International civil society welcomes EU action against Czech Republic over Roma educational segregation
International civil society organizations have applauded Brussels' announcement that it is initiating infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic over its discrimination against Romani children in their access to education. The Open Society Foundations in London, the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, and the European Roma Information Office in Brussels all welcomed the decision.
The Open Society Foundations are the largest private funder of Roma advocacy and community groups in Europe and also support the promotion of inclusive educational policies. “This is a success for Roma families in the Czech Republic who have challenged the persistent discrimination they face not only in schools, but in their daily lives," said Violeta Naydenova, policy analyst on Roma and social inclusion at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels. "Ensuring that Roma children have a fair shot at a decent education is a fundamental part of the struggle to overcome that discrimination. Much more work remains ahead.”
The decision to begin infringement proceedings follows a complaint to the Commission filed 18 months ago by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), Amnesty International and the ERRC. James Goldston, executive director of OSJI, said "The European Commission’s decision is a wake-up call to officials in Prague and other European capitals that discrimination must end. Absent substantial changes in policy and practice, referral of this case to the Court of Justice will be essential to show that the EU and its Member States take seriously their commitment to the rule of law and equal justice for all.”
OSJI has been spearheading legal efforts to enforce a 2007 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found the Czech Republic’s treatment of Roma children was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, and ordered an end to discrimination. Štěpán Drahokoupil, who works on education and youth policy at the Prague-based Open Society Fund, noted that the move comes as the Czech Parliament is discussing an amendment to the education law that would affect the so-called “practical” schools for children with mental disabilities, where Roma are disproportionately represented.
“Even though the amendment aims to improve the situation of children with special educational needs... it allows for various interpretations, including increasing the number of pupils in the practical and special schools," Drahokoupil said. "The Ministry of Education must make it absolutely clear that the amendment will improve the situation of Roma children and will not result in further discrimination and segregation.”
A report in February 2012 from the European Commissioner of Human Rights pointed out that an estimated 30 % of Roma children in the Czech Republic are still placed into education for the mentally disabled compared to just 2 % of their non-Roma counterparts. Earlier this year the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti at the OSCE held a follow-up meeting in Prague to its own 2012 visit to the country to investigate the issue.
In Budapest, the ERRC noted that, together with other organizations, it has been calling on Brussels for almost two years to use its power to resolutely engage with the Czech Republic on "tackling the ongoing scandal of the segregation of Romani children in Czech schools". D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic, the case ruled on by the European Court of Human Rights in 2007, was brought by the ERRC and the families concerned.
The ERRC notes that it is now almost seven years since the landmark decision in that case found discrimination in the Czech education system, but the Czech Republic continues to violate European law with a school system that segregates not only Romani children, but children with disabilities. The group just recently sent a Letter of Concern to the Czech Ministry of Education about its proposed legal amendments, which the ERRC believes would in fact further increase discrimination.
“Launching the infringement proceedings sends a very clear signal that the EU will not tolerate discrimination of Romani children in education," said Rob Kushen, the Chair of the Board of the ERRC. "This is an especially significant step in light of these new legal initiatives that would mean a huge step back in fighting discrimination. The Commission recognises that segregation is an issue of regional concern, and a violation of EU and international law.”
Education is a key vehicle to enable the successful social inclusion of Roma communities across Europe. However, Romani children are far too often segregated in both mainstream and special schools, forced to learn from a lower quality curriculum, and sometimes refused enrolment outright because of their ethnicity, thereby robbed of their futures as productive European citizens.
In Brussels itself, the European Roma Information Office (ERIO) also welcomed the Commission’s action. Ivan Ivanov, ERIO’s Executive Director, was also involved in building the legal strategy behind the DH case.
"At that time, we believed this landmark case was the European equivalent of Brown v Board of Education [in the US], which would fundamentally change the discriminatory practices against Roma in the education system not only of the Czech Republic, but also of the other former socialist countries," Ivanov said. "Unfortunately this did not transpire. Following the Grand Chamber decision the Czech Republic initiated minor changes that did not have a lasting impact on the negative practice of school segregation.”
ERIO says that following the adoption of the Racial Equality Directive there have been several occasions where infringement proceedings were appropriate but ultimately did not take place. A recent Eurobarometer survey clearly shows that Roma communities remain the most discriminated against in Europe.
A recent Commission report on the implementation of the Racial Equality Directive also singles out Roma as the most discriminated-against group in Europe. Ivanov says the infringement procedure “will send a serious signal not only to other EU Member States where discrimination is taking place, but also to the accession countries with large Roma populations, where there is substantial evidence that the school segregation of Roma children is widespread. This practice ruins thousands of young Roma lives across the region and must be brought to an end.”
The Commission is in the process of issuing a formal notice to the Czech Republic, which will then be required to issue its observations within the period specified. The Commission will then deliver a reasoned opinion on the matter and, if the state subsequently fails to comply with that opinion, the issue may be brought before the European Court of Justice.
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