Segregation in Hungary: The Long Road to Infringement

30 May 2016

By Bernard Rorke

The Hungarian government’s reaction to the European Commission launching an infringement procedure veered between feigned bafflement and a petulant accusation that the EU was ‘getting revenge’ because Hungary earlier contested the EU decision on mandatory refugee quotas.

The government politicians’ dissimilation fooled nobody, because racial segregation in schools has got to be Hungary’s worst kept secret. Furthermore, these politicians are fully aware of the struggle waged for over a decade by the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) against this pernicious form of discrimination.

Since it was founded in 2004, CFCF has doggedly pursued the authorities through the courts, and been hugely successful in winning judgements against the segregators. However, securing justice has proven to be more elusive. 

János Lázár, the Minister heading Prime Minister Orbán’s Office, described the procedure as “absurd”, and claimed that despite the efforts of the Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog to clarify the situation in person in Brussels last week, they still “do not understand what the European Commission’s specific problem is.”

So, lest there be any doubt, let’s spell out just what the “specific problem is.”

In its June 2015 Communication on the implementation of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, the European Commission called for an end to school segregation and noted that Hungary counts 45% of Romani children being placed in segregated schools or classes, one of the highest percentages among EU member states.

Examples [BR2] of discrimination and segregation of Romani children in Hungarian schools include misdiagnosis and disproportionate placement of Romani children in special schools; and segregation in Roma-only schools, including religious-run schools.

Misdiagnosis and disproportionate placement in special schools

Despite the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary in 2013, and the Court’s insistence that the state has a substantive positive obligation to “undo a history of racial segregation”, the government of Hungary has failed to properly address the issue of misdiagnosis and placement of highly disproportionate numbers of Romani children in special schools.

In its official response to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, the Hungarian Government repeated its denial that the channelling of Romani children into special schools is a result of ethnic discrimination, but insisted that it was the inevitable consequence of poverty among Roma.

The Committee of Ministers, in their December 2015 recommendations, once again called on the Hungarian authorities to collect and submit disaggregated data and strongly urged them “to pursue their efforts with a view to implementing an inclusive education policy and to provide specific information on the impact of this policy, in particular as regards the reduction of the high proportion of Roma children in special schools.”

The government has not provided data first requested following the ECHR judgment by the Committee of Ministers on the impact of new diagnostic procedures on Romani students. The ERRC together with the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) reported their concerns in a Rule 9 submission to the Committee of Ministers in 2015 based on evidence gathered for an ongoing court case in Heves County. The evidence showed that, despite government assurances, culturally biased diagnostic protocols are still in use nationwide, and there is no effective supervision or monitoring of expert panels.

Segregated schools

Since control of education and schools was nationalised under the authority of the Klebelsberg School Maintainer Centre (KLIK) in 2013 there have been no attempts to address school segregation, and there are eight pending segregation lawsuits. KLIK has taken no action to settle out of court, or to end segregation. In one court case on 17 February 2014, KLIK declared that it has no duty to promote integration in a proactive manner, or to monitor segregation in schools.

Since 2011 the Hungarian Supreme Court (Curia) ruled in five cases that Romani children were unlawfully segregated. A further two municipalities have been convicted by the Equal Treatment Authority for segregation of Romani children in education. However, the courts have not ordered any of the schools to desegregate: no effective remedy has been provided to end segregation.

In April 2015, in the Nyíregyháza segregation case, the Curia overturned an earlier judgment and exempted the Greek Catholic Church from anti-discrimination provisions in law, and allowed the Church to re-open and run a segregated Roma-only school. The decision by the Curia meant that all domestic remedies to counter this form of school segregation have been exhausted.

The European Commission’s ‘specific problem’ is …

It is unclear why Minister Balog had to go to Brussels to understand “what the specific problem is,” for it was the Minister himself who intervened in the Nyíregyháza case following the first court decision to close the segregated school; and it is Balog who has championed the notion of ‘benevolent segregation’ in his efforts to reinstate the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.

Balog declared that the court decision “only boosted my battle morale […] to keep the school open as this is really in the children’s interest.” He introduced an amendment to circumvent legal verdicts by exempting some schools from the requirements of the Equal Opportunities Act. This modification of the law was described as a disgrace by opposition MP Tímea Szabó who declared that Balog’s idea of “benevolent segregation” was contrary to both the statutes of Hungary and the European Union.

The amendment would prove unnecessary following the judgment by the Curia, which effectively declared segregation of Roma pupils legal in religious-run schools, and was memorably described by CFCF board member Gábor Daróczi as “apartheid under the aegis of religious freedom.” 

Balog’s interventions in support of the Greek Catholic Church made it abundantly clear that the authorities have no intention to promote integrated schooling. On the contrary, it is clear that the government intends to facilitate an expansion of religious-run Roma-only schools, which entrench segregationist educational policies, contrary to Hungary’s international and regional human rights obligations.

Evidence, research, and court judgments over the past few decades show that there is nothing incidental or accidental about the practices that perpetuate segregation and inequality. Denying Hungarian Romani children equal access to integrated quality education is deliberate, knowing and systemic. The “specific problem” is one of deeply embedded institutional racism, buttressed and legitimized by popular prejudice. The launch of infringement proceedings against Hungary is a belated, but nonetheless welcome recognition of this reality. Where it will take us, nobody knows…


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