European Court of Human Rights Fails to Find Discrimination in Education against Roma in Croatia

18 July 2008

18 July 2008, Budapest, Zagreb: In a setback for Roma rights, the European Court of Human Rights yesterday ruled that Croatia's segregation of Roma children in separate classes does not breach European human rights standards.

The judgment in the case of Oršuš and Others v. Croatia held that the applicants – 14 Romani children attending primary school – were not subjected to discrimination in access to education. As a result, the Court found no violation of Article 3 (prohibition against inhuman and degrading treatment) or Article 2, Protocol 1 (right to education) of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), in connection with Article 14 (non-discrimination), or of Article 13 (effective domestic remedy). The Court found that the government of Croatia had violated Article 6(1) of the ECHR (right to due process and fair trial) as the proceedings before the Constitutional Court in Croatia lasted more than four years. The application was filed by the European Roma Rights Centre, in partnership with the Croatian Helsinki Committee and Croatian attorney Lovorka Kusan.

The applicants, born between 1988 and 1994, had in the past and at the time of the submission to the European Court still attended, segregated Roma-only classes in what are otherwise mainstream primary schools in the Croatian villages of Macinec, Podturen and Orehovica in the Međimurje County. In December 2004, the applicants turned to the European Court claiming that their placement in the Roma-only classes stemmed from a blatant practice of discrimination based on their ethnicity by the schools concerned, reinforced by pervasive anti-Romani sentiment of the local non-Romani community. The applicants further claimed that the school curriculum in the Roma-only classes was significantly reduced in scope and volume as compared to the officially prescribed teaching plan, which resulted in lower quality education. As a result of their segregation, the applicants suffered severe educational, psychological and emotional harm, damage to their future educational and employment opportunities, as well as stigmatization.

The evidence presented to the European Court, based on data provided by the Međimurje County Office of Education, Culture, Information, Sport and Technical Culture, indicated that in school year 2000/2001 all primary schools in the County had a total of 4 577 pupils of whom 865 or 18% were Romani. Even though Romani pupils comprised only a small number of the total primary school population at the county level, an overwhelming number of them - 59.07% - ended up in the segregated classes for the Roma only. In school year 2001/2002, based on official government statistics, in the primary schools in Macinec and Kuršanec as many as 83.33% and 88.49% of all Romani students respectively continued attending separate classes for the Roma only.

Savelina Danova, Acting Director of the ERRC, said, "It is a regrettable fact that the Strasbourg Court missed a crucial opportunity to reaffirm that racial segregation of Roma in schools throughout Europe will no longer be tolerated."

Ivo Banac, President of the CHC, stated, "Now that Croatia has adopted an anti-discrimination law banning segregation, we call on the Croatian government to ensure that this ban is enforced with respect to the education of Romani children in Međimurje County."

The Court ruled there was not "sufficient evidence that there existed a prevalent prejudice … to attain the level of suffering necessary to fall within the ambit of Article 3 of the Convention" notwithstanding documentation of the psychological impact of segregation on the applicants, and statistical evidence showing the significantly lower chances of finishing primary school of Roma pupils as compared to their non-Roma peers.

The Court also rejected the applicants claim' of discriminatory treatment in violation of Article 14, on the grounds that "in the present case the difference in treatment was based on adequacy of language skills" and that the practice of separating Romani children "allowed for a change from a separate class to a regular class without formalities". The applicants maintained that their language deficiency was never substantaited, moreover segregation can never be an appropriate response to language deficiency.

In its description of the facts of the case in the judgment, the Court did not reflect evidence about key facts pointing to the racist motives underlying the segregation of the Romani children, including:

  • The fact that the applicants had no knowledge of their Croatian language ability being tested upon enrolment as there was no formal decision or other documentation communicated to them in this regard at that time; the claim that the separation was necessary due to the applicants' poor command of the Croatian language was introduced by the Government only when the case had been filed before the domestic courts; all of the applicants received good grades in Croatian language in the course of their studies;
  • Widely publicised anti-Romani protests by non-Romani parents in 2002 and 2003 which resulted in the abandonment of official plans by the then Ministry of Education and Sports to move the Romani children into mainstream classes;
  • The victimisation of the applicants throughout the entire process of the case, which resulted in many of the plaintiffs refusing to be involved in proceedings at the European level and one of the applicants dropping out of the case before the ECHR;
  • Evidence of harassment of the Croatian Deputy Ombudsman who condemned the practice of school segregation in the Međimurje County; the retraction in the course of the domestic proceedings of the 2000 Croatian Ombudsman report which confirmed the school segregation of Romani children in the Međimurje County and which had already been adopted by the Croatian Parliament; and
  • Numerous reports from 2001 forward regarding the continuing existence of school segregation of Romani children in Croatia by international institutions and nongovernmental orgganisations, including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Council of Europe European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the European Commission, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), the US State Department, Amnesty International (AI), and the Roma Education Fund (REF).

Speaking on the occasion of the judgment, Viktoria Mohacsi, Member of the European Parliament and ERRC Board Member, stated: "I feel sorry as a member of the Romani community witnessing the political sphere in Europe. This judgment reveals that, even in the European Court of Human Rights, evidence presented by Roma regarding anti-Romani motivations is not taken seriously. Nowhere in this judgment did the court deal with clear evidence of anti-Romani protests by non-Romani parents as well as the continuous victimization of persons involved in this case. I question the level of proof required of Roma to establish discrimination cases before officials."

The full text of the Court's judgment is available here.

For further information or interviews, please contact:

  • Lovorka Kušan, attorney, +385.98.387.350
  • Anita Danka, ERRC Staff Attorney, +36.1.413.2200
  • Viktoria Mohacsi, MEP and ERRC Board Member, +36.30.740.9514




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