Bürgerrechtsbewegung der Sinti und Roma


The history of school desegregation for Roma

Margareta Matache und Simona Barbu


A prevailing reality across Europe, school segregation removes any chance of further education and educational accomplishments from the Romani children who attend such institutions. The quality of education in segregated schools and classes is far lower than that in mainstream schools.1 Whilst Romani children are prevented from accessing opportunities to build reliable networks and acquire social capital. Moreover, the rights and dignity of Romani children are harmed, as whatever the various justifications used for segregating Romani children, the crux of the matter is a deeply embedded notion of Roma inferiority and non-Romani superiority or gadjo-ness.

Over the past few decades, Romani organizations (for example, Drom in Bulgaria, CFCF in Hungary, or Romani CRISS in Romania) and activists (such as Rumyan Russinov, from Human Rights Project in Bulgaria, Viktória Mohácsi from CFCF in Hungary, Osman Osmani from Iniciativa 6, in Prizren, Kosovo and many others) have persistently advocated for changes in policy, practice, and legislation to end school segregation, with the support of various allies (the Open Society Foundations Justice Initiatve, OSI Roma Initiaves Office, European Roma Rights Centre, Greek Helsinki Monitor, Amnesty International and others). Romani families and their children have joined in these efforts (as did Denise Holubova and seventeen others, to pursue the case of DH & Others vs. the Czech Republic) and have raised their voices to demand their right to equal, inclusive education.

Desegregation tactics employed by both Roma and pro-Roma organizations and groups, including busing and establishing local networks of human rights monitors, have proved to be creative and efficient in the short run, but unsustainable and not sufficient in the longer-term. Moreover, in national courts and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the discriminatory nature of the segregation of Romani children, in so-called ‘special’ schools, ‘practical’ schools or in Roma-only classes and schools, has been made clear. Such decisions have improved legislation and policy-making, but had far less impact on segregationist practices, despite the infringement proceedings by the European Commission against the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. One out of every ten Romani children on average is still placed in a special school or class that is mainly for Roma.2

Accounts of School Segregation in Europe

Around the world, policy measures driven by theories of eugenics and pseudo-scientific notions of ‘race’ and class, have led to children from particular groups being removed from their parents’ care and placed in state and church boarding schools and institutions. Segregation in schooling began as the separation of children with disabilities from others, children from poorer backgrounds from those from wealthier origins and children from one ethnic group from those of the ethnic majority, particularly in colonial education systems. In the case of the latter, among the groups that have suffered are the Inuit Kalaallit and Yupik peoples3, and First Nation peoples of Canada4, the Koori5 people of Australia, and the Romani and Traveller peoples.

“You must begin with children, and not meddle with the old stock, on whom no efforts will have effect...”

Efforts to ‘civilize’ and assimilate Roma, by European states’ governments, have often been translated into merely teaching Romani children some basic reading and writing skills, in hopes of ‘freeing them’ from “...the fetters of old customs and vices.”6 The Empress Maria Theresa (1740 to 1780) of the Hapsburg Empire7, for instance, stated that “You must begin with children, and not meddle with the old stock, on whom no efforts will have effect...”.8

However, throughout Europe, efforts at assimilation through education have not even sought to provide Romani children with the kind of inclusive, quality education that “...became an essential pre-requisite ... [in the later 20th century] ... for the development of a knowledge society ... From the pupils’ perspective, the development of higher quality standards passed through the expansion of language acquisition schemes and the integration of special educational needs programmes into the mainstream (or “regular”) classes.”9 On the contrary, policy-makers and practitioners have been adhering to an unceasing belief in Romani intellectual incapacity and white, majority superiority, through the relegation of Romani children to inferior educational provision, in the form of school segregation.

Few researchers have studied how the Roma have been treated in European schools prior to the 20th century, but some of the earlier scholars of ‘Gypsy’ lives and culture do point out instances of Romani children being separated and discriminated against in the school environment. Hoyland (1816) mentions an experiment conducted by the British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion.10 Two schools were established “...in the neighborhood of the metropolis...”. One of them was described as a “...focus where the most abandoned characters constantly assembled for every species of brutal and licentious disorder...”, whilst the other was “...a district inhabited by persons of the worst description...”.11 There is also a description of access to school being denied to Romani children, “Trinity Cooper, a daughter of this Gypsy family, who was about thirteen years of age, applied to be instructed at the school; but, in consequence of the obloquy affixed to that description of persons, she was repeatedly refused...”.12 Additionally, there are also illustrations in Berkovici, of Romani children being bullied or discriminated against, with the caption, “...neither teacher nor schoolmate ever forgets to put the Gypsy in his place by reminding him of the fact that he is a Pharon [i.e., Egyptian, of the people of Pharoah]...”.13

Though the evidence is scarce, it is clear that in some parts of Europe, Roma children have been systematically segregated from formal, mass education, for almost a century. From 1927, the government of (then) Czechoslovakia, placed Romani children into ‘special schools’,14 a practice that continues into the present, in both the Czech and Slovak Republics. In an apparent ideological paradox, during the communist period in the countries of Central Europe (including Hungary and Bulgaria)15, the separation of Roma children in the school environment was actively promoted, despite an assimilationist approach to social class. Furthermore, regardless of the European Union’s robust legal framework of anti-discrimination measures, both transitional and well-established democracies continue to practice school segregation.16 Segregation of Roma children has also been documented in Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, and the Russian Federation,17 all members of the Council of Europe and signatories to a number of framework conventions protecting national and ethnic minorities.

In some countries (Slovakia, Czech Republic), the justification for school segregation has been considerably refined from the older, and now scientifically discredited, argument about racial inferiority. Non-Roma stakeholders, such as the professional associations of special needs educators in the Czech Republic,18 have continued to promote the segregationist agenda in these countries.19 Various school representatives and policymakers have taken up the mantra of addressing national language difficulties: in Croatia, Romani children who are not considered proficient enough in Croatian are placed into Roma-only classes.20 Furthermore, school administrators in Romania, Greece, and Croatia, arguing that they need to avoid “white flight” or address the pressure conveyed by non-Romani parents, have established Roma-only classes or school buildings.21 In other cases, intra-school segregation has been implemented by placing Roma children in classrooms on different floors of the school, and within-class segregation ,22 where Roma children are placed at the back of the class.

In related phenomena, so-called “ghetto schools” have emerged, through illicit practices, such as persuading Romani parents to enroll their children in Roma-only schools in the city or locality, or rejecting applications from Roma children to attend mainstream schools at the time of registration. Such schools are also the outcome of residential segregation,23 with Roma often forcibly relocated to excluded, out-of-town settlements. Indeed, deliberate residential concentration24 in Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, as a result of urban redevelopment or zoning, usually results in Roma-only schools being located near Roma neighborhoods (mahalle or mahalla), or communities. Moreover, authorities often point to this situation to justify school segregation, which essentially combines with poor infrastructure, few resources for learning, low-quality education, and high teacher absenteeism.

In other countries, Romani children have continued to be regarded as inferior, through the use of culturally biased and scientifically doubtful diagnostic tools (such as WISC III, WISC IV, and Woodcock Johnson), and consequently ‘labeled’ with a mental disability or having special needs and placed in special or remedial schools. Based on an incorrect diagnosis of Romani children as having ‘light mental retardation’, in the Czech Republic, between 50% to 70%25 of these children have been segregated into ‘practical’ schools with an inferior curriculum and extremely poor educational outcomes, that will not give them an opportunity to advance to higher education or employment.

Frequently, Romani parents are persuaded to enroll their children in Roma-only schools and classes, or ‘special’ schools. Many have experienced discrimination, humiliation, and bullying by non-Roma teachers and peers, and fear this in mainstream environments.26 Those who live in segregated residential areas tend to be reluctant to send their children to schools that are farther away, for a number of reasons including fears about their children’s safety and the cost of transportation.

Segregation is rarely the outcome of neutral policies that produce indirect discrimination, as underlined in some of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Rather, it results when education ministries and administrations, school managers, special educators, teachers, and non-Roma parents and peers, reject Romani children attending the same schools and classes as other children.

According to the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) research27, segregation in mainstream education affects between 33% and 58% of Romani children in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Greece. Moreover, on average one Roma child out of every ten has “...attended a special school or class that was mainly for Roma, even if only for a short period...”.28

Courts at national and European levels have also confirmed this data, with decisions agreeing that various forms of segregation in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia29 are in place. After visiting the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania in 2003, 2007, and 2008, Professor Jack Greenberg concluded,

“[The]... segregation of Roma throughout Eastern Europe is widespread. In some places there was no segregation, but elsewhere there were all-Roma and non-Roma schools; in others there were separate rooms or parts of rooms for Roma children. Nearly everywhere, there was reluctance to act against any form of this endemic discrimination...”30

With the negative impact that segregation has on a Romani child’s development, education and future prospects, the racism and the prejudice behind generate a sense of inferiority and humiliation, which remains with these children and young people through their adult lives. As the European Roma Rights Center concludes, segregation “...is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Romani communities’ most precious ... [of] assets – the intellectual capacities of future generations...”.31

The School Desegregation Movement

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the judgements of Oliver Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and others (1954)32, Roma civil society organizations and their allies’ fight against segregation has been conducted through strategic litigation, educational research, anti-racist teacher training, developing models of intercultural, critical and inclusive education, and implementing Roma community-based projects, to advocate for desegregation. However, unlike the American experience, the Roma movement has not relied heavily on community mobilization, protest, and mass action.33 A wide range of tactics have been used by the Roma NGOs and their allies to challenge segregation, but strategic litigation and pilot school projects have been common across countries. Civil society NGOs have combined different tactics to promote desegregation, whilst a core tactic of busing, in some countries, became prominent in these efforts during the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Busing as a core tactic: the Bulgarian case

A number of Bulgarian academics, activists, and organizations played an early and leading role in advancing a desegregation discourse and policy agenda, and in 1992, the Bulgarian government was the first in Europe to prohibit school segregation for Roma children34, seen as a legacy of the Communist regime.35 In 1994, Dimitrina Petrova, Elena Marushiakova, and Vesselin Popov exposed the continuing persistence of segregation practiced in Bulgarian schools, in the newsletter, Promoting Human Rights and Civil Society.36

“People told us that Romani children would complete primary school in the segregated schools and [yet] be unable to read and write their names.”

From 1995, these studies and the direct experience of Roma communities, led Rumyan Russinov to acknowledge the phenomenon, and insist segregation be included on the agenda of meetings with Bulgarian authorities.37 “People told us that Romani children would complete primary school in the segregated schools and [yet]... be unable to read and write their names...”.38 This testimony informed the advocacy Russinov undertook, working with the Human Rights Project (HRP), to advance desegregation as a priority within the Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma, a policy document the HRP drafted that the Bulgarian government approved in 1999.39 The Framework... included measures for desegregation and the “...elimination of the practice of sending ordinary Roma children to ‘special’ schools”.40

Bulgarian Roma activists also pioneered the implementation of the Vidin Project (2000), the first desegregation project in the region.41 It was initiated in Bulgaria by Donka Panayotova, chairperson of the organization DROM, supported by Rumyan Russinov, and the Open Society Institute in Sofia. The Vidin desegregation model intended to put into practice governmental policies to stop segregation, relying upon international pressure, as well as the local resources of the Roma community.42

Building upon the Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma, the project started by bussing more than 400 Roma children from the segregated Roma neighborhood in Vidin to mainstream schools.43 Over the first year, over 95% of the Romani children who were involved in desegregation processes in Bulgaria, continued to the next stage of education.44 The project expanded to more than 70% of the Romani children in Vidin, and nationally to around 2,000 Roma children across Bulgaria.45 During the school year 2009 to 2010, DROM bussed another 400 Roma children to mainstream schools, to guarantee the desegregation process in the community.46 Following the Vidin model, eleven other Bulgarian localities had integrated over 4,000 Roma children in mainstream schools47, by 2010.

The implementation of the Vidin project needed enormous effort, in campaigning and advocacy. The Open Society Institute and the Roma Education Fund both played significant financial and supporting roles, with the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom also supporting the program. At the EU level, the European Parliament called on national governments to eliminate the segregated education of Roma. The European Commission has recognized the Vidin model of school desegregation, as an example of ‘good practice’.

On 27th April 2001, the President of Bulgaria, Petar Stoyanov, acknowledged the project’s success and spoke out against the segregation of Roma children in education,

“We cannot say that these issues concern only a small group of Bulgarian citizens, the Bulgarian Roma. On the contrary, these problems affect the whole of Bulgarian society ...a democratic society must not even contemplate, either unintentionally or intentionally, to segregate a part of its citizens. This is simply based on the principle of humanity”.48

Several other policy measures and financial support followed as a result of the Vidin Project.

The Romanian Network of Local Human Rights Monitors

In 2002, the Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies (Romani CRISS), established a Network of Local Human Rights (HR) Monitors, made up of both individuals and local NGOs, to help identify and document human rights violations all over Romania. Robert Vaszi, a local HR monitor representing the Equal Chances Association, brought to the organization’s attention the separation and discrimination of Romani children in schools in his county, in 2003.49 He particularly identified the case of Cehei School, in Salaj. Romani CRISS vs. Salaj School Inspectorate and Cehei School eventually became the landmark case of segregation documented in Romania.50 In 2003, Romani CRISS brought a complaint before the Romanian Equality Body, informing the Ministry of Education and other relevant institutions about the case. The Equality Body upheld the complaint against Cehei School, warning it not to discriminate indirectly against Romani children in the future.

The case led to the first documented issuing of a Ministry of Education Notification51, that forbid the separation of children within schools, based on ethnic criteria. However, the Notification failed to produce major changes, as it had no legislative power to sanction schools or teachers that contravened it. Romani CRISS was aware of the lack of impact; therefore, over 2005-06, it worked consistently to document other cases and bring them before the courts and the Equality Body.52 The Network of Local HR Monitors played a crucial role in identifying and documenting further instances of segregation and contributing to the overall advocacy of Romani CRISS on this specific issue.

Moreover, Romani CRISS organized a series of roundtables and debates with representatives of civil society and of institutions responsible for education, adding to its legal efforts. As part of this process, Romani CRISS began to lead an informal group of NGOs53 and international organizations to work consistently with the Ministry of Education, developing a legal instrument more effective than the Notification, during 2006. Formalized in February 2007, with a Memorandum of Cooperation, this document would ensure that Roma children and youth in Romania, had access to quality education by implementing school desegregation. The process also promoted the strengthening of Roma children’s identity, through education. The 2007 Memorandum was signed by the Ministry of Education, Research and Youth, the OSCE ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues, and a working group of NGOs, including Romani CRISS, who had initiated the whole process.

Following this consultation process, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Youth adopted Order no. 1540/ 19.07.2007, banning the segregation of Roma children in schools and approving measures to prevent and eliminate the practice. The Ministry also passed complementary orders, promoting cultural diversity in the national school curricula, and establishing school mediation.54

One year after this desegregation Order 1540 was approved, Romani CRISS published the report, Monitoring the Application of Measures against School Segregation in Romania, analyzing implementation in 134 schools across ten counties in Romania. The report showed that the ‘Desegregation Order’ was not applied in 63% of the total number of schools in the sample; further, the teachers, principals, and even entire school staffs in many schools were not aware of the document. The report also demonstrated that for most segregated schools, the isolation of Roma communities was not the cause of segregation.55

In 2011, Romani CRISS with other NGOs convinced Parliament to amend the new Education Law, including several articles that forbade misdiagnosis and the practice of placing Roma children in ‘special’ (segregated) schools, based on their race, ethnicity, or other criteria.

Litigation in the Hungarian National Courts

In 1997, the Foundation for Romani Civil Rights brought the first case challenging the segregation of Roma children in schools to court, in Central and Eastern Europe.56 The case involved fourteen young Romani people who had filed a complaint against the Ferenc Pethe Primary School, in Tiszavasvári, in Hungary.57 According to Goldston and Ivanov,

“Roma had not been permitted to enter the cafeteria or gymnasium in the main building. Separate records were maintained for Romani classes, marked “C” for “Cigány”“Gypsy” in Hungarian”.58

The Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities, the City Court of Nyíregyháza, the County Court of Nyíregyháza, and the Hungarian Supreme Court all decided in favor of the Romani plaintiffs. Furthermore, building on this case in 1999, an investigation by the Ministry of Education and the Ombudsman demonstrated that segregation was widespread in Hungary.59

In 2002, Viktória Mohácsi was appointed as Commissioner for Education, for the Ministry of Education in Hungary. She was committed to thoroughly dismantling the segregated school environments.

The Ministry implemented a school integration program aimed at eliminating the segregation of Roma children.60 The program provided financial help to schools that would then be obliged to integrate Romani children into mainstream classrooms. The National Educational Integration Network also provided teachers with progressive methodologies, community outreach, and additional academic support so that they could achieve desegregation in their schools and classrooms. During the time Mohácsi worked for the Ministry of Education, legislation was also passed by Parliament to support children from different social and cultural backgrounds, so they could access quality, inclusive education. Furthermore, Decree OM 57/2002 (XI.18) stated that Romani students with special educational needs, who were enrolled in separate “catch-up classes”, could participate in the integration program as part of mainstream schooling.

Subsequently, the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), a Roma NGO founded by Viktória Mohácsi, developed further initiatives in Hungary to fight against the segregation of Roma children in mainstream schools. Strategic litigation was clearly seen a crucial tool, as the CFCF actively identified and documented some important segregation cases61, securing other landmark decisions at the national and European courts. A notable example, pursued with the support of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC)62 was the 2008 Supreme Court decision that ruled against the Hajdúhadház Education Authority and two primary schools, who had discriminated against 500 Roma children, unlawfully enrolling them in separate classes and school buildings.63 A 2013 ECtHR decision, the case of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary64, has led to “...the review of the diagnostic testing system for the placement of children in remedial schools, and to a decrease in the number of children diagnosed with special needs.”65

The CFCF has also implemented various community-based actions to further its primary goal of desegregating Romani students and combined these with active public relations work, as it became essential to communicate the positive results of desegregation and the successful protection of children’s rights. Through the project, Are you sitting with me?, (external link) the CFCF has combined several tactics — volunteer recruitment, community empowerment, fieldwork and advocacy skills — all to serve the aim of reducing school segregation.

Litigation in European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg

With the assistance of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and other international organizations, various groups and institutions have demanded justice for Romani children before the European Court of Human Rights. Beginning with the 2007 strategic case, D.H. and Others vs. the Czech Republic.66

The Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic, the fight against segregation began to take shape in the early 1990s, although the debates began during the communist period.

“At the very beginning they didn’t speak about segregation, this word was not used. They spoke about the issue of children classified as having mental disabilities, but this issue was not presented as segregation at the time...”67

In 1999, eighteen Romani children and their families submitted a request to the Ostrava Education Authority to be removed from the ‘special schools’.

The local authority rejected their demand, as did the Czech Constitutional Appeal Court, and the Constitutional Court. On 18th April 2000, having exhausted all the national court procedures, the eighteen Czech Roma children from Ostrava submitted a complaint to the ECtHR, claiming they were wrongfully placed in schools for children with special needs. The applicants were represented by the ERRC Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, James A. Goldston of the OSF Justice Initiative (OSFJI), and David Strupek, a Czech lawyer. The lawyers argued that the segregation amounted to an act of discrimination.68

The D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic judgement was a breakthrough regarding the segregation of Roma children into the so-called ‘special schools’. The ECtHR’s Grand Chamber ruled in favor of the Roma applicants and decided that placing Roma children in special schools constitutes a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms, and constituted “a pattern of racial discrimination” in the Czech public primary schools.69 This judgment also represented a key milestone, because the court accepted statistics as evidence, demonstrating discrepancies in the treatment of two groups in similar situations. This was the first time that the ECtHR recognized segregation as discrimination, and drew attention to the pervasive character of the phenomenon across Europe, in the case of the Roma.70

Croatia: the case of Oršuš & Others vs. Croatia

In Croatia, litigation around the issue of segregation in schools started in 2002. Importantly, this was not led by NGOs, but by community leaders in Medjimurje County. Having already established a relationship with the Croatian Helsinki Committee (CHC), these leaders approached the organization to help them fight this practice in court. As a result, in 2002, fifteen Croatian Roma and the CHC filed a complaint against a group of primary school head teachers, the County of Medjimurje, and the Croatian Ministry of Education.71

The applicants initiated national proceedings in 2002, filing an action with the Čakovec Municipal Court against the schools, but the court dismissed it, and the further appeal. In December 2002, the applicants took their case to the Constitutional Court. Though they sought a judgement by November 2003, the Court did not respond until 2007; it rejected their claim and deemed it “...without reasonable justification”.72

However, late in 2003, the CHC joined forces with the ERRC, the OSFJI, and the Croatian lawyer, Lovorka Kušan, to address the ECtHR. They represented the fifteen Croatian Roma students, who argued they had been placed in separate classes made up only of Roma pupils, and “...had been denied the right to education, and discriminated against in the enjoyment of that right, on account of their race or ethnic origin”.73 The applicants also stated that authorities had told them to leave school at the age of 15 years old. The NGOs used statistics to demonstrate the difference between the attainment of Roma and non-Roma children in their county, showing that “...in the school year 2006/07, 16% of Roma children aged 15 [years]... completed their primary education, compared with 91% of the general primary school population, in Medjimurje County”.74 The ECtHR decision not only agreed that this practice was discriminatory in nature, but it also provided the basis for legislation supporting integrated schooling for Roma, including free access to pre-school facilities for Romani children.75

Greece, the Sampanis case

Greek NGOs used strategic litigation to bring pressure to bear upon state institutions, to dismantle a discriminatory education system. In 2004, the Greek Helsinki Monitor and SOKARDE, a Greek Roma human rights NGO, initiated a campaign to focus attention on the situation of Roma children, who had no access to public education. As a result, in June 2005, a school in Aspropyrgos, a district in Psari, in the Attica region, enrolled 54 Romani children.76 On the first day of school, however, non-Roma parents blocked the access to school for these Roma children, and erected signs saying that the school would “...remain closed because of ‘Gypsy’ problems”.77 Consequently, the children were moved by the school management and placed in separate buildings with other Roma pupils —“ghetto schools”— from October 2005.

Disappointed with this outcome, eleven Roma children and their families, represented by Greek Helsinki Monitor, submitted a complaint directly to the ECtHR. Although the ECtHR procedure requires that plaintiffs exhaust all national remedies before filing a complaint with the court, in this case they decided to make an exception, and declared the case admissible.

In the case of Sampanis vs. Greece, the ECtHR decision further underlined the recognition of school segregation, as an act of discrimination against Romani children. In addition to upholding this to be a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms, the ECtHR also held that in this case, the children of these applicants suffered moral injuries and lasting effects of humiliation. Moreover, another ECtHR decision on the case of Sampani and Others vs. Greece, followed in 2013, as a result of the government’s non-compliance with the first. After the second ECtHR judgment, the Supreme Court issued a circular from the on desegregation.78

In all the school segregation cases, the European Court found discrimination in education through a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 2 of Protocol 1 (right to education) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms.79 However, in none of the cases did the ECtHR request that the states implement desegregation in their education systems.80 Furthermore, although the litigation led to historic court judgments and greater public awareness of the issue, it did not achieve desegregation and quality education for Romani children, per se.

In the past few years, NGOs (including Amnesty International, Open Society Foundations, OSFJI, national organizations and the ERRC), have increasingly targeted European Union (EU) institutions in their advocacy and litigation efforts, frustrated with the lack of implementation of ECtHR decisions. As a result, the European Commission has begun infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic81, Slovakia82, and Hungary,83 for failure to sufficiently implement these judgments, European frameworks (such as the Council of Europe’s Framework Protection for National Minorities) and their anti-discrimination legislation.

School and Community Initiatives

Life Together, together with CENTROM, Jekhetane, Nova Skola, STREP, Romodrom and a number of other NGO’s based in Ostrava and the Czech Republic, used a holistic approach with the Roma communities of Ostrava, Horni Sucha, Karlovy Vary, Prague and Brno, in tackling segregation and exclusion from mainstream schooling. To support young Roma students, Life Together, supported by the Roma Initiatives Office (RIO), the Education Support Programme, the Human Rights Initiative and the Early Childhood Programme, at Open Society Foundations, worked on community development projects that would help achieve desegregation for Roma children in the Czech Republic. From additional tutoring through community centers to preschool programs, these local and international NGOs created a support system for helping students to enroll and remain in, mainstream schools.

These organizations have supported children in accessing specialized services, seeing psychologists or physical therapists, developing children’s cognitive and social skills, and strengthening their early learning. They also helped the community to create connections with representatives of local authorities, especially the schools and testing centers, placing a great emphasis on working in partnership Roma parents, offering them the possibility to learn together with their children and be involved in their education. Parents can join their children’s classes once a week and parents, in general, have been part of a tutoring program.84

This holistic approach has aimed to prepare children for a good start in the mainstream educational system and encouraged parents to enroll and maintain their children in this type of school, avoiding placement in segregated classes or schools. Additionally, these NGOs have supported community empowerment through activities like their parents’ clubs, and they are committed to advocating for practical change at the grassroots level.

Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller groups, such as the Roma Support Group, the Romani Cultural & Arts Co. (RCAC), Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and others in the UK have also taken a holistic approach, working on various issues to support families in accessing education, employment, housing, healthcare, and social assistance support. The newly arrived Romani children from special schools in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been successfully integrated into classrooms in several inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-ability provision schools.

Support for these children is provided through the local Traveller Education Support services85 (TES) or the Ethnic Minority Achievement (EMA) services86 in each local education authority (LEA). This type of approach is implemented across England and Wales, though there have been particular programs of support for Romani children in Leicester, Sheffield (page Hill especially), Bradford, Newport in Wales and many municipalities in London. Teachers and teaching assistants in the UK system are from a wide diversity of backgrounds (gender and ethnicity), including a significant presence of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller teachers and support staff, such as Roma student tutors and liaison officers or Slovak liaison workers, who organize out-of-school activities. Schools have implemented three tactics especially: offering Romani children (and all immigrant children), help with learning English, through English as an Additional Language courses, or EAL, integrating children into classes and schools with the support of TES and EMA teachers, and supporting non-Romani teachers understand the background of their Roma pupils, through training and professional development (such as that offered by RCAC in Wales), in addition to annual events in the school calendar, such as Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month each June.87

The EQUALITY organization, in partnership with the Roma Education Fund, undertook a pilot research project in the UK, looking at the school trajectory of sixty-one of the Roma children who migrated to eight locations in England.88 They found that 85% of the Czech and Slovak children interviewed, had experienced de facto segregation in their countries of origin, through being placed in a special school or separate class, and that twenty-three children from the Czech Republic and thirty-eight from Slovakia had been placed in predominantly Roma-only kindergartens in these countries. The results showed that the Roma children had little problem coping in school: 89% were fluent or almost fluent in English language as compared to their immediate peers, other immigrant children who had attended school for the same or similar periods of time and only 2% to 4% were seen as needing additional learning support.89

Final reflection

Over the past few decades, the tactics and efforts of Romani NGOs’ towards achieving school desegregation for Roma children, have had some successes and proven effective in several local communities. However, the driving force behind desegregation initiatives, the Roma and other NGOs, increasingly narrow their scope of work due to limited available finances and changing donor priorities. Across Europe, advocacy voices for substantive and effective desegregation policy measures, supported by specialized human resources and adequate financial resources, becomes weaker.

Nevertheless, the initiatives discussed in this essay, as well as others, have contributed to policy and legal developments at the local, national, and European levels. For example, the European Parliament’s Resolution on the situation of the Roma in the European Union, RC-B6-0272/2005 approved in 2005 clearly refers to the racially and ethnically segregated schooling systems in place in several EU member states, in which Roma children are taught either in segregated classes with lower standards, or in classes for children with special needs. Also, a few dozen Romani children have received justice along with some financial compensation for the damages caused by this type of segregation and some schools have employed desegregation. Yet, the available data, from civil society reports, national, and ECtHR jurisprudence, shows that the progress toward de facto desegregation is plodding.

The inconsistent results have led some donors, policy-makers, and researchers alike, to question and seriously critique the tactics put in place by the desegregation movement across these European Union Member States. Some have seen NGO interventions as ‘failures’, though they have hailed as ‘milestones’, the actual court cases and infringement proceedings denouncing the legality of segregation. Learning from past experience in the United States, it should have been evident that school desegregation would “...require something more than a statement of illegality...”90, and some financial compensation for a few dozen Romani children. That something more was not to be found in the capacity, the actions, and the power(less) of the Romani activists and organizations.

“As a result of their turbulent history and constant uprooting, the Roma have become a specific type of disadvantaged and vulnerable minority...”

Instead, along with implementation failure, we needed to look deeply and critically at the flaws of the gadjo (non-Romani) legal and policy dogmas, which focus on individual, isolated instances of rights being violated. For example, the ECtHR notes, in the final judgment by the Grand Chamber for D.H. and Others vs. the Czech Republic, that “...as a result of their turbulent history and constant uprooting, the Roma have become a specific type of disadvantaged and vulnerable minority...”.91 Moreover, the ECtHR decision in this case, includes statistics showing that 56% of the children sent to special schools in Ostrava, Czech Republic, were Roma. Yet, legal precedent prevents the ECtHR from ensuring redress to all victims and recognizing the collective experience, and the large numbers of Romani children, who remain victims of an ongoing “...social phenomenon.” Insead, legal process focuses specifically on victims of incidents of segregation.

While the majority of Romani families lacks the ability to file a complaint in court, Romani children forced into segregated school environments are still victims of the same structural, long-standing racist practice. The legislation in place fails to include corrective, reparatory mechanisms, recognizing the social, economic, emotional and symbolic harm done to these children. These normative mechanisms also detach the discriminatory events from the wider “context” surrounding Romani children, and from the structural and historical nature of segregation in education.92

Thus, the key to desegregation of education for Romani children continues to lie less in the — still necessary — efforts refining the theory of chance of the Romani desegregation movement, and more in challenging the legal doctrines, already established as “...logically self-evident, objective, a priori valid...”.93 Unless we shift our focus to deeply critiquing, challenging, and reimagining the legal basis and legislative framework, our tactics will never succeed entirely. When we can truly recognize the gadjo-ness94 in the widely-held beliefs that under-pin segregation and point out the injustice of laws and policies that support it, then we can eradicate school segregation more effectively and on a broader basis.

Rights held by: Margareta Matache — Simona Barbu | Licensed by: Margareta Matache — Simona Barbu | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive