A recent report by Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), A Lesson in Discrimination: Segregation of Romani children in Primary Education in Slovakia, has revealed how Romani children are systematically denied the right to a proper education, and face poverty, routine discrimination and exclusion in Slovakia.
The report was released nearly two years after the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Slovakia. Infringement procedures are issued against European Union member states that have broken EU law. Proceedings begin with a request for information which the member state must respond to. If Slovakia fails to act on the procedure accordingly, it may face severe financial sanctions.
The ERRC President, Ðorđe Jovanović, has stated regarding the matter: “Romani children remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, marginalization and despair,” and that “Slovakia’s abject failure to address deeply ingrained prejudices within the education system is blighting the future of generations of Romani children from the moment they step into the classroom.”
According to the report, Romani children are either placed in segregated schools specifically for Romani children or in ‘special schools’. Romani children are often placed in ‘special schools’ and classes intended for mentally disabled children despite being deemed intelligent and mentally able by psychologists. Children at these ‘special schools’ and ‘zero grade’ classes are not allowed to bring textbooks home and are not given any homework or educational support. In one location that researchers visited, a third of Romani children were diagnosed with ‘mild mental disability’. The report also describes how Romani parents are often shocked when their children are placed in ‘special school’ without explanation.
Many Romani children cannot speak Slovak, which further hinders future educational and employment possibilities in Slovakia. In Amnesty and ERRC’s report, the father of a 17-year-old boy describes how his son is still unable to read, write or speak any Slovak despite completing his ‘special schooling’. In another case, students of a private, secondary vocational school for Romani Boys run by a manufacturing company, spent most of their time putting together electric plugs that the company would sell. At a vocational school for Romani girls, the girls were only offered “Practical Women” (Praktická Žena) lessons. According to the national programme, they were being taught to become ‘good housewives’ with lessons in cooking and housework. Higher forms of educational opportunities are not available for Romani children.
Historically, Romani people in Slovakia have always been discriminated against. Despite the Romani being the second largest minority group in Slovakia, they were only officially recognized on the census starting 1991. State administration offices estimate that up to 4.8% (253,943 people) of Slovakia is Romani; however, recent census figures differ (1.52%). Meanwhile, political activists claim that there could be up to 350,000 to 400,000 Romani people living in Slovakia. In the past, European Commissioner for Education and Culture, Androulla Vassiliou, has criticized authorities in the Slovak city of Košice for building a wall to segregate the city’s Roma community. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for non-Roma parents to remove their children from schools where they feel there are too many Romani students. This phenomenon is referred to as “white flight” in the Amnesty and ERRC report. Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, has also been accused of making anti-migration statements in the past and publicly associating Muslims and refugees with terrorism.
Unfortunately, previous legal EU interventions have remained in limbo. For changes to happen in Slovakia, a real intervention needs to occur. The EU needs to issue severe financial penalties to the Slovakian government for its breach in order to spark this change. From a social policy perspective, local Slovakian governments also need to create representative bodies for the Romani people and establish administrative mechanisms to remedy discriminatory acts against minority groups. Without these changes, Slovakian authorities will only continue down the road of segregation: further dividing communities and denying Romani children their right to a meaningful education, and hopeful future.