Slovakia’s ‘container schools’ worsen segregation of Roma children from society

By Barbora Černušáková

By Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International researcher on Slovakia and Lenka Machlicová, Amnesty International Slovakia

For the villages of north-eastern Slovakia’s Kežmarok district, nestled beneath the snow-capped High Tatra Mountains, winter can be icy cold. On a recent visit it wasn’t the weather that sent shivers down our spines, but the grim reality that many Romani children are still being segregated in local schools.

We returned to five villages in the region last week after a previous visit in 2012 to see if anything had changed for Romani residents there, three years after a landmark judgment found that a school in Slovakia discriminated against Romani children by segregating them from their classmates. Sadly, the only change has been from bad to worse.

It seems that after the 2012 court ruling condemning unlawful segregation of Romani pupils, not only has the separation continued, but it is actually taking on even more severe forms. Not only are Romani children being segregated in different classes but in some cases they now face the prospect of attending “container schools”, where they are completely cut off, not just from their peers, but from almost anybody from the non-Roma population. In the context of settlements, placement of schools and other services is tricky and risks leading to isolation. Most of its residents are not in formal employment and don’t really have reasons to leave them but for schools and occasional doctor’s visits.

The container schools are built from material resembling shipping containers and consist of a large one- or two-storey building with flat roof and inner space limited to corridors and classrooms. Costing 200,000 euros each, they are much cheaper than building brick and mortar schools. Although some of the mayors we spoke to were concerned about adequacy of the containers for the cold climate in the High Tatra region, the main problem of this project is the location of these schools. An inevitable result of placing them directly to Romani settlements or neighbourhoods will be ethnic segregation. The pupils will rarely go outside the settlement and most of their social relations will be contained in them.

In a cruel irony, nowhere was the worsening segregation more visible than in the village of Ostrovany, where the 2012 judgment originated. The village doesn’t have its own mainstream school and Romani children were enrolled either in the local special school or in a mainstream school in the nearby village of Šarišské Michaľany. It was this school that the court found to have violated anti-discrimination legislation in 2012. According to Romani parents and children, three years on, Romani pupils continue to be separated from their non-Roma classmates in this school. In addition to this, the municipality of Ostrovany plans to build a “container school” directly in the settlement. Once the school is opened, the children will be effectively cut off from the rest of society.

Although the 2012 ruling addressed the situation in only one village, Šarišské Michaľany, Romani children have been segregated in Roma-only schools and classes in many locations in eastern Slovakia. Instead of dealing with this unlawful situation upfront, in 2013 the authorities introduced the so-called “container schools”. It was supposed to be a quick fix to the problem of low school capacities and the high number of incoming, mainly Roma, pupils. In the past two-three years, some of the schools to which the children used to commute started fusing outright to register new Romani pupils using the capacity argument. This further accelerated the panic on some of the villages resulting in a decision to quickly construct their own schools. Needless to say, this problem is hardly a new one. It has been mounting over the past decade while the authorities have failed to tackle it.

Last week we visited four of the six villages in Kežmarok district which have been affected by low school capacities. In three of them, “container schools” were already up and running. Like schools most anywhere, the sound of children’s laughter and conversations filled the air during the breaks. But the striking feature of these schools was their ethnic homogeneity – all the children were Roma. In one case, in the village of Stráne pod Tatrami, the Roma children are cut off from the society outside of their settlement, as the school was built directly in their settlement. Plans are already under way to place “container schools” in at least three other Roma settlements in other locations.

Some of the parents we spoke to worried that separation from non-Roma will affect the quality of their children’s education as well as their future prospects.

“When the children finish the 9th grade here, they don’t continue at a secondary school. Had they been together with the non-Roma, they would have been more ambitious,” one Romani mother, Marika, told us.

“If all the classmates of our children are another Romani pupils, how can we expect them to mingle and integrate with the non-Roma once they move on to the secondary school?,” Imrich, whose children attend a high school in the town of Kežmarok, asked us.

Indeed, the physical separation has consequences reaching beyond education. Jozef lives in a settlement nearly two kilometres away from the village of Rakúsy. The settlement is becoming more and more isolated from village life, he explained: “We have a community centre, a church. We go to the village only when we need to arrange something in the municipality.”

Until June 2014, a Milan and his friends in the fourth grade were bussed daily from Stráne pod Tatrami to a municipal Roma-only school inside a building in the town of Kežmarok. Milan lives in a settlement 500m from the village, so the bus ride was a rare opportunity to meet non-Roma people. In September 2014, a container school was opened in his settlement. While the boys were generally happy that they have it closer to home, Milan told us he misses his rides to the town.

In the villages we visited, most residents are Romani. Most of the non-Roma enrolled their children in schools elsewhere, which led to the local schools becoming ethnically homogeneous.

Although the authorities spoke of “segregation” many times during our conversations, they did so only with dismissive and sarcastic undertones arguing that segregation was inevitable due to demographic trends. As if equal treatment for all ethnicities was not a legal obligation but some form of luxury. Sadly, such an approach significantly contributes to an environment where complete ethnic separation becomes a reality.

Pseudonyms have been used in this blog to protect the identities of the individuals interviewed.

Read Amnesty International's report, Unfulfilled promises: Failing to end segregation of Roma pupils in Slovakia