly stated the real reasons underlying racial segregation in Croatian primary schools. In an open letter dated 18 June 2002 they requested that their sons and daughters be allowed to attend/continue attending segregated classes – i.e. classrooms for the non-Roma only. In this undoubtedly racist petition, the non-Romani parents stated that integrated education is unacceptable as it includes all children regardless of their abilities and that therefore the non-Romani children suffer in terms of not being able to realize fully their educational potential which is far beyond that of the majority of Romani students.
Instead of tackling the problem head on, the authorities have, and somewhat incredibly so, repeatedly failed even to acknowledge awareness of the letter in question and have, at the same time, certainly done nothing to combat its adverse consequences and at least attempt to ensure integrated education for all.
The Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities has expressed concern "about reports that in certain schools, Roma children are placed in separate classes and school facilities are organised and operated in a manner that appears to stigmatise Roma pupils."10
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has emphasized that the "[e]ducation of Roma … children is a serious problem in Croatia" and that "many Roma … children do not go to school, having either dropped out or having never attended". Hence, the Commission chose to stress the "need to increase the participation of Roma … children at all levels of education" and encouraged the Croatian authorities "to make special efforts in this regard."11
Concerns about segregated school patterns in Croatia, outside of Međimurje County, have been voiced by international non-governmental organizations. Thus, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights recently noted that:"In some schools they [the Roma] were subjected to segregation. The school principle of the settlement of Strmec near Varaždin decided that Roma pupils were to be put into a special department and had to attend special courses."12
The United States Department of State, in its latest annual report on human rights practices in Croatia, also found as follows: "The majority of students continue their education to the age of 18, with Roma being the only notable exception. Romani children face serious obstacles in continuing their schooling, including discrimination in schools … In Medjimurje County, local officials operate segregated classrooms for Romani children, reportedly with less-qualified staff and fewer resources."13
Finally, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has itself recently made its views known: "The Committee expresses concern at the continued practice of segregation of Roma children within the educational system and at the reports of discrimination against the Roma regarding access to employment, health, political representation and citizenship rights. The Committee recommends that the State party pay particular attention to the situation of the Roma and take effective measures to prevent the segregation of Roma children within the educational system. The Committee further recommends that the State party strengthen its efforts to address the high drop-out … rates of Roma children and guarantee non-discrimination … The Committee also encourages the State party to reinforce its efforts to train and recruit Roma teachers and to prevent discrimination against the Roma …"14
Primary Education Act
Namely, pursuant to Article 2 of the Primary Education Act, the purpose of primary education is to enable pupils to acquire knowledge and skills, adopt new concepts, attitudes and habits necessary for life and further education, and thus ensure the continuous development of every pupil as a spiritual, physical, moral, intellectual and social being respecting thereby his individual abilities and aptitudes.
The above is to be realised within the teaching plan and programme adopted by the Ministry of Education which is compulsory and the same for all children from six to fifteen years of age and is conducted in all primary schools in Croatia.
A school programme of a reduced scope/volume, as compared to the one defined by the teaching plan and programme, is called an "adapted programme" and is prescribed only for pupils with developmental disorders – i.e. pupils with borderline intellectual abilities and mild mental retardation. It is not envisioned in the law that ethnicity can be a ground for an "adapted programme".
Finally, under Article 37 of the Primary Education Act, children of Croatian citizens returning from abroad are entitled to special help in the form of supplementary education. This is organised with a view to helping them overcome educational differences arising from different school systems, as well as to give them additional Croatian language instruction.
Croatian Government's International Commitments
In their complaint, the plaintiffs quote portions of this document and, in addition, point out that it was an integral part of the Croatian government's report submitted to the Council of Europe on 16 March 1999 under Article 25(1) of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Relevant International Law
Finally, the plaintiffs invoked the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the Republic of Croatia and the European Union, under which Croatia, inter alia, undertook to respect democratic principles and human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international documents as well as to harmonise its own legislation with the relevant European Union requirements. Along those lines, they then went on to refer to the relevant provisions of the European Union Race Equality Directive and, in particular, to Articles 7 (1), 8 (1) and 9 thereof which set the highest standards with regard to combating direct and indirect discrimination as well as the practice of victimisation.16
Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights
In particular, and in the context of race, they referred to the case of East African Asians v. United Kingdom,in which an action was brought by applicants claiming to have been denied admission into the United Kingdom based exclusively on their racial origin. The European Commission on Human Rights ultimately found that Article 3 of the Convention had indeed been violated, affirmed that "a special importance should be attached to discrimination based on race", and then went on to state that "publicly to single out a group of persons for differential treatment on the basis of race might, in certain circumstances, [in and of itself] constitute a special form of affront to human dignity." It concluded that "differential treatment of a group of persons on the basis of race might therefore be capable of constituting degrading treatment when differential treatment on some other ground would raise no such question."17
|On September 9, 2002, in front of the primary school in Držimurec, Međimurje County, Croatia, non-Romani parents whose children attend this school, as well as numerous other non-Romani residents, blocked the school gate and thus in effect prevented both Romani and non-Romani children from attending their first day at School.
The move was intended to challenge the policy of integrated education, as initially envisaged by the Ministry of Education. The non-Romani parents thus took the opportunity to publicly request that 5 out of 7 classes be racially segregated and only two classes be racially mixed. They stressed that the racially mixed classes ought to be attended only by those Romani children "who can keep up with their non-Romani peers" in relation to "Croatian language skills, manners, hygiene etc." Finally, the non-Romani parents "explained" that totally integrated education would be unacceptable as it would include all children regardless of their abilities and thus place the more "advanced" non-Romani children at a distinct disadvantage as compared to their Romani schoolmates.
On September 10, 2002, the non-Romani parents had a meeting with representatives of the primary school in Držimurec, Međimurje County local government, and the Ministry of Education. At this meeting all of the above-mentioned demands put forward by the non-Romani parents were accepted. Romani parents did not take part in the meeting nor were they invited to do so.
On September 11, 2002, the Ministry of Education sent a formal letter to the Međimurje County local government approving this arrangement. By doing so, the Ministry clearly sided with the non-Romani parents and, for the first time, officially condoned the practice of racial segregation in Croatian primary schools.
In the said letter, the Ministry of Education appears to urge the primary school in Držimurec to adopt programmes aimed at ensuring gradual racial integration and commits to providing the necessary technical and substantive support in this regard. There are, however, no specific tasks assigned, no clear time line, no vision and leadership, and in general nothing that would suggest that the Ministry understands the gravity of the situation as well as the fact that racial segregation as such is always illegal, that it can never be justified or tolerated, and that this applies equally to segregation on a supposedly temporary basis.
On September 23, 2002, the ERRC faxed a letter to Mr Vladimir Strugar, the Croatian Minister of Education, urging him to take the necessary decisions and/or measures in order to ensure immediate cessation of all racial segregation in Croatian primary schools. The ERRC recommended that the Ministry of Education adopt and implement an adequate and comprehensive educational integration strategy and offered assistance in this regard. Finally, the ERRC stressed that anything short of this will be in direct violation of both the relevant Croatian domestic legislation and of Croatia's numerous and binding international commitments.
To date ERRC received no response from the Croatian Ministry of Education.
Standard-Setting Comparative Jurisprudence
"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments ... [I]t is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment … [I]t is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education … We [thus] come … to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does ... To separate … [children] … from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone … Segregation of white and coloured children in public schools, has a detrimental effect upon the coloured children … [T]he policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system ... We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." 20
In addition, the plaintiffs stress that neither segregation, nor discrimination based solely on race, can ever have a reasonable and objective justification, or indeed be in pursuit of a legitimate aim. Likewise, the doctrine of "separate but equal" also has no place in the field of public education, as separate educational facilities as such are always profoundly unequal.
In any case, and as documented in the Croatian Ombudsman's annual report, the respondents themselves have not offered any objective and reasonable justifications for their actions, but have rather relied on excuses based on racial prejudice. Similarly, given that the plaintiffs were taught on the basis of a considerably reduced curriculum, compared to the standard curriculum prescribed by law, their situation is not one that could even for the sake of argument be described as "separate but equal". It has unfortunately been and firmly remains both "separate and unequal".
On October 16, 2002, the Čakovec Municipal Court rejected the complaint submitted by the Romani parents. The negative first instance decision has been appealed with the competent County Court. Should the entire proceedings take too long, or should the second instance decision be rendered in favor of the respondents, the plaintiffs would still have the possibility of filing a complaint with the Croatian Constitutional Court.
Failure to secure effective remedies in domestic courts will result in an application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
- Branimir Pleše is ERRC Senior Staff Attorney.
- Report published in March 2001, p. 98.
- Official data provided by the Office of Education, Culture, Information, Sport and Technical Culture of the County of Međimurje in a letter dated 29 May 2001, Class 602-01/01-01/70 reg. no. 2109-03-02/01-03.
- Official data provided by the Office of Education, Culture, Information, Sport and Technical Culture of the County of Međimurje in a letter dated 7 December 2001, Class 602-02/01-01/86 reg. no. 2109-03-02/01-02.
- Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Opinion on Croatia, adopted on 6 April 2001, para. 49.
- Council of Europe, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Second Report on Croatia, CRI (2001) 34, Strasbourg, 3 July 2001, para. 41.
- International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights in the OSCE Region: The Balkans, the Caucasus, Europe, Central Asia and North America Report 2001, (Events of 2000), Croatia, p. 105.
- U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001, Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on 4 March 2002.
- Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Croatia. 21/05/2002. CERD/C/60/CO/4., para. 11.
- These conclusions are based on the findings of an independent psychologist's report commissioned by the ERRC and completed in February 2002.
- Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin Official Journal L 180 , 19/07/2000 pp. 0022-0026.
- 3 EHRR 76, decision of 14 December 1973, para. 207.
- 1 EHRR 252, judgement of 23 July 1968.
- Judgement of 23 June, 1993, A-255-C, para. 36.
- 347 U.S. 483 (1954)