Segregation, bullying and fear: The stunted education of Romani children in Europe

Photo: Melpomeni Maragkidou/Vice.

The 4th primary, a school tucked away in a corner of Sofades, a small town near the city of Karditsa in central Greece, looks like an old, decrepit prison.

The building is so dilapidated, no child should be spending any time there. With not enough classrooms and regular power cuts, it is almost unbelievable that anyone can learn anything within those walls. However, every day, around 200 boys and girls between six and 14 years of age cross the rusty gates of the school which is built inside the Roma settlement and try to make the most of it.

The children are all Roma. For them, the “ghetto school” (as they call it) is their only shot at an education.

In countries across Europe – Greece, the Czech Republic, France, and Slovakia, to name but a few – Roma are too often treated as second-class citizens. Enduring systematic social exclusion, extremely poor living conditions, racially motivated attacks and forced evictions, Romani children rarely have a fighting chance of progressing in life. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization.

As if time had stood still, segregation is still taking place, with too few people questioning it.

Discrimination against Romani children in education is multifaceted. Romani children are either disproportionately placed in schools designed for pupils with “mild mental disabilities” or relegated to Roma-only classes and schools. Those attending mixed mainstream schools often face unbearable bullying and harassment.

For many Roma families, things become so desperate that their children miss school altogether, seriously hindering their future opportunities.

Container schools
On a recent visit to Slovakia, Amnesty International found the that the authorities are building schools in metal containers close to Romani settlements – effectively boxing children off completely from the wider society.

The container schools are built from material resembling shipping containers and consist of a large one or two-storey building with flat roofs and inner space limited to corridors and classrooms. Costing 200,000 euros each, they are much cheaper than brick and mortar schools. Only Romani children attend classes in these container schools.

The father of Imrich, a boy attending a mixed high school in the Slovakian town of Kežmarok, is worried about the consequence of Romani children being segregated:

If all the classmates of our children are other Romani pupils, how can we expect them to mingle and integrate with non-Roma people once they move on to the secondary school?

Father of Imrich, a boy attending a mixed high school in the Slovakian town of Kežmarok

No place to call homeIn some other European countries, such as France, municipal authorities refuse even to register many Romani children in school.

Regular forced evictions of entire Roma communities mean families do not have a fixed address, which some French municipalities consider a requirement to enrol a child in school.

Even for those lucky enough to have a place to call home, living conditions and access to proper sanitation and hygiene are often so poor that some parents feel discouraged from sending their children to school as they are concerned they will be further discriminated against.

Bullying concernsRomani children enrolled in mixed mainstream schools also face bullying and harassment.

Katka (not real name), a Romani girl attending a mixed mainstream school in Ostrava, Czech Republic, said: “One day we were listening to a Roma singer in a music class and the teacher asked us if we knew who Roma were and if any of us was Roma. I raised my hand. After that many things have changed. The boy who used to sit next to me pulled away his chair, and said he did not want to sit next to a Gypsy. When we were about to go on a school trip, nobody wanted to share a room with me, so I did not go. None of the girls wanted to be friends with me, but eventually I made one friend and it’s alright now. Still, every week I am reminded that I am Roma, that I am dirty and that I am different.”

The boy who used to sit next to me pulled away his chair, and said he did not want to sit next to a Gypsy.Every week I am reminded that I am Roma, that I am dirty and that I am different.

Katka (not real name), a Romani girl attending a mixed mainstream school in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Bullying is similarly an issue for Romani children in Greece. Amnesty International, together with the Greek Helsinki Monitor, recently visited the informal settlement of Sofos, in the town of Aspropyrgos, near Athens, where they met children too scared to attend the local mixed school they were assigned to after the government shut down the Roma-only school.

Anna (not her real name) is 13 years old and lives with her parents and older sister at the settlement. She attended the segregated school for a few years and has now been registered to the mixed school. While the headmistress makes the children feel welcome, Anna’s mother and father are scared of the local parents’ violent reaction to past attempts to integrate Romani children to regular schools. Anna said: “They (members of the local community) chased us away from the town’s playground.”

Empty promisesSo far, authorities in Greece, the Czech Republic, France, and Slovakia have failed to sufficiently act upon their limited promises for change.

Despite a number of court rulings compelling governments to end the various forms of discrimination and ban the segregation of children into Roma-only schools or schools for pupils with “mild mental disabilities”, little has changed.

In November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights held that the disproportionate placement of Romani children in schools designed for pupils with mild mental disabilities in the Czech Republic violated the rights of Romani children not to be discriminated against when attempting to access education. The European Court required the government to put an end to this discrimination and address its effects. The process of reform initiated by the Czech authorities, however, has been so slow it has failed to address the situation in any significant way.

In Slovakia, the Regional Court in Presov in the east of the country issued a landmark judgment in October 2012 that the separation of Romani children into ethnically-segregated classes violated the country’s anti-discrimination law. In spite of this, the practice is still widespread today.

And in Greece, despite the adoption of a National Programme for the Education of Roma Children, progress made in some regions is being stalled due to lack of funding.

EU infringementAn unprecedented move in September 2014 saw the European Commission issue an infringement procedure against the Czech Republic for violating EU anti-discrimination law because of its discriminatory treatment of Romani children in education.

This enables the Commission to hold the Czech government accountable and to put pressure on it to end the ongoing systematic discrimination against Romani children in education.

Despite a first reaction from the government questioning the Commission’s competence to trigger an infringement procedure in the context of education, the government is now engaging with it, particularly on the legal reform of the Schools Act Amendment.

“The failure to tackle deeply engrained anti-Roma discrimination, which states are obliged to, is holding thousands of children hostage to a cycle of segregation, fear and missed opportunities,” said Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

“Instead of turning a blind eye to Roma segregation and discrimination in schools and communities, authorities in Greece, the Czech Republic, France, Slovakia, and all countries with Roma communities, must introduce systemic reforms to address what is effectively the root cause of these problems: ethnic prejudice. This requires a strong and unequivocal political message: to end the unlawful discrimination against Romani children in education.”

On 23 April, Amnesty International will publish a comprehensive report on the discrimination faced by Roma children in schools in the Czech Republic.

Read more:

Slovakia’s ‘container schools’ worsen segregation of Roma children from society (Blog, 13 March 2015)