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Romani children and the right to education in Central and Eastern Europe

3 October 2000

Angéla Kóczé1

Public education plays a crucial role in society. In particular, it is one of the most powerful factors in the formation and change of minority-majority relations. Powerful social changes can be rendered by means of education. Unfortunately, Roma are often deprived of the formal education which could be a meaningful tool for their integration into European society.

The problems of access to education for Roma are complex, and the lack of adequate education has a profound and lasting impact on Romani communities and individuals. Throughout the region of Central and Eastern Europe today, Romani unemployment is extremely high: as much as 70-100% in some areas. The socio-economic status of Romani communities has adverse effects on the ability of individual Roma to maintain a home, on health in the community, and on school attendance. Many Romani children, just like children in the Third World, are forced to work alongside their parents in farming, scrap collection, trading, and in the informal economy. Those in urban areas may drift towards delinquency, given the poor socio-economic circumstances of their households. Lack of socio-economic opportunities results in increasing welfare dependency. A sense of hopelessness pervades these Romani communities.

Racism, prejudice, and hostility against Roma are often openly tolerated in the region. Central and Eastern Europe is today characterised by racism against Romani children in classrooms, by both students and teachers. Many Romani parents report the real danger of skinhead violence when sending their children to school. Teachers and local authorities often do not guarantee Romani children's safety. Most Romani children feel isolated in the classroom and neglected by their teachers. No wonder Romani children drop out in large numbers even before completing primary education.

In the last decade, the ability of Roma to claim basic rights has deteriorated dramatically. It is precisely these rights that tend to determine whether Romani communities will be viable in the future - viable enough to exercise their civil and political rights freely. Though there are serious issues related to the provision of Romani children's education in Western Europe2, I will focus on the post-communist countries, where the majority of Roma live today. This brief article will describe problems of access (or lack thereof) to quality education and offer some recommendations for improvement.

The education of Romani children in the past

The lack of access of Romani children to quality education in the region is the result of the particular and complex history of state policy in each country. The legacies of assimilationist or oppressive policies in the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in Central and Southeastern Europe have had profound and lasting consequences for such issues as language preservation and identity of minority populations such as the Roma. In Romania, which today has the largest per capita Romani population, slavery of Roma in the Wallachia and Moldavia regions only ended in the late 1800s. And it would be negligent not to mention the greatest tragedy of the 20th century for Roma, the Holocaust, or Porraijmos, in Romani, an event which resulted in the destruction of whole Romani communities, and which is estimated by some as having resulted in the deaths of over half a million Roma.

Following the Second World War, states in Central and Eastern Europe were further centralised as the communist parties became hegemonic. During this period, Romani communities were seen to be in need of integration into the larger society and were subjected to clumsy state policies. Though these resulted in significant improvements in material and social status, such as, for example, a guaranteed job and loans for housing, as well as a gradually increasing rate of school attendance for Romani children, the socialist states tended to be hostile towards the maintenance of Romani identity. It was at this time that a system of differential learning began in Central Europe: one for Romani children (many of whom grew up speaking Romani rather than the national language), who were stigmatised as educationally deficient, and another, far superior, for non-Romani children. Those Romani children who attended the same schools as non-Romani children were in many cases sent to separate classes. In other instances, Romani children were placed on one side or in the back of the classroom, while non-Romani children were placed on the other side. This system of segregated education has continued with some modifications to this day.

Post-Communist segregation

Since 1989, Romani children have faced, to an extreme degree, a number of problems in the educational system. The cornerstone of these problems is segregation. At present, society in Central and Eastern Europe has become increasingly polarised, and this has resulted in growing segregation of Roma in the region.

Exclusion from the educational system. In many cases, mainstream schools do not accept Romani children for enrolment (in great part due to pressure by non-Romani parents), and re-direct them to schools known locally to be "Gypsy schools". Another form of exclusion is restrictive legislation. For example, a June 1995 Romanian law on education prohibits children who have dropped out of the educational system for more than three years from resuming their studies. Furthermore, in Romania, children are rejected from schools if they do not have local residence permits. Many Romani children do not possess these permits and are therefore excluded from education. In southeastern Europe, the results of the previous decade's wars, both the internal disputes within former Yugoslavia, and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, have resulted in massive internal displacements and rights deprivation for thousands of Romani children. Many Romani families now live in a legal limbo, and their children are deprived of educational possibilities.

Schools in Romani settlements. Throughout the region, historically the Romani population has been segregated. This continues to be manifested today in the spatial segregation of Romani housing in Central and Eastern Europe: all over the region Roma live in separate settlements or shantytowns on the edges of villages and towns. Though the socialist regimes of the region attempted to provide better housing for Roma and to integrate them into cities, in many instances they were not successful in overcoming society's prejudices. The segregation of Romani children, already in place under the socialist regime, has been exacerbated by the liberalisation of the educational system whereby parents can choose to place their children in schools with very few Romani children or none at all.

The so-called "Gypsy schools" are situated in or near Romani settlements and have a majority of Romani pupils. In Bulgaria, for example, according to some NGO estimates, more than 70% of Romani children reportedly attend such schools. Generally, schools in Romani settlements have poor infrastructure, school buildings are substandard, toilets are unhygienic, etc. In addition, the teaching staff at these schools is often of poor quality and unmotivated to help with the children's development.

Segregation in separate classrooms and school facilities. Even in those schools in the region where Romani and non-Romani children share their social space, there may be separate classes and/or separate facilities for Romani children. In 1997, for example, in the eastern Hungarian town of Tiszavasvári, 17 Romani students graduated from the Ferenc Pethe Primary School. The ceremony was segregated, with the Romani children graduating at a different time than their non-Romani classmates. Upon further investigation by activists and journalists, it was revealed that the students had been physically segregated for eleven years. Moreover, the Romani children had not been allowed to use the gymnasium or the cafeteria. In a lawsuit brought by the Foundation for Romani Civil Rights, the school administration was charged with discrimination, and Hungarian courts ruled that the local government pay compensation of 100,000 Hungarian forints (approximately 400 euros) per child for illegal discrimination on the basis of ethnicity (See "Snapshots from around Europe", Roma Rights 2/99).

Remedial special schools. The over-representation of Romani children in so-called "special schools" - schools for the mentally handicapped - in the region has been no secret for the past decade3. Much research has been conducted on the problem, but there is seemingly little will to change practice. Many Romani-speaking children, tested too soon after beginning schooling, perform poorly in psychological tests. Patterns of discrimination are also seen simply in the numbers of Romani children tested. Another problem is culturally biased testing for school entrance. To combat this severe institutionalised discrimination in the Czech Republic, in which the problem is particularly marked, the ERRC filed a lawsuit before the European Court of Human Rights on April 18, 2000. The ERRC press release of April 18 states:

For decades, despite ample evidence of disparate racial impact, Czech officials have knowingly perpetuated a system which routinely brands disproportionate numbers of Roma children as mentally retarded. As a result, tens of thousands of Roma have been deprived from an early age of equal educational opportunities essential to future life success. [...] Romani children outnumber non-Roma in special schools by a proportion of more than twenty-seven to one. Although Roma represent fewer than 5% of all primary school-age students in Ostrava, they constitute 50% of the special school population. Nationwide, as the Czech government itself concedes, approximately 75% of Romani children attend special schools, and more than half of all special school students are Roma.

 

 

As a result of their segregation in dead-end schools for the mentally retarded, the applicants, like many other Romani children in Ostrava and around the nation, have suffered severe educational, psychological and emotional harm, including the following: 

  • they have been subjected to a curriculum far inferior to that in basic schools;
  • they have been prohibited by practice from entrance to non-vocational secondary educational institutions, with attendant damage to their opportunities to secure adequate employment;
  • they have been stigmatised as stupid or retarded with effects that will brand them for life, including diminished self-esteem and feelings of humiliation, alienation and lack of self-worth;
  • they have been forced to study in racially segregated classrooms and hence denied the benefits of a multi-cultural educational environment. [...] 

In June of 1999, the present applicants unsuccessfully pursued administrative remedies and sought redress from the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic. Their lawsuits charged the Czech Ministry of Education and local school authorities with segregating the plaintiffs and numerous other Romani children into special schools for the mentally deficient because they are Roma. The complaints noted that racial segregation and discrimination in education violate the Constitution of the Czech Republic, the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, other provisions of domestic law, and numerous binding international treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Constitutional Court, acknowledging the "persuasiveness" of the Applicants' arguments, nonetheless rejected the complaints, ruling that it had no authority to consider evidence demonstrating a pattern and practice of racial discrimination in Ostrava or the Czech Republic. The Court effectively refused to apply applicable international legal standards for proving racial discrimination. 

Having exhausted domestic remedies, the applicants are now turning to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Their Application contends that their assignment to special schools constitutes "degrading treatment" in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In so doing, it relies on the legal authority of the Strasbourg organs, which have made clear that "a special importance should be attached to discrimination based on race." The submission further argues that the Applicants have been denied their right to education, in breach of Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the Convention; that they have suffered racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to education, in violation of Article 14; and that the procedure which resulted in their assignment to special school did not afford the minimal requisites of due process required by Article 6(1).

The Application asks the European Court of Human Rights to find violation of the above-noted Convention provisions and to award just satisfaction.

Recommendations

Some recommendations for the improvement of the situation of Roma in Central and Eastern European schools follow:

  1. In the present circumstances in the region comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation is needed in all countries to fight segregation;
  2. Programmes for Romani assistant teachers in primary school classrooms, and the sensitisation of non-Romani teachers must be adopted. Teachers need to understand the children's needs. In order to understand their needs, they must understand their family situations;
  3. Parent-teacher communication should be encouraged through incentives at the local level;
  4. Information about Roma should be "mainstreamed", not merely as projects in a few localities, but throughout the region;
  5. In those Romani communities where the Romani language or other languages (such as Beash or Sinti) are spoken, bilingual primary educational programs should be considered and scholarships offered to Romani teachers to study bilingual methodology;
  6. Vocational school programmes should be strengthened and adjusted to meet market needs; for example, governments should assist Roma to study computer and information technology;
  7. In order to improve knowledge of foreign languages among Roma, university and high school exchange programmes targeting Romani children, youth and young adults should be initiated or, where already in existence, expanded;
  8. Finally, anti-Romani sentiment in the region is not likely to go away without continuous pressure on the part of domestic actors to overcome racism and xenophobia in society. Campaigns in the schools to educate children about the contributions of Roma to their society and culture, as well as anti-bias education should be implemented.

Endnotes:

  1. Angéla Kóczé is Human Rights Education Director at the European Roma Rights Center, as well as the Council of Europe's representative for Hungary for their Specialist Group on Roma/Sinti Issues. This article is adapted from a statement presented to the United States Congress in June 2000. Nidhi Trehan assisted in drafting the statement.
  2. See Liegeois, Jean-Pierre, ed., School Provision for Ethnic Minorities: The Gypsy Paradigm, University of Hertfordshire Press, 1998.
  3. See, for example, documentation by the European Roma Rights Center, A Special Remedy: Roma and Schools for the Mentally Handicapped in the Czech Republic, Country Reports Series No. 8, June 1999.

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