PRAGUE — I am what many people call a “Gypsy.” I prefer the term “Roma.” There are more than 10 million of us across Europe. The vast majority of us live in Third World conditions — denied access to adequate housing, health care, and education.
I was born in a provincial town in Bulgaria in the late 1960s when, like the rest of Eastern Europe, the country was under Communist rule. The Communist Party recognized no ethnic minorities — we were all, formally, equal. Indeed, we were so equal that the government gave many of us new, Bulgarian names. One day, when I was a teenager named Husni, my name became Ivan.
But we were not equal. Roma lived in segregated ghettos. We were second-class citizens. One of my clearest early childhood memories is of my father telling my younger sister and me: “Education is the key to success. If you want to be accepted as equals by ‘Gadje’ (non-Roma), you must be better educated than they are. This is not easy. But if you succeed, this will change not only your life but also the lives of many of your people.”
Education is the only way out of the ghetto for many Roma. But in societies like Bulgaria, where racism is rampant, Roma have to fight for equal schooling. Most of the children I grew up with received an inferior education that did not train them for university or skilled jobs. They are either unemployed or working as unskilled laborers in Bulgaria or in the black market abroad.
By contrast, in large part because of my father, I managed to complete high school, then medical school, and become a general practitioner.
By the early 1990s, Bulgaria had changed. The transition to democracy promised freedom and prosperity to all who had suffered in communism’s stranglehold. Yet the Roma found themselves losers of the democratic transformation. Their situation, always tenuous, dramatically worsened. Their poor schooling left them ill equipped for the new economy. The communist dogma was shattered, but so was the pretense that we were all equals in a homogenous society. The government allowed employment discrimination to go unchecked, leaving the majority of Roma without jobs, and communities were plunged deeper into poverty. I obtained a law degree to help advocate for members of my community. Today, I live and work in Brussels, where I lead an organization that advises the European Union and national governments on Roma-related policies. I support my family and have achieved fulfillment in my career.
But I am an exception. It is because of the importance of education in making me an exception that I am so deeply troubled by a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights. The case was brought by 18 Roma children from the city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic who had been assigned to special remedial schools for the “mentally deficient.” In Central and Eastern Europe, Roma are often unfairly placed in these special schools, which provide subpar education that all but guarantees a life of poverty and manual labor.
I served as one of the lawyers for the children. The evidence showed that more than half of the Roma children in Ostrava were placed in special schools, and that more than half of the population of special schools was Roma. All told, Roma children in Ostrava are more than 27 times more likely than non-Roma to be placed in such schools.
This is not a unique situation. Far from it. The same disproportionate patterns of school assignment exist throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe. As a United Nations expert body has declared, this is racial segregation, plain and simple.
The Court was unmoved. Its judgment recognized that the claimants raised “a number of serious arguments” and that the education system in Ostrava perpetuated racial segregation. But the Court ruled that, absent a showing of actual racial bias in the minds of testers and administrators — virtually impossible to prove — the pervasive reality of racial disadvantage was not unlawful.
In what could have been a landmark victory that would open the doors of opportunity for Europe’s Roma, the Strasbourg Court instead chose to keep Roma locked out of a decent education. Its decision reverberates across the Continent — not just for the Roma, but for all who have a stake in promoting the values of tolerance and equality in a democratic Europe. Anyone who believes in the rights of all children to quality education should be troubled by a decision so myopic.
For decades, racial segregation in European schools has stigmatized generations of Roma children as stupid and disabled. The Court’s decision allows this brutal and systematic violation of fundamental rights to continue. The Roma, and Europe, have suffered a great defeat.
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