#BetterTogether: Europe must finally call time on school segregation

15 November 2017

By Bernard Rorke

Last week a class photograph of first graders from the Czech town of Teplice prompted a torrent of death threats and hateful comments on social media, directed at the children who were mostly of Arab, Vietnamese or Romani origin.

Newly-elected Czech MP and pedagogue Tereza Hyťhová was moved to declare that as she comes from Teplice, she ‘understands’ the people who would threaten to murder little children, “because today the social system is set up so that welfare is being abused exactly by such people who do not go to work and who do not even properly attend school."

10 years after DH vs the Czech Republic

This outrage came ten years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against racial discrimination in education in the Czech Republic. Cautious inclusive education reforms introduced by the previous government have been jeopardised by the recent Czech general election, which saw the Social Democrats routed; Andrej Babiš and his right populist ANO party emerge as victors; and the likes of Tereza Hyťhová take her seat in parliament.

Ten years after this historical judgment that ruled wrongful diagnosis and placement of Romani children in special schools was discriminatory and illegal, these pernicious practices remain widespread. School segregation remains so pervasive in Central Europe that the European Commission was prompted to launch infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia for systemic breaches of the Race Equality Directive (RED). 

The path from judgments to justice has proven so be so tortuous and the pace of change so slow, in a region beset by democratic backsliding and pervasive antigypsyism, that in retrospect for many, DH seems like a bittersweet victory.  

Slovakia: separate, racist and profoundly unequal

A full decade after DH, the ERRC and Amnesty International’s joint report on  neighbouring Slovakia concluded that segregation, “fuelled by unacknowledged prejudice, remains widespread in mainstream education”; and found that state authorities had made no serious attempts to facilitate the enrolment of Romani children in mixed mainstream schools.

In fact, researchers came across more plans to build new schools right next to Romani settlements. The common argument in Slovakia is that this makes education more accessible. This kind of access comes with an unacceptable cost. As we have long maintained, separate provision isolates Romani children from their peers, keeps them apart from the wider society, and exacerbates inequalities. The reality is that separate can never be equal.

Researchers interviewed teachers at special schools in Slovakia, who echoed the government line on ‘inbreeding’ and the high incidence of disabilities among Romani children, and stated that yet “another problem is that they (Roma) procreate among themselves, incest happens very often.” In mainstream schools, teaching staff had no hesitation dismissing any talk of institutional discrimination, and then launching into full-on anti-Roma prejudice. One teacher told researchers that she would never send her own children to the school where she works, because of the high number of Romani children: “Did you see the children from Ostrovany? How they speak? How they smell? No wonder the non-Roma don’t want to be with them… It’s a little zoo.”

Hungary: failing to “undo a history of racial segregation”

Back in 2005, the ERRC reported to the European Commission that in Hungary the “recent legal and policy amendments aiming to combat racial segregation in schooling” were “among the most far-reaching and innovative policies on Roma anywhere in Europe.” Ten years on, the verdict from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HLCU) was damning: “Hungary’s system of education is one of the most segregated, unable to close the achievement gap due to wide differences in student’s family, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.”

So what happened in the interim? What went so profoundly wrong to dash the promise of progress, equity and inclusion for Roma in education? A national commitment to school desegregation back in 2005 came to be usurped and displaced since 2010 by a cynical right-wing policy of ‘separate but equal’ style segregation, re-packaged as ‘social catching up’, complete with exemptions to allow religious-run schools to segregate children based on ethnicity.

In the 2013 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary, the Court insisted that the state has a substantive positive obligation to  “undo a history of racial segregation”. The ruling Fidesz government, reactionary and recalcitrant in so many things, remained determined to restore and revive rather than undo the habits of racial segregation. In 2015, the European Commission once again called for an end to school segregation, noted that Hungary had a higher percentage of marginalized Romani children in segregated classes (45%) than Bulgaria (29%), the Czech Republic (33%), and Romania (26%); and declared that it intended to use all means at its disposal to fight against discrimination, including infringement proceedings. The Commission followed through, and by May 2016 initiated action against Hungary.

DH and others: what difference does it make?

The fact that DH and subsequent judgments did not lead to desegregation of the educational systems is a source of deep disappointment, but it should never be a cause for despair. Many have asked what was the point? Why bother with litigation if these judgments do not deliver justice? ERRC has been directly involved in all of this strategic litigation, and we reply in the affirmative – yes it has been worthwhile, will remain worthwhile, and we will continue to pursue racists and segregators through the courts seeking justice for Roma.

A study by the Open Society Justice Initiative sought to answer these questions and came to the following conclusions: These judgments ended all the discussion on the lawfulness of Roma segregation; the judicial proclamation that the status quo was impermissible under the law, and the court’s refusal to legitimize the existing or prior state of affairs, helped set conditions to create a new and just status quo. Even the segregators know what they are doing is not just wrong but unlawful.

DH judgments and those that followed “moved the Court closer to a substantive model of equality, accorded Roma special protection under the law, and heralded a willingness to extend protection beyond the individual applicants to entire communities.” Additionally, the report found that Roma education judgments strengthened and revolutionized the ECHR’s treatment of indirect discrimination, statistical evidence, and countries’ positive obligations to ensure non-discrimination.

Over the last decade many Romani parents and organizations have mobilized to demand equal access to quality mainstream education for their children, and their demands have been echoed by UN agencies, EU bodies and international organisations.

Since 2005, the Roma Education Fund (REF) has provided support to thousands of children and young people in education, from pre-school to post-graduate studies; REF has built sustainable partnerships with school authorities, civil society, and parents; and produced a significant volume of evidence-based policy research about what it takes to do the right thing. REF interventions have shown that change is possible, and REF partnerships have shown how to nurture the political will and consensus needed to deliver quality inclusive education to Roma children.

However, to have a systemic impact across Europe, such interventions would need to be scaled up one-hundred-fold. And this tenth anniversary should serve as a call to action, with a renewed sense of urgency. For with the passing of every year, new groups of Romani children are enrolled into systems structured to fail them; systems structured to deny them equal opportunities in a manner that will blight their life chances forever.

End this undeclared apartheid because we are all #BetterTogether

Segregation is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Romani communities’ most precious assets - the intellectual capacities of future generations.

Schools should play a crucial role in creating a common and shared sense of belonging for all children. Enlightened and integrated education prepares children for life in a multicultural society. It sensitizes children to the reality of difference, cultivates tolerance, openness, curiosity and mutual respect. By contrast, segregated education - in addition to denying Roma children equal opportunities - fosters ignorance and reproduces prejudices among majority children. It’s high time to call time on Europe’s undeclared apartheid, to call out those who would separate and divide our children, and high time to recognize that we are all #BetterTogether.


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