Joint Letter to Ms Marietta Yannakou, the Greek Minister of Education

Ms Marietta Yannakou, Minister of Education
Ministry of Education
Mitropoleos 15
Athens 10185 Greece
Fax: +30-2103239386

Honourable Minister Yannakou,

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) are deeply concerned about the placement of Romani pupils in segregated classes in Aspropyrgos following an initial refusal of enrolment and highly inadequate responses by Greek authorities.

According to information from the non-governmental organization Greek Helsinki Monitor(GHM, an IHF member), Romani residents of the informal Psari Romani settlement in Aspropyrgos have, since 2004, been trying to enrol their children in the local 10th and 11th primary schools without success, as Greek government officials have been aware of the non-enrolment of children from the settlement in school. As Miss Chrysoula Saini, a 12-year-old resident of the settlement, stated during an interview broadcast on September 19, 2005, by Greece's Alpha TV, "I go to school and they turn me away; they tell me ‘you are poor, go away.'"

According to GHM, as far back as 2002, government officials have been aware of this problem. In June 2004, representatives of the Ministry of Health visited the Roma settlement, where they noted that the Romani children did not have access to primary education and that nobody had taken any action in order to register those children to the local primary schools. Indeed, during a later meeting with GHM representatives, Ms Despotopoulou of the Ministry of Health stated she had officially notified the competent authorities within the Ministry of Education of the large number of school-age Romani children in the area not attending school. During an August 2, 2004 meeting with representatives of ERRC and GHM, Deputy Minister of Education Mr Spyros Taliadouros committed to cooperate with both the ERRC and GHM in order to ensure that the Romani children of the Psari Romani settlement have access to primary school.

In the fall of 2004, GHM reportedly attempted to have the children enrolled in school and was in frequent contact with Ministry of Education officials on the issue. The Romani parents attempted to enrol their children in the local schools but the schools' headmasters stated that they would not enrol the children because they had not received any instructions from the Ministry and that when a decision was made they would be informed. At that time, according to GHM, non-Romani parents began to protest the presence of Roma in "their" school. Since that time, the Romani parents have not been invited to the schools to enrol their children and GHM has been informed by the schools that they had received no instructions to enrol the children.

On behalf of the affected Roma, in the fall of 2004, GHM also addressed 3 separate complaints to the Greek Ombudsman, requesting the Ombudsman's Children Rights Department's ex officio intervention and contribution to enable the enrolment of the Romani children in the nearest primary schools. Only in January 2005 did the Ombudsman's Office respond, stating a finding of no general or unjustified refusal to the Romani children's request to have access to school and of no intention to exclude Roma children from education. The Ombudsman also referred to tensions between the Romani and non-Romani groups in the area and noted a decision to create an "annex of the school close to the settlement," because the school itself could not host more than 20 additional children. The annex was to be for "older Romani children" to prepare them for integration into normal classes –Romani children attending school for the first time would be enrolled in the mainstream classes.

Following the Ombudsman's decision, GHM once again contacted the headmasters of the 10th and 11th primary schools and was told that it was still not possible to enrol the children. On February 13, 2005, the Coordinated Organizations and Communities for Roma Human Rights in Greece (SOKADRE), sent a letter to the Directorate of Primary Education of Western Attica, which responded on February 17 that the case had been delayed due to the failure of the Ministry of Environment and Public Affairs to reply to a request to make the plot of land available for the annex but that, the day earlier, it had received orally a negative answer from the Ministry. The Directorate promised to try harder to secure the necessary land for the 2006/2007 school year.

On May 24, 2005, SOKADRE wrote to the Deputy Minister of National Education and other competent authorities reminding them of the need to secure access to school for the forthcoming year for all Roma children. In early June, SOKADRE received copies of two letters dated May 25 sent by the regional directorate of education to competent authorities asking them to secure access to school to all Romani children to ensure that "the new school year must without fail find these children attending school," and asking public health authorities to contribute. In another letter copied to SOKADRE dated July 1, the competent educational authorities informed the Romani parents using very ineffective means, publishing announcements in the local media to which Roma have no access since they are illiterate and have no electric power. Announcements were also posted at the school where the Romani parents do not typically go requesting that they attend during morning hours between June 1 and June 22 to enrol their children. Registered letters allegedly sent to the Roma were never received. However, SOKADRE successfully arranged, with the help of Ministry of Education officials, the enrolment of 23 pupils in the nearby schools. This clearly indicates that it would have been possible for these children to have been enrolled and have attended school the previous school year, i.e. 2004-2005.

In July 2005, SOKADRE also reportedly received a copy of a June 21 letter of the two school headmasters to their superior, in which they wrote:
 

"These [Romani] children […] live in an area which they have occupied illegally, a place for depositing garbage, without electricity and without water. As a consequence of these wretched living conditions, the children have skin conditions such as scabies, mycetomas, etc. and many other illnesses, such as hepatitis and also diseases passed on to them by rat bites, etc. […] We would also like to report the vigorous reactions of the Parents' and Guardians' Association and remind you that between Pontics and Gypsies there is a vendetta, which a short while ago led, in the [Romani] settlement of Nea Zoi Aspropyrgos to the loss of one human [Romani] life. As we should not underestimate small as well as big signs and reactions that are omens of what will happen at the beginning of the new school year 2005-2006 in September, a commonly acceptable solution needs to be found by the competent authorities."

According to GHM, the relevant authorities did not answer the letter and did not take any precautionary measures on September 12, the first day of school. The Alpha TV broadcast noted above showed images of non-Romani parents protesting outside the school on September 12, shouting at the Romani parents, "No child of yours will enter our school […]. You are not going to enter the school. I will bring 500,000 people; you will not enter here, and that's that." As a result, many Romani parents withdrew their children while all others were deterred from enrolling their children as they waited for the outcome of the situation. The schools' headmasters decided to schedule the Romani children's preparatory class after all other classes had finished but the non-Romani parents, still not satisfied, published a protest on September 14, boycotted the school and forced the Romani children out of the school. On October 7th, SOKADRE requested police protection which was provided from October 10. As a result, parents started threatening the SOKADRE volunteers and further boycotted the school. On October 12, a sign was posted stating, "The school will remain closed for the problem of the Gypsies; Wednesday 12/10/05; Parents and Guardians Association."

On October 12, GHM sent letters appealing to the chief prosecutor and the Deputy Minister of Education, the Minister of Public Order, the Minister of Health and other authorities to provide protection to the Romani children and the NGO activists and to sanction the perpetrators of illegal and racist actions. No response was received, according to GHM. An Alpha TV broadcast of October 13 revealed the presence of a token police force that day which did not act while non-Romani parents barred Romani children from entering the school, insulting and pushing them together with GHM activist Theodoros Alexandridis. Moreover, the president of the parents' association showed on camera the private medical files of the Romani children, allegedly pointing to inadequate vaccination, which she had evidently acquired through possibly questionable methods from the school authorities. As the Hellenic Data Protection Authority observed in its Decision 17/2003, such information constitutes "sensitive data" and should be kept strictly confidential by school doctors. After this, GHM called the Hellenic Police requesting that additional forces be sent and arrests be made. According to GHM, additional police arrived on the scene about an hour later and the Romani children entered the school. Mr Alexandridis then went to the police station to file charges against the non-Romani parents where he was illegally delayed and detained until the president of the parents' association was persuaded by the regional police chief to file counter-charges against him.

At the 10th primary school on October 25, teachers reportedly presented the Romani parents with a declaration stating that they wanted their children moved from the regular school to the annex which is located far from both the 10th-11th Primary schools and the Romani settlement. It is noted that the competent Ministry of Education officials do not appear to have considered other alternatives to securing the Romani children's access to school (such as for example transporting them to other schools in the area, a method employed in the Aghia Sophia Romani settlement in Thessaloniki) but opted for the creation of a school annex.

Ministry of Education officials, the Mayor of Aspropyrgos, the non-Romani parents' union and some Romani leaders then exerted pressure on the parents to "voluntarily" sign the declaration, which they did, feeling they had no option. GHM reported that, beginning on October 31, the Romani children attended the segregated annex and non-Romani parents finally concluded their boycott. Local non-Roma also began pressing for the eviction of the Romani community in its entirety, protesting on November 8 for "a solution now on the illegal settlement of the athiganoi [a pejorative term for Roma] and the ensuing problems." After visiting the community and the school, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights associate Markus Jaeger stated on December 4, 2005 to the weekly magazine "Epsilon": "The very fact of having a separate school for Roma is a concept that the Commissioner opposes in all countries where such practice exists. He is adamant on the fact that there should be no segregation between children, which, of course, does not exclude additional education efforts to be made for Roma and other under-privileged children, so as to help them be in pace with the standards of the other pupils." In any case, it is noted that the responsible authorities have not proceeded to ascertain how many other Romani schoolchildren live in the settlement and ensure that they also attend school.

The ERRC and IHF are further disturbed by information indicating that this may not be an isolated incident. According to GHM research, the Kalohori (Thessaloniki) 1st Primary School refused to enrol five Romani children; the Sofades 1st Kindergarten refused to enrol one Romani child and the Halandri (Greater Athens) schools refused to enrol thirty Romani children.

Honourable Minister Yannakou, the ERRC and IHF are of the view that the denial of access to regular classes at the 10th and 11th primary schools of Romani children and their subsequent placement in the so-called "annex" is a result of racial discrimination by the schools concerned, the pervasive anti-Romani sentiment among the local non-Romani community, and ultimately the unwillingness of Greek authorities, local and national alike, to address this situation adequately. Moreover, ERRC and IHF would draw your attention to the fact that in any case, the Romani schoolchildren that currently attend the school annex, will in the future have to be integrated into mainstream schools, since under Greek law attendance in special classes should not be of more than one or two years duration.

We remind you that Article 16 of the Greek Constitution renders primary education compulsory for everyone, stating, "Education constitutes a basic mission for the State…The number of years of compulsory education shall be no less than nine." Further, according to Directive Φ4/350/Γ1/1028/22 of August 1995, circulated by the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs to all competent authorities of primary education,

"There should be cooperation between Romani families, the headmasters of the primary schools and the school counsellors, in order for Romani children living in camps to be registered and to attend courses of kindergarten and primary school …the headmasters should not only encourage Roma children's access to primary school, but they should furthermore seek out Romani children in their district and take care of their registration and attendance of the courses as well."

The ERRC and IHF also believe that half a century following the seminal ruling of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v Board of Education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place in Greece, a long-standing member of the European Union and the Council of Europe. To this effect, it should be noted that on June 22, 2005, a Bulgarian Court, namely the Sofia District Court, I Civil Division, II Compartment, 41 Jury issued a decision in which it held that the fact that Romani schoolchildren were forced to attend a Roma-only primary school amounted to discrimination and that their right to equal and integrated education was being violated. Nor do the ERRC and IHF believe that the Ministry of Education should appear to be yielding to alleged "pressure" from nominal Romani leaders who, for a variety of reasons, call for the establishment of separate schools, as the Ministry of Education press release of September 19, 2005 and consequent statements to the press by Ministry officials appear to suggest.

Denial of access to education, as well as racial segregation and/or racial discrimination in the field of education contravenes a number of provisions of international law, including but not limited to provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, at Article 3 (freedom from degrading treatment), Article 2 of Protocol 1 (right to education), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

Honourable Minister Yannakou, in view of the foregoing, the ERRC and IHF respectfully urge you to take all measures within your competence to remedy, without delay, the situation in the 10th and 11th primary schools in Aspropyrgos and indeed throughout the country. The ERRC and IHF kindly request to be informed of your decisions and actions in this regard.

Sincerely,

Dimitrina Petrova
Executive Director
ERRC

Aaron Rhodes
Executive Director
IHF

CC:
Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles
Commissioner for Human Rights
Council of Europe
F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex
France
Fax: 33 (0) 3 90 21 50 53

Mr Aristidis Sandis
Permanent Representative
Permanent Mission of Greece to the OSCE
Wohllebengasse 9/12
1040 Vienna
Austria
Fax: +43-1 503 39 24

Mr Panayote Dimitras
Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM)
Minority Rights Group – Greece (MRG-G)
P.0. Box 60820, GR-15304 Glyka Nera
Greece
Fax: (+30) 210 601 87 60

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