Bittersweet 10th anniversary of European Court ruling on segregation of Romani school children

17 11 17

By Bernard Rorke in Budapest

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Czech Republic had violated the rights of Romani children by placing them in sub-standard ‘special schools’. This judgment, DH and others vs. the Czech Republic, was a landmark ruling, but 10 years on Romani children are still segregated in schools across Europe. It’s time to call a halt to Europe’s ‘undeclared apartheid’.

Last week, a class photograph of first graders in a school in the Czech town of Teplice last week prompted a torrent of death threats and hateful comments on social media, directed at the children who were mostly of Arab, Vietnamese or Romani origin.

To compound this atrocious response, newly-elected Czech MP and pedagogue Tereza Hyťhová told a reporter that as she comes from Teplice, she ‘understands’ the people who would threaten to murder little children, “because today the social system is set up so that welfare is being abused exactly by such people who do not go to work and who do not even properly attend school.”

The Czech President Miloš Zeman, marked the tenth anniversary with a racist broadside rejecting the idea of affirmative action, attacking the “havoc created” by former human rights ministers, and declared that 90% of the country’s “inadaptable citizens” are Romani and just 10 % are “white slobs”.

The cautious inclusive education reforms introduced by the previous government have been cast in jeopardy by the recent Czech general election, which saw the Social Democrats routed, Andrej Babiš and his right populist ANO party emerge as victors, and the likes of Tereza Hyťhová take her seat in parliament.

Ten years after this historical judgment that ruled wrongful diagnosis and placement of Romani children in special schools was discriminatory and illegal, the practice remains widespread. School segregation remains so pervasive in Central Europe that the European Commission was prompted to launch infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia for systemic breaches of the Race Equality Directive (RED).

The path from judgments to justice has proven to be tortuous and the pace of change remains painfully slow. In a region beset by democratic backsliding, weak governance and pervasive antigypsyism, DH seems in retrospect at best a bittersweet victory.

Slovakia: separate and profoundly unequal

In Slovakia, the ERRC and Amnesty International reported that segregation, “fuelled by unacknowledged prejudice, remains widespread in mainstream education”; and found no evidence that state authorities are making any serious attempts to facilitate the enrolment of Romani children in mixed mainstream schools. Many teachers were uninhibited in their prejudices.

One teacher told researchers that she would never send her own children to the school where she works, because of the high number of Romani children: “Did you see the children from Ostrovany? How they speak? How they smell? No wonder the non-Roma don’t want to be with them… It’s a little zoo.”

Hungary: failing to “undo a history of racial segregation”

Back in 2005, the ERRC reported to the European Commission that in Hungary the “recent legal and policy amendments aiming to combat racial segregation in schooling” were “among the most far-reaching and innovative policies on Roma anywhere in Europe.” Ten years on, Hungary’s school system had become one of the most unequal and segregated in Europe.

A national commitment to school desegregation back in 2005 came to be usurped and displaced since 2010 by a cynical right-wing policy of ‘separate but equal’ style segregation, re-packaged as ‘social catching up’, complete with exemptions to allow religious-run schools to segregate children based on ethnicity.

In the 2013 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary, the Court insisted that the state has a substantive positive obligation to  “undo a history of racial segregation”. The ruling Fidesz government, reactionary and recalcitrant in so many things, remained determined to restore and revive rather than undo the habits of racial segregation. In May 2016, the European Commission, after years of warnings, finally reacted and took action against Hungary.

 DH and others: what difference does it make?

The fact that DH and subsequent judgments did not lead to prompt root-and- branch reform and desegregation of the educational systems, is of course a source of deep disappointment, but should never be a cause for despair. Many have asked what was the point? Why bother with litigation if these judgments do not deliver justice?

ERRC has been directly involved in all of this strategic litigation, and 10 years on we say yes – it has been worthwhile, it will remain worthwhile, and we will continue to pursue racists and segregators through the courts seeking justice for Roma. The DH judgment and the subsequent court rulings against Hungary and Croatia for school segregation finally ended all debates about the legality of segregating Romani kids. The racist status quo that had prevailed became indefensible – even the segregators know that what they were doing is wrong.

Over the last decade many Romani parents and organizations have mobilized to demand equal access to quality mainstream education for their children, their demands have been echoed by UN agencies, EU bodies and international organisations which regularly condemn school segregation. Many more children are succeeding in school thanks to the work done by the Roma Education Fund (REF) and its partners, but despite this segregation persists, and tens of thousands of Romani children are still denied equal access to quality integrated education.

This tenth anniversary should serve as a call to action with a renewed sense of urgency. For with the passing of every year, new groups of Romani children are enrolled into systems structured to fail them; systems structured to deny them equal opportunities in a manner that will blight their life chances forever.

Segregation is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Romani communities’ most precious assets – the intellectual capacities of future generations.

Schools should play a crucial role in creating a common and shared sense of belonging for all children. Enlightened and integrated education sensitizes children to the reality of difference, cultivates tolerance, curiosity and mutual respect. By contrast, segregated education – in addition to denying Roma children equal opportunities – fosters ignorance and reproduces prejudices among majority children. It high time to call time on Europe’s undeclared apartheid, to call out those who would separate and divide, and high time to recognize that we are all better together.





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