Dismantling School Segregation in Bitola, Macedonia

By Senada Sali

This year we mark ten years since the landmark ECHR judgement in D. H. and Others vs. the Czech Republic, and although a European court confirmed that racial segregation equals discrimination: segregation and barriers in equal access to education of Roma are still a serious problem in Europe. Schools are places that should represent the second home of every child, places that are meant to be safe, diverse but at the same time open and inclusive for everyone. Unfortunately for many Roma, schools often represent places of risk, mistreatment, double-standards and isolation.


(Image: STEM Academy Bitola)

In March this year, together with two ERRC colleagues, I visited Bitola, a city in the southwestern part of the Republic of Macedonia, my home country. You should remember the name of this city – Bitola. Not because it is Macedonia’s second city, the so-called “City of The Consuls" where many European countries have their consulates.  You should remember it because it is, I believe, the single most racist city in the country. The city where the ERRC has filed an unusually high number of cases to national and European courts relating to lack of access to water, forced evictions, denying entrance to swimming pools, freedom of movement, and most recently - school segregation.

The aim of our visit to Bitola was to confirm the findings of ongoing research on the “Segregation of Romani children in elementary schools in the Republic of Macedonia”, and decide our next steps in consultation with the Roma community and concerned parents. The recent research is a result of joint cooperation between the Institute for Human Rights, Skopje (IHR) [JL2] and the ERRC. The purpose being to analyze access to primary education for Romani children in five municipalities in Macedonia, and determine whether there are discriminatory practices and/or segregation of Romani pupils in primary schools in those municipalities. Based on initial findings, and our previous suspicions about schools where there are discriminatory practices which might have already escalated to segregation of Romani children, we chose five schools as target schools in our work, where we conducted a more in-depth research. This was focused on those primary schools which were identified as more problematic, but information was gathered from other schools located in the five municipalities also. The causes of segregation of Romani children within primary schools in the targeted municipalities, according to the report vary; sometimes it exists as a result of antigypsyism and overall stereotypes about Roma in society, and in other places as a consequence of systematic segregation. The school we identified in Bitola fell into the latter category.


(Image Ramiz Rustemov: Racist Graffiti calling for ‘death to Gypsies’ appeared on 19 January at ‘Georgi Sugarev’ Elementary School)

According to our research, a majority of the Romani children in Bitola are enrolled in one primary school- "Gjorgi Sugarev". This school has a total number of 604 students, of which 474 are Romani, making the school population 80% Romani. A drastic decline in the enrolment of non-Romani first graders in this school was initially noted since September 2011. The data for the last two school years clearly shows a pattern of segregation of Romani students. As a result, in the school year 2015/2016 only 8 non-Romani pupils were enrolled in this school. Subsequently, in the school year 2016/17 the issue has escalated. Whilst at the beginning on the school year there were 5 non-Romani pupils enrolled in this school, their parents have since decided to withdraw them. Therefore, this school year the primary school “Gjorgi Sugarev” has 100% Romani first graders.

Although, 80% of the students in this school are Roma, they do not have a single Roma teacher employed in the school and no facultative Roma language is being thought, on the grounds that: “Roma in Bitola do not speak Romani language and for them Macedonian is their mother tongue. From the facultative classes they mainly choose dances” – as reported by PS Gjorgi Sugrev.

The numbers further demonstrate the seriousness of the problem if we compare them with the situation in the nearest primary school in the area, "Todor Angeleski". In "Todor Angeleski" currently there are a total of 952 students of which only 10 are Romani. 

For sure you are asking yourself at this point: what is the reason for the disproportionate number of Romani pupils in these schools?

  • According to a regionalization decision by Bitola municipality, almost all of the children living in "Bair" -a settlement with a majority Romani population, have to be enrolled in PS "Gjorgi Sugarev". Even though there is another primary school very near to the settlement, “Todor Angeleski”, which is only a 5 minute walk away from PS "Gjorgi Sugarev". Additionally, as previously mentioned, PS “Todor Angeleski” has only 10 Romani pupils enrolled in total since 2011. Moreover, during this school year 2016/2017, the same school enrolled 119 students out of which 118 were non-Romani.
     
  • Non-Romani families living in the catchment area of PS "Gjorgi Sugarev" often chose to not obey the regionalization decision and instead parents used the legal possibility provided in Article 50 paragraph 2 of the Law on Primary Education to freely choose the primary school for their children. They opted to enroll their children in PS “Todor Angeleski” in order to prevent their mixing with Romani children enrolled in PS "Gjorgi Sugarev". Both the school and the law allow them that. They don’t want their children to mix with the ‘cigani’ children (children of gypsies), or study in the ‘cigansko shkolo’ (gypsy school).
     
  • Schools have failed to properly implement the regionalization decision, or rather they have selectively implemented the regionalization decision depending on the ethnic background (Roma or non-Roma) of the parent requesting the enrollment. A clear example of this is PS “Todor Angeleski”, which for years accepted enrollment requests from non-Romani parents but rejected such requests made by Romani parents using the regionalization decision as a pretext to why Romani parents are obliged to enroll their children only in PS "Gjorgi Sugarev".

The ERRC met with Romani parents whose children are currently enrolled in PS Gjorgi Sugrev and we talked with them about possible solutions to the problem. Being sincere, as a lawyer myself, my main goal is to encourage Roma to sue, to go to court and fight for their rights, loud and clear. However, at the same time as a Romani person myself, I am very aware of the lack of trust, skepticism and genuine fear of repercussions felt amongst members of my community. Thus, our team approach was to visit the community and hear directly from the parents and their children their ideal solution for this situation would be. Thanks to our local partner NGO Bairska Svetlina, that actively works with the Romani community in Bitola and is based in the very center of  the Bair settlement, we managed to organise a successful meeting with the parents and come to a joint agreement to file a discrimination lawsuit before the Macedonian civil courts. As expected, some of the parents were afraid of repercussions and thus they did not want to sign our powers of attorney, although they all agreed that the situation needs to be solved as soon as possible for the benefit of the current, and future generations. All parents present at the meeting agreed on one pivotal point: PS “Gjorgi Sugarev” should once again be a mixed school where both Roma and non-Roma study together and learn from each other. They mentioned that this was the case about ten years ago, when the school was not segregated but on the contrary, was inclusive for everyone and produced some of the most talented students in the city, among them a Romani girl who was a champion in mathematics. We left Bitola with lot of positive thoughts and immense motivation for our legal work.

Finally, after several months of gathering additional evidence, consultations and subsequent meetings with the community and institutions, last week we officially completed and filed a complaint before Skopje’s civil court. The legal basis of the complaint is Article 44 of the Constitution of Republic of Macedonia, Article 2 paragraph 1 and 2 of the Law on Primary Education as well as international binding treaties and regulations signed and ratified by the country, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Roma Integration Strategy 2014-2020.

Education is a vital weapon in the fight to achieve full participation and equality for Roma. But integration is a two-way street, and non-Romani children also stand to benefit from a non-segregated classroom, where the difference of every pupil is appreciated and considered an advantage rather than a weakness. This especially important in multicultural societies such as Macedonia. Our recent case in Bitola is the first of its kind to be brought before Macedonian courts, and thus, I believe that a positive legal outcome will contribute to re-affirming the values and benefits of an integrated education. Because both Roma and non-Roma children deserve that.

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