When Dorde Jovanovic was in elementary school in the 1980s, he could not see the blackboard. A Roma by ethnicity, he and his Romani classmates, living in a village outside Belgrade, were told to sit in the back row and given separate work from the rest of the class — “to keep you quiet”, he says.
Mr Jovanovic, who is short-sighted, could not see what the teacher was writing on the board. When his parents complained, “the teacher said, ‘I can’t move him forward’,” he says. Segregating Romani children was school policy.
After providing a note from a doctor about his eyesight, Mr Jovanovic was moved to the front of the class, where he was exposed for the first time to what the other children were learning.
“I was the only Roma child in the class who passed to the next grade,” says Mr Jovanovic, who is now president of the European Roma Rights Centre, a public interest organisation based in Brussels and Budapest.
The segregation of Romani children is widespread in schools across Europe, where prejudice against the ethnic minority is pervasive. Research by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 found segregation in mainstream education affected between 33 and 58 per cent of Romani children in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece. Yet Hungarian national court rulings as long ago as 1997 had found educational segregation was unequal and unlawful.
Estimated number of Roma entering higher education in Europe
Access to education is vital for Romani children’s integration and social mobility. According to the UN, an estimated 1 per cent of Roma enter higher education in Europe.
Mr Jovanovich says that at university, he was among 10 Roma in a student population of 10,000.
Human rights lawyers are using strategic litigation to challenge the normalised social segregation that begins in school. “We are going to the courts to make a record that this is happening to children,” says Mr Jovanovic.
In 2018, based on a ruling from 2017 that found unlawful segregation was still occurring in one district of northern Hungary and that those subjected to it could seek punitive damages, lawyers at Allen & Overy pursued a case on behalf of a community of more than 60 Roma children who had been segregated.
The law firm worked with the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), a Roma rights non-governmental organisation (since closed); it was the first time damages had been sought for this number of children. Previous Hungarian legislation on desegregation had ruled it a violation of human rights, but that had not been enough to discourage the practice in rural schools, where the authorities had little oversight.
Romani children are often relegated to separate classrooms, to be taught by less well-qualified teachers and given less demanding schoolwork. It is not uncommon for them to have separate, inferior bathrooms on different floors or to be excluded from certain areas, such as swimming pools, on the grounds that they do not have adequate attire. Many are placed in schools or programmes for children with mental disabilities.
Finding the right case
A challenge for lawyers had been finding complainants for these types of cases. Roma communities can be tightknit, insular and distrustful of the motives of lawyers from outside. But Adél Kegye, former lawyer with the CFCF, identified a village in northern Hungary with a large Roma settlement that offered an opportunity to pursue a case for damages for segregation.
In 2011, far-right nationalists carrying banners and torches demonstrated against Roma in Gyöngyöspata, terrifying them and blaming them for economic problems.
When Ms Kegye approached villagers about challenging discrimination in schools, they were ready to fight back. “I don’t think we would have been able to do it in any other locality or village,” she says. “All this trauma brought together the community and they had nothing to lose.”
In a class-action lawsuit, lawyers acted for the Romani children who had been segregated by their school, arguing that its actions had resulted in a financial cost to their development and opportunities. The suit was against the education authorities, the municipality and the state, in the hope that being forced to pay costly damages for segregation would deter other small municipalities.
The education authorities, however, refused to provide documents that the lawyers then had to obtain by court order. The court heard testimonies from every child, as well as many parents, as their lawyers sought to present a full picture of the costs.
The claimants sought damages of Ft500,000 ($1,750) per child, per year segregated, a figure the lawyers deemed both justifiable and realistic given previous case law. In the end, the judge awarded a fifth of this sum. The judgment also considered whether individual children were disruptive in class, a consideration that the advocates argue is unfair.
“Roma are lagging behind,” says Balázs Sahin-Tóth, a lawyer at Allen & Overy in Budapest. “Education is the only way in the long term they can catch up and find a meaningful future.” He says that while legislation can demand better integration, implementation is another story. “Integration appears from the mouth of the government, but the burden of integration falls on the municipalities,” he says.
In February, the CFCF won another desegregation case involving 13 schools, which now all have formal plans to integrate their classrooms.
Mr Jovanovic laments that his role fighting for Roma rights is still necessary in 2019. “That people are still segregating people based on their ethnicity . . . it’s almost unimaginable that something so primitive is still happening in Europe,” he says.
“They’re children. Why on earth would anyone do that to children?”
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