Czech Roma Children Need Action Now to End School Segregation

A version of this piece first appeared on the website of the Foreign Policy Blogs Network of the Foreign Policy Association:

With Europe on the brink of economic meltdown, it’s easy to forget that some people never saw the good times.

The 10 to 12 million strong Roma minority—often disparaged as “Gypsies”—have lived in Europe for centuries, but have been considered unwelcome intruders at best. Enslaved in Romania, forcibly settled in Hungary and Poland, Roma are widely hated, feared, and denigrated as dirty thieves useful for musical entertainment but little else.

A decade ago, the promise of EU accession led to improved conditions for Roma in several countries. But the post-2008 downturn has brought what some monitors say is a resurgence of racist violence. In late April, a Romani man, who was scavenging for scrap metal with a cousin and two children in a village, was shot and fatally wounded by an arrow fired in his head with a crossbow.

According to the victim’s cousin, the shooter allegedly yelled, “You black whores, I’ll kill you,” before firing. The shooter was reported as explaining later:

“I was just aiming at the door when he opened the car door and I immediately fired. That guy must have moved then and got it in the head, because I was aiming low…. When I shot the crossbow, I immediately fled, because I didn't know whether they might run after me…. Then someone yelled at me: 'You shot him'. So I walked cautiously back and went up to the car and there I saw a person on the ground with an arrow in his head. Then I told that one Gypsy, the fat one, the Rom, that I would go get another arrow to measure how deep it went in. I went to go get the arrow, but in the meantime he had flagged down a car and the driver called the ambulance and police…. Those Romani guys always tell nothing but lies. They made it up that I swore at them - nothing of the sort happened. They have probably all agreed somehow what to say against me, that's what it looks like. I feel innocent."

A criminal investigation is pending.

A meeting earlier this month in Ostrava, a once-industrial mining town of Communist-era Czechoslovakia, underscored the profound sense of insecurity many Roma and their loved ones feel. “As a Czech father married to a Romani woman,” one man explained, “I am concerned about how this society perceives and treats my young beautiful daughter.”

And well he should be. Although acts of physical abuse in this proud land of Havel and Masaryk attract sporadic (if inadequate) attention, the entrenched racial segregation that makes Roma second class citizens goes all but ignored. And nowhere are the effects of discrimination more profound than in the schools.

For decades, Roma children in the Czech Republic, as in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, have been shunted off to sub-standard institutions designed for students whom the laws deemed “mentally deficient” or “retarded.” The consequences have been devastating. The vast majority of Roma never make it to high school. Many are channeled into vocational training to learn rudimentary skills. Predictably, unemployment rates among Roma are far higher–and public health indicia far lower–than for the population as a whole. A cycle of educational deprivation and resulting poverty feeds a self-fulfilling narrative of majority prejudice about Roma.

The unjust nature of this system is made only worse by its arbitrariness. A Roma school administrator who is today a rare example of relative success related: “As a boy, in my papers, it was written that I was an ‘idiot.’ As a result, I was sent to special schools. A few years later, a doctor saw this was wrong, and just deleted the word ‘idiot’ from my papers. And due to that I could study. I went to high school and then university. If the word ‘idiot’ had remained in my papers, I could never have done that.”

In 2007, in an extraordinary demonstration of judicial clarity and courage, the European Court of Human Rights condemned as illegal the Czech Republic’s disproportionate assignment of Roma to special schools. But in the five years since, not much has changed. The children of the children in whose name the court action was filed now face the same unjust system, as documented in a powerful new photo essay for the Open Society Foundations by documentary photographer Stephanie Sinclair.

Government “action” plans carry vague promises but no budgetary commitments, timelines or measurement tools. Last year, a group of leading educational experts who had been advising the government on its reform plans resigned to protest the apparent absence of will to bring about real change.

Even at a time of fiscal retrenchment, money is not the problem. To the contrary, the government has failed to use, and has misused, EU monetary contributions for school reform. In January, the European Commission halted the disbursement of its latest tranche of structural funds to the CzechRepublic—worth approximately €1.9m—after finding “serious shortcomings” in the management and control of monies intended for education projects.

This month, the Czech Ombudsman, officially known as the Public Defender of Rights, published a report finding that, although Roma in the Czech Republic constitute between 1.4 and 2.8 percent of the population, Romani children comprise 32 percent of pupils attending “practical elementary” (the new label for inferior) schools nationwide. In short, Roma remain more than ten times more likely to be assigned to inferior educational facilities than others.

Last week, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe—the political organ tasked with enforcing the European Court’s judgments—“expressed concern” at the slow pace of action, and “underlined the importance of accelerating the implementation of the judgment, which has been final for nearly five years, in order to achieve concrete progress on the ground.” In the conservative diplomatic language which prevails in Strasbourg, this was a polite way of saying, “Get serious about desegregation!”

How could the government show it means business? First, pass legislation making clear the priority of integrating all persons—Roma, persons with disabilities, and others—in mainstream schools and classes. Second, adopt a plan and budget for achieving integration within three years, and provide adequate educational and other forms of support for children who need it. Third, require that all schools monitor progress toward integration, including by producing anonymous data on the numbers of Roma and others in their classes each September.

Negative stereotypes about “bad Gypsies” are purveyed in everything from fairy tales to classic literature. Such deeply ingrained prejudice will not be erased overnight. But even as European politicians work to change public attitudes, they must make act now to dismantle the structures of discrimination, before another generation of Roma children is lost.

Add your voice