EU court ruling could change much for Czech Roma children

In a landmark verdict, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Czech Republic violated the rights of Roma children by placing them in so-called special schools for children with learning difficulties. The state has been ordered to pay the 18 families who took the case 4,000 euros each in compensation. Meanwhile, Roma rights campaigners are now calling for the Czech Republic to adopt positive measures to address the segregation that still exists, despite changes to the law.

Geraldine Scullion, photo: Jana Sustova
Marcela Mikova is a Romany woman from Ostrava in north Moravia. In 1996 her son Julius was 11 when he was put into a remedial elementary school (the Czech term is ‘special school’). Marcela and 17 other families are now celebrating the court ruling in Strasbourg. But she is still angry about how her child was treated:

“He could have gone further, she says, he could have gone to university. Who knows what he could have achieved.”

Geraldine Scullion: “In Ostrava the statistics show that a Romany child was 27 times more likely to end up in a special school than a non-Roma child. Across Europe generally the average is 15 times.”

Geraldine Scullion is the legal director of the European Roma Rights Centre. After Czech courts rejected the 18 families’ appeals for compensation in the late 1990s, her organisation helped them take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights; it found their rights had been violated.

“They said in practice what is happening is you’re not remedying at all…or you’re not addressing at all the needs of these children. In fact, what you’re doing is compounding their difficulties, by putting them in these schools where they have a lower curriculum, they don’t learn their numbers or their alphabet until a much later stage than if they’d attended another school. They’re isolated from the rest of the community, so you’re compounding problems for these Roma children, in terms of their social exclusion, their failure to find a job in later life, their access to further education and perpetuating cycles of poverty and social exclusion – which is to the detriment of the whole of Czech society.”

Kumar Vishwanathan, photo: Jana Sustova
“Special schools” as such no longer exist in the Czech Republic, having been abolished two years ago. However, says Indian-born Roma rights activist Kumar Vishwanathan, segregation has not gone away.

“In Ostrava if you stand by the roadside and you watch the kids taking the 7:30 morning buses to school you find a certain bus is full of Roma kids is going one way, and that is to the former special school. And you find non-Roma kids going the other way, to the normal school. Basically the old special schools, segregating special schools, still continue to remain, although they have been repainted and the signs changed.”

If that is the case, what should the Czech state now do to address the issue of discrimination in the education system? Jim Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative and has been closely involved in this groundbreaking case.

Jim Goldston, photo: Jana Sustova
“The government must one, end the disproportionate assignment of Roma children to certain kinds of schools. Two, it must begin to track and monitor what are the monitor what are the numbers of Roma and non-Roma, so that it can comply with its obligation to ensure that it’s not disproportionately assigning Roma children to certain schools. Three, it’s got to deal with consent, because the current practice of consent was clearly shown to be inadequate by the court. And four, it has to review the tests and the manner in which they are interpreted, because the court again suggested that they are clearly problematic.”

The Strasbourg ruling is important in that it makes it far easier for plaintiffs to prove discrimination – they no longer need to show intent to violate human rights, merely the facts on the ground. And given the ongoing situation, legal experts are saying we could see more such actions taken by Romany parents in the Czech Republic.