Roma discrimination: European governments will reap what they sow

What a summer for the Roma in Europe.  Mass deportations from France.  A killing spree targeting a Roma family at home in their apartment in Slovakia.  And back to school for thousands of Roma children who – a second Amnesty report on Slovakia education declares – are still segregated into ‘special’ schools and classes. 

My first ever ‘assignment’ as the AIUK children’s human rights e-communications c-ordinator back in 2008 was to read through two AI reports detailing how Roma children were being segregated into ‘special needs’ schools, causing irreparable setbacks in intellectual – and therefore social – development.  A tangled web of government funding quotas (and bribes to Roma parents by special school officials) meant that Roma children found themselves learning three years behind their non-Romani peers. 

The 2008 Slovakian Schools Act prohibited the segregation of Roma in schools, but – as is often the case with discrimination – there are still serious gaps between law and practice.  A new 2010 report details these continuing patterns of segregation and exclusion, and is summarized by AIUK here.

You can also (of course) take action to remind the Slovakian government that “The choices that the government makes now will affect the lives of thousands of Romani children. The government holds the key to allow the Roma in Slovakia full participation in Slovak and European society.”

Now, there’s the key point!  This is what we should all aspire to in Europe: ‘to allow the Roma full participation in Slovak and European society’.  Has anybody told Sarkozy?

Many will be aware that France has controversially been, throughout August, breaking up camps and deporting entire Roma communities.  The European Parliament has condemned these actions, saying that they amount to discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.  France staunchly denies these claims, saying that they were in the country illegally (a hard one to justify given the expanded freedom of movement laws within the European Union); that they pose a ‘security risk’ (again a tricky excuse as the law insists upon individual cases being investigated, thereby making mass deportations illegal); and that they are not targeting Roma per se (this one swiftly rebutted by a leaked government document demanding “Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority”).

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has described France’s actions as ‘a disgrace’ – and her commission has the power to penalize France for their racially discriminatory deportation practices.  This very public, very brash display of xenophobia on France’s part is certainly a few steps backward for European human rights, but for many the residual social impact of segregation in schools will have a much longer impact and more far-reaching consequences.  It would do the Justice Commissioner well to label the quiet, institutionalized discrimination of young Roma into schools for mentally disabled children as a ‘disgrace’ too – because that’s just what it is.

What the very public debate serves to remind us is that discrimination is self-propagating, especially when applied as public policy.  That in this case the problem of segregated and inferior education policies have clear ripple-effects: not just across the geography of Europe, but far into the future of European society. And not just for the Roma children themselves but for those that vilify them and their creed.

Sarkozy, the leader of a supposedly civilised western European nation delicately describing Roma people as ‘thieves, prostitutes and thugs’ damages a whole society and propagates horrific racial stereotypes.

Such stereotyping can only lead to further splits in society and is undoubtedly a self-fulfilling prophesy for under-educated Roma youths who may as well make their living from crime and disorder because that is what is expected of them. People don’t decide to become thieves and prostitutes overnight.  And given what we know about early-year segregation in Slovakian schools, most Romani youths certainly can’t just decide to clean up and go to university to become teachers and nurses.

People who are undereducated, marginalised and vilified – especially by the authorities – will form protectorate communities and further withdraw themselves, perhaps even actually excluding their children from schools that clearly don’t want them.

An article in the Economist last week describes quite well the plight of the Roma from Europe, east to west, dubbing them ‘the problem no politican wants to solve’ (deportation is easier than integrative social policy, as France would have it appear), and makes the very pertinent point that ‘most Roma leave their home [in Eastern Europe] in search not of work but of freedom from destitution and persecution’. It further reports that the World Bank has calculated the cost of failing to integrate Roma in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and the Czech Republic at €5.7 billion, and notes that ‘Bridging the education gap is the economically smart choice’.

Economically smart or not, if we want to prevent anti-social behaviour in Europe – from both impoverished gypsies and French policy-makers – we must address the issue of school-level segregation.  Stamping out discrimination is a waiting game that must begin with educating children to respect and be respected.

Thanks for reading.

Helle :)

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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