Why are Romani children denied access to education in France?

11 October 2016

By Radost Zaharieva

Education is a fundamental right according to article 14 from the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union. Access to quality education is essential for successful participation in society, and it is a crucial element for Roma communities to combat the social exclusion they face, and to improve their economic situation. Access to education for Roma communities is also vital if they are to access their social, economic and cultural rights, such as access to housing, health care and employment.

According to the observation report published in 2014 by the Collectif national des droits de l’homme Romeurope the number of Roma school-age children living in slums, squats or in the streets in France is estimated at 8,000-12,000 (p.100). Almost the half of the Roma children were out of school as showed the ERRC survey conducted in 2014. In terms of adult employment, only 1 out of 10 Roma in France aged between 20 and 64 is reported to be in paid work according to the FRA survey published in 2012 compared to 64.2 % of the French population. The gap in living conditions between Roma and non-Roma is huge, and has a direct bearing on access and opportunities to education.

There is a prevalent and profoundly erroneous notion that poor educational outcomes among Romani children and youth is directly linked to Roma culture, attitudes or lifestyle. The reality is far different, and the reasons for the tremendous gaps in educational outcomes and employment opportunities are far from such prejudiced misconceptions.

However, while numerous international documents guarantee the right to education and declare it to be a fundamental right, it remains a challenge for Romani children living in slums and squats in France.  According to the ERRC survey conducted in 2014 in six capital slums located in Seine-Saint-Denis, Marseille and Lille, less than half of the Romani children living in informal settlements go to school in France.

In most of cases (60%), their right to education is deliberately blocked by the refusal of mayors to enrol children in school (ERRC, 2014). The research also showed that Roma migrants from other EU Member States are exposed to high levels of discrimination leading to violations of their basic rights. This is especially apparent when it comes to the rights of the child. Neither has the situation has improved at all in the last two years, as is evident from the recent research conducted in 2016 by the Collectif pour le droit des enfants roms à l’éducation.

No specific measures have been taken at local or national level to improve access to education for Romani children and teenagers living in poor areas such as slums or squats. As a consequence Romani children continue to be denied access to education, and even more discriminatory practices are becoming evident.

The research conducted by Collectif pour le droit des enfants roms à l’éducation covering the period from November 2015 to July 2016 in 34 informal settlements, showed that on average more than 50% of the Roma teenagers are out of school compared to only 7% of the French population between 12 and 18 years old. This rate can be significantly higher, as is the case of Lyon where more than 60% of Roma children do not attend school. It is striking that some of pupils have never been even enrolled in school. These facts are alarming when the impact on these children’s life chances a taken into consideration, and extremely alarming in the absence of any political will to ameliorate the situation.

France ratified number of international and European documents applicable in domestic law and legally binding for the state, to guarantee the human rights of the population living in its territory. Thus, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by France, ensures the right to education, regardless of the origin of the child (art.2). On the national level, education is defined as “first national priority” according to art. 111-1 of the French Education Code. Art. L131-1 of the same code stipulates that education is compulsory for all children of both sexes, French and foreigners, between the ages of 6 and 16. The circular of n° 2014-088 of 9-7-2014 adds that “education is a right for all children living within the national territory, regardless their nationality, migration status or their background.”

Despite all international and national safeguards, in several cases reported in the media, municipalities refused to enrol Romani children in schools during the past year. Five Romani children were denied access to education because of the mayor’s refusal to enrol them in school in Sucy-en-Brie, a municipality located in Île-de-France region. The case was taken to the domestic Court as example of racial discrimination against Romani children but the mayor was acquitted in first instance.

Another Romani family living in a slum in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône referred to the Court to defend the right to education of their child, who could not go to school because the mayor, a former minister, refused to enrol the child in school

Often refusals are based on the lack of certificate proving that the family live in that municipality. This is difficult for Roma to provide as they live in informal settlements. In another case, Roma pupils were granted access to education only after the intervention of the French Ombudsman (Défenseur des droits) who was alerted about the refusal of a mayor to enrol them in school. He highlighted the importance of school enrolment for the integration of Roma children, some of whom were born in France.

Thus Roma face a double bind: social inclusion is predicated upon passing through the French education system, but their social status makes enrolling in these schools profoundly difficult, at times impossible. Their situation is worsened by discrimination and evictions forcing the families to move, separating many children from the schools they are attending.

Currently there is no information on how many children drop out from school as a direct consequence of evictions, due to lack of official data in the field. Without any official data it is difficult to have a national overview regarding access and achievements of Roma in education, or to assess the impact of any measures adopted to improve access to education and training for this community.

Mayors in France have the responsibility to survey the number of the school-age children, but it seems this survey fails to include Romani children living in slums or squats, as the occupation of these areas is considered illegal. So, despite living in France for several years, Roma have simply been ignored by the authorities when it comes to meeting their obligations to children.

Many questions surface when we try to make sense of this situation. One concerns the future of these young Roma without any diploma, without any professional certificate allowing them to find a job. What quality of life could they have in France? How can these children even access education when forced evictions push their families from one slum to another? Will their future be a vicious circle of poverty, exclusion and discrimination? It is likely because their present is one where as children they face overt discrimination when their parents try to enrol them in school hoping to give them a better life. How can Roma achieve the educational qualifications needed to participate in social and political life if they are denied the fundamental human right of access to primary school?

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