Conference: "The Desegregation of the "Romani Schools" in Bulgaria đ a Condition for an Equal Start of Roma"

Joint press release of the Open Society Institute, European Roma Rights Center, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and the Human Rights Project

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov stated in his opening address at the conference "The Desegregation of the "Romani Schools" in Bulgaria ­ a Condition for an Equal Start of Roma": "I fully endorse the idea of desegregation of Romani schools in Bulgaria and congratulate the successful Vidin desegregation project, which is a first step in a process to which the Bulgarian government is committed". On September 15, 2000, about 300 Romani children from the Nov Pat Romani neighbourhood of Vidin started the school year by being bussed to one of the six mixed regular schools in the town. This initiative was a major challenge to the pattern of continued educational segregation of Romani children in Bulgaria, by offering the Romani children an opportunity to integrate in the mainstream educational system. The conference opened with a documentary about the integration of pupils from one Romani school in the Romani neighbourhood in the town of Vidin, Bulgaria, that was initiated through the efforts of the Vidin-based Romani non-governmental organisation "Drom" and was supported by the Open Society Institute.

The conference was held on April 27, 2001 in Sofia and was co-organised by the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program, the European Roma Rights Center, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and Human Rights Project. This first major debate on the prospects of equal educational opportunities for Roma through integrated schooling, convened Romani educational experts and activists, governmental officials, diplomats, representatives of the World Bank, as well as international and domestic human rights organisations.

A broad consensus over the need to desegregate the "Romani schools" in Bulgaria was reached among Romani organisations, educational experts, and human rights activists, already in October 1998, when about 70 Romani organisations proposed to the government of Bulgaria the Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society, which envisages a long-term strategy of school desegregation . The Framework Program was adopted by a decision of the Bulgarian government on April 22, 1999. However, no action towards the desegregation of the Romani schools has been undertaken to date by the authorities.

Rumyan Russinov, Director of the Roma Participation Program of the OSI stated that the success of the desegregation initiative in Vidin had demonstrated that Roma want to integrate in the schooling system of the majority. The desegregation project in Vidin should become a model for a nationwide drive towards eliminating the segregation of Romani schools, said he, and urged Bulgarian authorities to start immediate action in this direction. Deborah Harding, Vice President of OSI, spoke of the high social cost of maintaining a dual school system whose graduates are semi-literate and have no productive future. She stressed integrated schooling is in the interest of society as a whole, not just of the minority and that international donors would be interested in helping Bulgaria to desegregate its educational system. The accession of Bulgaria to the European Union is a priority in the country's foreign policy and the integration of Roma is high on our agenda in this context, was the view of Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova. Dimitrina Petrova, Director of the European Roma Rights Center, emphasised that segregated education of Roma, as it currently exists, constitutes a violation of the constitutional right to non-discrimination and that Bulgarian government has an obligation to provide remedy. Directive 2000/43 of the Council of the European Union "on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin" obliges Bulgaria as an accession country to enact legislation which outlaws not only direct discrimination but also the indirect discrimination. Minister Alexander Pramatarski, Chair of the National Council for Ethnic and Demographic Issues, described the current work of the Bulgarian government on a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, which is expected to meet EU standards.

Participants agreed that the existence of the substandard all-Romani schools in Bulgaria is arguably a case of indirect discrimination because the inferior quality of education in the all-Romani schools, which are being tolerated by the Bulgarian authorities, put Romani children at a particular disadvantage compared to their peers attending the mixed regular schools. A lively discussion between officials of the Educational Ministry, other institutions, and Romani experts and activists ended in a confirmed joint commitment to desegregation despite anticipated obstacles.

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