Why is the Czech Republic still discriminating against Roma children?

Why is the Czech Republic still discriminating against Roma children?

This week marks ten years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Czech Republic was discriminating against Roma children in the education system.

A decade later, things aren’t much better. The 2007 rulingD.H. and Others v Czech Republic – stated that the Czech education system was funneling Roma children into substandard schools and was incorrectly classifying many Roma children with mild mental disabilities.

But today, even though Roma children make up less than 4 percent of all elementary school children in the Czech Republic, they make up more than 30 percent of all Czech children diagnosed with mild mental disabilities. That figure’s barely changed over the last four years.

While the country’s tried to enact some reforms to the education system – for example, the proportion of Roma students attending separate ‘practical’ schools has declined – segregation is still an issue. This year Czech ombudsman Anna Sabatova said that “[over] a quarter of Roma children are still being educated in very ethnically homogeneous schools” and that in some communities “there is a continuing practice of educating the Roma outside…or separately from non-Roma children within the same elementary school.”

It’s why, in 2014, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, accusing the country of breaching EU racial equality directives.

Speaking at a conference this week hosted by the Open Society Justice Initiative and Open Society Fund Prague, one Roma community organizer described how she and her fellow activists travelled around to nine different cities and towns across the country, speaking with some 1,500 Roma about what they thought of the country’s education system.

“These people didn’t perceive any change for the better,” Magdalena Karvayova told the conference. Worse, said Karvayova, the Roma she talked to were “extremely distrustful” of everyone, from governments to bureaucrats to even NGOs.

“You should have thrown them to the hyenas!”

It’s easy to understand why Roma in the Czech Republic feel this way when you hear what their leaders and fellow citizens have to say about them.

President Milos Zeman recently said that “90 per cent of ‘unadaptable’ people in the Czech Republic are Roma,” using a phrase in Czech – nepřizpůsobivý – that, according to independent Czech internet daily Britské listy, is a “frequently used euphemism to replace racist abuse directed systematically against the Roma.”

One far-right politician, a secretary of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) that got almost 11 per cent of the vote last month – and is now the fourth-largest party in the Czech parliament – reportedly said in a restaurant in the Czech parliament that “Jews, gays and Roma should be gassed.”

“He demanded that all homosexuals, Roma, and Jews should be shot immediately after they have been born,” one MP reported him as saying.

After three young Roma boys made international headlines in March when they snuck into a zoo in the city of Jihlava and stoned a flamingo to death, some Czech social media users didn’t hold back on what they thought of Roma.

“Bastards! I would do the same to them!” said one person.

“You should have thrown them to the hyenas,” another user said. Others said the young boys, being Roma, had “inborn genetic deficiencies,” with “intelligence lower than that of the dead flamingo.”

It’s no surprise to learn that Czechs, in general, aren’t particularly sympathetic towards Roma. In a poll earlier this year 43 per cent of Czechs indicated they were “very unsympathetic” towards Roma, while only 4 per cent described themselves as “very” or “somewhat sympathetic.”

“It’s a trend that’s been getting worse and worse”

There are at least some steps in the right direction. Over the past decade more and more Roma children have been attending mainstream schools instead of special, ‘practical’ schools. Reforms to make the system more inclusive began in September 2016, aimed at increasing participation of children with special needs (including children from deprived backgrounds) in mainstream education.

Still, it’s not enough, Czech ombudsman Anna Sabatova said at the conference. The new problem, she said, is segregation within many mainstream schools, where Roma children are still educated separately from non-Roma students.

“It’s a trend that’s been getting worse and worse,” Sabatova said, adding that the government needs to understand more about why these schools have opted for de facto “separate but equal” segregation.

This is what worries David Benar, Czech Deputy Minister for Human Rights. Himself Roma, Benar worries that the country is moving closer and closer to a system of “separate but equal” segregation of Roma within mainstream schools. And Roma like him won’t stand for it.

“Roma people are not in a good mood.”

(Photo credit: Wikipedia commons/Anglos)

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