Separate & Unequal

Roma Children Face Segregation In EU Schools

Roma schoolchildren in the EU are more likely to be mislabeled as 'special-needs' and funneled into schools that handicap their futures.


In Europe today, walls are going up everywhere to keep the Roma, also known as ‘gypsies’, firmly shut out. Some of these are made of bricks and mortar, like the so-called ‘Anti-Roma Wall’ in Košice, the European City of Culture of 2013, which made headlines last year for separating Roma settlements from neighboring ‘white’ communities. Others, like attempts to construct barriers limiting free movement of labor within the EU, are less tangible but equally worrying, especially in a continent where 1,500,000 Roma are estimated to have been murdered during the Holocaust.

European leaders everywhere speak ominously of the ‘Roma Problem’ and how to limit migration of a community deemed by an increasingly hostile public to have criminal tendencies. Following a controversial deportation of a Roma schoolgirl in France last October, Manuel Valls, the country’s socialist Interior Minister, said "The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.” He has previously said the Roma represent a “clear confrontation” with the French way of life and should “go home.”

Often, segregation is blamed on the Roma themselves, whom many accuse of not wanting to integrate due to a “nomadic culture.” However, an insidious form of segregation, happening within the educational system, belies this simplistic view.

Slovakia is a case in point. According to Amnesty International, 40 percent of Roma children there go to segregated schools. The Center for Civil and Human Rights, a Slovakian NGO, found that between 65-80 percent of students in reduced-curriculum schools for children with learning disabilities are Roma. Given that Roma are estimated to constitute around eight percent of the Slovakian population, this is a huge overrepresentation—and one that does not happen accidentally.

The way that Roma children are funneled out of regular schools and into so-called “special schools” happens through controversial diagnostic tests, which are recommended when teachers think students are facing learning difficulties. Often, the reasons for being recommended for testing are arbitrary.

“I know a [Roma] child who washed his hands two times during class and the teacher didn’t like that. She suggested he was hyperactive and that he cannot sit still in class. He was then transferred to a special school,” recalls Judit Szira, a former school teacher from Hungary and the Executive Director of the Roma Education Fund, an organization that works to close the educational gap between Roma and non-Roma.

Szira also criticized the tests for being unfairly designed. “They ask questions which use words the [Roma] child has never experienced. One child was asked ‘Where does your mother buy bread’, and they replied in the corner store. Then they were told that the proper answer was the bakery. But in many Roma settlements they don’t have bakeries,” she explained. More importantly, these diagnostic tests also fail to take into consideration the language abilities of Roma children, many of whom speak Romanes better than Slovakian.

Although children cannot be transferred without parental permission, the validity of their consent is contestable. “Some parents are not aware of the difference between special schools and mainstream schools. They do not know that, in a special school, children cannot reach university. Never. They can never do a master degree. You might learn to read and write if you have a good teacher, but you cannot access university and parents often don’t have this information,” says Štefan Ivanco, of Slovakia’s Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Given how devastating segregation is, how is it going to be effectively dismantled?

Some believe that the courts hold the key. Professor Jack Greenberg, a professor at Columbia Law School and a lawyer who argued Brown vs The Board of Education, has been working on the issue with Roma leaders in Eastern Europe since 2003. “The Roma are pursuing a strategy of litigation, thereby taking a leaf out of American Civil Rights movement,” he told The Daily Beast.

However, this approach is not yielding significant results. Back in 1999, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Czech Republic was guilty of segregating Roma school children. It should have been a landmark ruling that marked the end of this terrible practice, but it was not. In a paper published in the Columbia Law Review, Greenberg argued that courts repeatedly “fail to find enforce effective remedies against the offending schools. Therefore, apart from slight acquiescence to the rulings by some schools and school districts, the legal gains have not been translated into tangible victories for the Roma.”

Indeed, only last year, more than a decade since D.H and others vs The Czech Republic, a regional court in neighboring Slovakia found a school in Šarišské Michaľany guilty of segregation. Even there, groups like Amnesty warn that nothing is being done to address the problem nationally. “This has not been the priority for any of the Slovak governments […] It has always been a side issue,” says Barbora Cernusakova, a Researcher at Amnesty International.

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This raises the point that deep, structural changes to society cannot happen through the judiciary alone. What is required is the involvement of Roma civil society. The problem is, it barely exists.

“The one thing the Roma are not doing is a civil rights movement. There’s no signs of that,” says Greenberg. “The black civil rights movement had the black church, the NACCP, the black labor unions. The Roma don’t have any of that,” he added.

Greenberg points out that wherever Roma have seen success, it is due to the involvement of a few, well-funded civil society groups. “There has been some integration in Bulgaria, not because they were sued but because of civil society organizations,” Greenberg explains.

It is therefore extremely worrying that the European Roma Grassroots Organization (ERGO) has warned repeatedly of the imminent “collapse” of Roma civil society. Others, like the prominent Roma activist Valeriu Nicholae, speak of its “rapid dissolution.” What is happening?

Much of the answer has to do with the European Union. After EU accession, the donor landscape for watchdogs and activist groups fundamentally changed for countries in Eastern Europe. Many international donors pulled out, as it was understood that the European Union would now be pumping money into nascent Roma NGOs. “Around 90 percent of Bulgarian Roma NGOs vanished after that” recalls Deyan Kolev, the chairman of Amalipe, one of the largest Roma NGOs in Bulgaria. They were never replaced.

Other Roma NGOs and watchdogs, trying to access European Union funds, have either been bankrupted after receiving them, owing to complex payment structures, or turned into mere “implementors” of the EU Roma projects. All this has led ERGO to describe the situation as “toxic.”

Pressure is mounting for the Roma community to mobilize. "Roma must get out of this situation, not only waiting for the government, for the mayor or for the district administration. Roma communities must help themselves get out of this difficult situation!" said EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, who oversees Roma integration, in an address to Roma leaders last July. It seems unclear how they will do so, unless something significant changes in the way Roma NGOs are funded.

“I think that nothing will happen until the Roma themselves will demand it,” Greenberg agreed with a sigh. “I don’t know how they can do that.”