Roma and Sinti voices on the right to education in France

Daniella Mercier1

union Socio-Educative Tzigane d'Aquitaine (USETA) is a regional NGO run by Sinti, Roma and Gypsy representatives. The member families live, work and travel in the Southwest of France in rural or urban areas. Bordeaux is the most well-known metropolis of this region. USETA has many contacts with Spain, Italy and the British Isles, but we are also involved with individuals or Romani organisations from northern and central Europe.

In France we work in partnership with the network of Roma delegates from ASNIT (Action Sociale Nationale et Internationale Tzigane) and GATIEF (Gypsy and Traveller International Evangelical Fellowship). A few years ago, we were the promoters of a European training team of Roma, Sinti and Gitano mediators who are now very active in the field of cultural and educational issues and access to civil rights and European citizenship. We regularly exchange information with the MG/S/ROM group of the Council of Europe, and we were very pleased to note that some of our proposals were taken into account in the recent "Recommendation No R (2000) 4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the education of Roma/Gypsy children in Europe".2 Our aim is now to raise awareness of the policy-makers to take action to increase the effective participation of Roma, Sinti and Gitanos in public life.

We also collect humanitarian aid such as food, medicine, and medical material to support, among other projects, a children's home near TĂ®rgu Mureş, Romania. Paradoxically , it seems to us less difficult to deal with the Romanian local or ministerial authorities than with the French ones! Here are a few examples of the difficulties and challenges we have to face while attempting to eradicate discriminatory practices in the French administration: most of the time, the parents have to face the refusal of registration of school children by the mayors of cities in the local schools. This refusal is usually oral, but recently one family received a written refusal from authorities to register their children: in the 1996/1997 school year, school authorities in the municipality of Villenave d'Ornon, just outside Bordeaux, refused to enrol Laetitia and Sonia B., two Sinti girls, because their parents, who are itinerant, could not demonstrate a fixed address in the town. Since municipal authorities in Villenave d'Ornon had closed the local halting site, the family could only stay on unauthorised land, so they really had no legal address in the town. After receiving a refusal to enrol from the mayor, the girls' father, Mr N.B., wrote a letter to the public prosecutor in Bordeaux, calling attention to the case and arguing that Penal Code Article 432(7), which bans discrimination by a public authority, had been violated. The appeal was refused.

During the academic school-year 1999/2000, we noticed a growing number of obstacles to implement the right to education for Sinti, Roma or Gitano schoolchildren: the children were refused either in pre-school, elementary or secondary schools for various reasons: lack of places, lack of teaching materials, no certificate of schooling to evaluate the academic level of the children. In one school, the pedagogical team fixed an arbitrary quota on the number of Romani children allowed in school "to prevent conflict situations"(!) Often the parents or Romani Mediators of our organisation go to schools to try to explain their activities as seasonal agricultural workers or mobile salesmen to schooling authorities. They provide authorities with the relevant provisions of French law, as well as Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To date, however, their efforts have had little success. Head teachers generally explain their reluctance to integrate Romani children into the classroom with the pretext that they have no solution for children who experience intermittent education or for illiterate youngsters after 12 years of age.

To overcome this exclusion, in the school year 1999/2000, nine girls and boys associated with our organisation decided to apply for the secondary school distance learning courses offered by the Centre National d'Education á Distance (CNED). The courses seemed particularly appropriate as they include lessons on Romani history and culture. The families of the children sent their applications to the academic inspector because they needed official permission to participate in these courses which are specific for Roma and children from itinerant families. They also sent the money because the courses are not free-of-charge. However, the inspector refused to issue permission for enrolment. He said that three of the children had to go to Medico-Professional Institutes for mentally disabled children and the others to special secondary education classes. A Sinto mediator representing all of the families involved wrote to the Academic Mediator who intervened in vain in favour of the distance learning option. We have since appealed to the Ministry of Education in Paris. To date, as I write this in August 2000, there has been no answer from the Ministry. The 1999/2000 school year has now finished. Nine children have lost one year of schooling. They now face a similar fate for the 2000/2001 school year.

Who will listen to the Romani voices asking for equal opportunities? When will the State prove that it really takes its responsibility under the law and international conventions seriously? We can only hope that political leaders will have the courage to acknowledge that good intentions and kind words are not sufficient. We need an urgent, real and effective enforcement of the law and respect for our human dignity.

Endnotes:

  1. Daniella Mercier is General Secretary of the Union Socio-Educative Tzigane d'Aquitaine (USETA). Contact information for USETA is: 19 avenue Pierre-Wiehn-BP 143, 33606 Pessac Cedex, France, Fax: (33 5) 56 45 92 29.
  2. See Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, "Recommendation No R (2000) 4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the education of Roma/Gypsy children in Europe", Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 3 February 2000, at the 696th meeting of the Ministers' Deputies.

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