Europes Walls for Gypsies

26 October 1999

On Saturday, October 23, the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Europe's Walls for Gypsies". The editorial was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune on Monday, October 25. This is the text of the editorial.

Ten days ago, the Czech town of Usti nad Labem managed to symbolize both of Europe's 20th-century pathologies -- Communism and Nazism -- when it erected a six-foot-high concrete wall to separate a Gypsy neighborhood from one of ethnic Czechs. The wall, called a "law and order" measure by the town's mayor, has been condemned by the Czech Republic's government and Parliament, and by President Vaclav Havel. But it still stands, and is very popular in Usti nad Labem.

The wall is a sign of both the increasing problems faced by Gypsies, or Roma, as they call themselves, and the halfhearted efforts of the former Communist countries to solve them. The most recent tragedy took place in Kosovo, where Gypsies lost a war they did not even fight. Virtually all the region's 100,000 Gypsies have been driven out of their homes and hundreds have been killed -- by Serbs during the war and by ethnic Albanians afterward.

The fall of Communism has not been kind to the east bloc's five million Gypsies. As the work force has lost its guaranteed employment, Gypsies have been among the first fired. Newly permitted nationalism has brought to the surface widespread prejudice against Gypsies and given rise to dozens of racial killings and attacks, which are often treated lightly by police.

One of the least visible but most basic problems for Gypsies in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary is that they are disproportionately shunted into special schools for the mentally retarded. According to the Czech government, half of Gypsy children go to these schools, and Czech Gypsy leaders say the figure is 70 percent.

Children in these schools are even more walled-off than the Gypsies of Usti nad Labem. They cannot acquire a high school education or the skills for good jobs. The label of "retarded" discourages employers from hiring Gypsies even for unskilled work. Their status as unemployable outsiders contributes to the Gypsies' high rates of crime. The special schools, in use for decades, have also insured that new generations are raised in families with little education.

Last June, 12 Gypsy families in the Czech city of Ostrava sued the Ostrava school board and the country's constitutional court to try to stop the practice. They were aided by the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, which is financed in part by George Soros.

Children are supposed to be put in special schools only after extensive tests and with parental consent. But a study by the Roma Rights Center found that some are transferred from regular schools because teachers consider them disruptive, and others are considered retarded due to linguistic problems. Many Gypsy children do not speak Czech at home, or use a dialect of Czech.

Gypsy parents are often intimidated and not informed that such transfers are nearly always permanent, the Roma Rights Center argues. Some readily agree to send their children to the heavily Gypsy special schools because the children are targets of bullying in regular schools.

When Social Democrats took over the Czech government last year, they acknowledged the problem of special schools. They have begun some programs to give Gypsy children extra attention in regular schools. But more energy is needed to solve a hidden problem that dooms Gypsy children to a lifetime of disadvantage and discrimination.


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