"Equal, but not in our yard: Closed thinking on Roma inclusion in Europe"
By: Margareta Matache and Sarah Dougherty
FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University
Equal access to quality education is a fundamental human right and yet it is beyond the reach of thousands of Roma children living in Europe today. Over 90% of European youths enroll in secondary education and over 60% enroll in tertiary education. By contrast, under 20% of Roma youths (pejoratively called “Gypsies”) enroll in secondary education and under 1% enroll in tertiary education. These achievement gaps are often blamed on a failure of Roma culture to place value on education. In reality, longstanding patterns of economic, social, and political discrimination dramatically limit the educational trajectories of young Roma. Governments and institutions throughout Europe use a range of direct and indirect measures to segregate, isolate, and exclude the Roma community from participating in mainstream society.
A recent example is the French Interior Minister’s decision to brutally expel 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma high school student originating from Kosovo. On October 9, 2013, she was escorted off a school bus by police and put on a plane with her family. Once in Kosovo, she and her family were attacked by assailants, landing her mother in the hospital. Following mass student protests in Paris and international outcry, the French government argued that Leonarda’s expulsion was legal. Yet there is no indication that the authorities considered the psychological implications of such an act for an adolescent, the individual circumstances of her case, nor the protection of her rights as a child. President Hollande offered to let her return to France to continue her education alone, which she rejected. Her chances of finishing her schooling in Kosovo are equally unlikely.
Leonarda’s case is not unique, just more visible. The global recession has confronted many European governments with complex and cross-border issues of unemployment, political and social instability, and migration. They have responded with xenophobic policies targeting the Roma as the cause, rather than equal sufferers, of economic and social crisis. French, German, and Italian authorities have expelled thousands of Roma residents, many of them European Union (EU) citizens, to Kosovo, Romania, and Bulgaria without regard for their rights or circumstances, and without following minimum legal standards such as providing translation. Nevertheless, the governments accomplish their goal of ridding themselves of the Roma while offering limited financial compensation, as if this legitimized their actions. Once “returned,” the Roma are exposed to further cycles of discrimination, stigmatization, harassment, and violence.
School segregation remains one of the most institutionalized barriers to Roma inclusion. The practice is illegal in the EU but persists in many countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Roma children continue to be systematically placed in schools for students with special needs, in Roma-only schools, or in separate buildings and classes at regular schools. Even when they are not separated from other students, Roma children are often placed in the back of the classroom. As the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has noted, segregation “stigmatises them as being different, stupid, intellectually inferior and children who need to be separated from normal children in order not to be a bad influence on them.” Segregation sentences Roma children to inferior teaching and curricula, limiting their educational opportunities and their options for future employment.
The ECHR has sanctioned several European countries for segregating Roma students based on their race, including Croatia and Hungary. In October 2013, researchers from Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights visited both countries to discuss the issue with plaintiffs, Roma community members, advocacy organizations, academics, school authorities, and government representatives. In the localities visited, both national and local institutions appeared to be aware of the illegality and harms of segregation. However, the idea that quality education for non-Roma children can only be achieved in the absence of Roma children remains a powerful motivator of policy and practice.
In Croatia, the government’s position was that many Roma children do not speak the national language and therefore need to be placed in separate classes to catch up to their peers. However, authorities took no steps to ensure that the Roma children improved their Croatian or even acquired basic reading or writing skills. In 2010, the ECHR held that language could not be a pretext for school segregation and ordered the government to take preventative measures. In response to this and the EU accession process, Croatia began placing Roma children in integrated kindergartens and providing after-school programs to help Roma students with homework and other study skills. Yet the schools do not use bilingual teaching methods to facilitate the transition to integrated education. Instead, they rely on translation from Roma teaching assistants. As a result, even into primary school, many Roma children still lack the language skills to succeed academically.
The lack of positive results, despite significant political and financial investment by the government, has created a great deal of frustration. The county head of the Department of Education attributed part of the problem to the Roma community, many of whom live in isolated settlements and face severe discrimination, for failing to socialize with the majority population. Other officials seemed unaware of the inefficiency of the methods used for language acquisition. Of equal concern, the government has failed to take action as non-Roma parents remove their children from integrated schools near Roma settlements—reproducing de facto segregation. The outcome is likely to be negative: Croatia will argue that it tried its best but Roma children could not be integrated. And with the pressure of EU accession gone, the pace of integration is likely to slow. A productive strategy would be to probe the reasons for the current failure and experiment with new strategies for integration, possibly following positive precedents adopted elsewhere.
A different pattern of segregation can be found in Hungary. Roma children are systematically misdiagnosed as mentally disabled and placed into special needs or remedial schools and classes. Hungary has recently made some adjustments to its testing and assessment system, yet many of the flaws identified by the ECHR persist, including culturally biased testing instruments, improperly administered protocols, and frequent revisions to the definition of “disability.” Powerful political, financial, and social interests further complicate the picture. Hungary’s special education lobby used to receive funding on a per capita basis, fueling recruitment of potential students in Roma neighborhoods and maintaining the whole system unchanged against the benefit of all children who could have been moved into mainstream education. With the advent of centralized budgeting, special needs educators fear that integration will eliminate jobs even as mainstream educators fear an increase in their workloads. For Roma children in mainstream schools, little is done to address the different needs, which served as pretext for segregation in the first place.
Moreover, the Hungarian government has taken steps that openly conflict with desegregation goals, such as dismantling key minority rights institutions, lowering the age of compulsory schooling, eliminating financial incentives to teach in integrated schools, and introducing a centralized curriculum with little room for adjustment. These rapid and often political changes to Hungary’s education system have increasingly left Roma and other disadvantaged children behind. The Ministry of Human Resources has also financed the reopening of Roma-only, church-run schools, previously shut after lawsuits by civil society organizations. The Ministry argues that such schools are not segregated because they offer Roma students a tailored curriculum in preparation for later integration. However the right to education includes an integrated learning environment as well as the academic and psychosocial supports necessary to succeed there.
The segregation patterns in the two countries appear different but build on shared elements of discrimination, namely the idea of Roma inferiority. Roma children are not considered good enough to join their non-Roma peers in mainstream education. As a result, differences in academic ability or performance, often a reflection of socioeconomic disadvantage, are characterized as linguistic or cognitive deficits and Roma children are channeled into inferior schools and classes. Even when they are brought into mainstream learning environments, little is done to address the deficits which justified segregation in the first place. The vulnerabilities associated with poverty, limited parental education, internalized stigma, and other structural disadvantages are used to deprive Roma children of their right to education.
The situations in Croatia and Hungary demonstrate that true desegregation requires the structural transformation of all education-related institutions and processes. Short-term “fixes,” particularly ones without clear goals and benchmarks, can produce negative and unintended consequences, such as more hidden dimensions of discrimination (e.g., “white flight”). There must also be equal emphasis on improving the quality of education. Integration is not served by simply placing underperforming Roma students in the same classroom as higher performing peers. States must also develop mechanisms for providing individualized support to all students who need it without channeling them into inferior learning environments.
While a complete answer is elusive, a paradigm shift is required. Instead of pursuing top-down education policies, decision makers at all levels must seek the active and meaningful engagement of Roma parents and community members in sharing knowledge and developing inclusive solutions. All actors must also look to positive examples from other places that have attempted desegregation, both locally and abroad. The idea is to learn about the specific inputs required for desegregation, rather than apply the same old tools and thinking that have been unsuccessful in achieving Roma inclusion for the past twenty years.
Getting desegregation wrong risks exhausting resources and political will, all without providing Roma students the support they need. Indeed, there is deep political, institutional, and social resistance to desegregation, including extremist, anti-Roma messaging from high levels of government to individual citizens. Despite strong commitments to anti-discrimination at the national, regional, and international level, including the EU Framework for Roma Inclusion, the governments of France, Hungary, Croatia and others do not hesitate to take measures to segregate, isolate, or expel Roma communities. As long as the Roma are cast away, ECHR decisions, international and domestic laws and policies, and public outrage become irrelevant.