Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Rumyan Russinov
Director - Roma Participation Project


Chairman Smith and members of the Commission, thank you very much forinviting me again to testify before you. Today I will speak about school desegregation in Central and Eastern Europe. This is the first major issue around which large numbers of Roma in my country, Bulgaria, and other countries in the region have coalesced. Why have they coalesced in an evergrowing movement around this issue?

In the past decade, Central and Eastern Europe has undergone significant efforts toward democratic reform. Alongside this process, however, we have witnessed a reverse tendency affecting the Roma who number some 10 million in the region. The Roma alone became even more isolated, even more segregated, even more excluded from the opportunities and the prospects enjoyed by the other citizens of our countries. Discrimination against Roma is a pervasive problem which generates severe consequences for the Romani minority and serious social crises in our societies.

Numerous factors have determined the present exclusion of Roma. To mention just a few - the historic persecution and discrimination of Roma; the assimilationist policies of the communist governments; and the deep-seated prejudices held by the majority. More than anything else, however, the discriminatory policies towards Roma in the area of education, have produced and continue to produce inequality and near total exclusion of Roma. This problem is particularly conspicuous in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which have sizable Romani communities. A system of racially segregated education in these countries confined several generations of Roma to the bottom of the social hierarchy. To date, segregation of Roma in education continues without any effective
intervention on the part of governments, on the contrary, in many instances, it is being condoned by the public authorities.

In its most egregious form segregation in education channels Romani children to special schools for the mentally handicapped. These are substandard educational facilities, which offer no prospects for integration of Roma in the mainstream education system or in society in general. Everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe Roma are over-represented in these special schools, in the overwhelming number of cases their Romani ethnicity is the sole factor for their placement in these schools. Unofficial statistics indicate that up to 80% of the Romani children in the Czech Republic attend schools for the mentally handicapped. Similarly, in Slovakia this number is about 75%. High numbers of Roma in Hungary are also tracked to special schools. Roma are excluded from the mainstream education systems in a variety of other ways: outright exclusion; or they are maneuvered into inferior all-Romani schools; or, they are placed in segregated classes within the mainstream schools.

In a number of countries including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Serbia the majority of the Romani students attend segregated schools located in segregated Romani neighborhoods. In Bulgaria for example, about 70% percent of the Romani children attend the so called "Gypsy schools" which are notorious for the inferior standard of education. The "Gypsy schools" in Bulgaria were established in the 1950s and were officially labeled "schools for children with inferior lifestyle and culture". They had a substandard curriculum, which was intended to teach basic literacy and vocational skills. Despite the fact that in the early 1990s the Bulgarian government standardized the curriculum of the "Gypsy schools" the inferior status of the education in these schools remained unchanged. The inferior education environment in these schools is the product of continual neglect of the education needs of Romani children and a policy of placing unqualified teachers in them. Underlying racial prejudice towards Roma on part of the non-Romani teaching staff account for the degrading treatment of the children in the all-Romani schools.

School segregation and the resulting inferior education to which the overwhelming majority of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe are subjected has a devastating effect on Romani communities. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Romani children stand diminishing chances to live a normal life. High numbers of Roma drop out of school after the primary years and are unable to reintegrate; the few who manage to finish high school in the segregated system are often illiterate or have acquired only rudimentary reading and writing skills and for them university education is
unobtainable. For example, according to the 1992 census in Bulgaria, the number of Roma who graduated from universities was 0.1% of the total number of Roma. The respective share among the majority population was about 9%. The low educational status of Roma preconditions their disproportionate unemployment rates - ranging from 70 to 90 percent in the region and their further exclusion from civic life. Consequently, Romani communities are not able to produce their own elites, which could become the engines for the development of the community. School segregation of Roma has had the effect of stigmatizing Roma as an inferior ethnic group. The physical separation of the Roma community on the outskirts of towns and villages has further contributed to the prejudice against Roma by the majority, and eventually will undermine the cohesion of our societies. Current attempts on the part of the governments to restore this cohesion through implementing policies integrating Roma are doomed to fail as they do not attack one of the root causes for the exclusion of Roma - the lack of equal educational opportunities.

The first initiative to challenge school segregation was made in 2000 in the city of Vidin, Bulgaria by Roma. The Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program, which I direct, supported a local Romani organization, to initiate the desegregation of the local all-Romani school. Some 400 children from the all-Romani school were bused to the mainstream schools. Adult Roma monitors were placed in the receiving schools to address any problems which might arise; pupils were given extra curricular lessons and structured homework sessions and the very poorest children received a daily lunch bag to take to school. This effort was reported in the New York Times on June 14, 2001 by John Tagliabue (see attached).

The successful integration of today some 600 Romani children in the mainstream Vidin schools continues in the current school year. The Vidin initiative provides a viable model upon which to build a strategy for nation-wide school desegregation in Bulgaria and to thereby ensure equal access to quality education for Romani children. In 2001 Romani NGOs in 5 other cities in Bulgaria have made impressive efforts to initiate school desegregation by introducing the Vidin model.

With the support of the Roma Participation Program, efforts to ensure equal educational opportunities for Romani children have also started in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The initial steps in these countries involve preparatory pre-school activities for Romani children in order to prepare them to pass the tests for mainstream school entrance.

Several recent international fora highlighted the growing consensus among Romani activists and Romani parents in Central and Eastern Europe that the existing patterns of segregated education of Romani children place them at lifelong disadvantage in comparison with their non-Romani peers and should be eliminated. Romani activists and parents urged the international community to pressure governments in Central and Eastern Europe to desegregate the schools. At the World Conference against Racism in Durban in August 2001, the Roma delegates called for school desegregation and had the language for it adopted in the final Conference document. The OSCE Conference entitled "Equal Opportunities for Roma and Sinti: Translating Words into Deeds", held in September 2001 in Bucharest, endorsed the urgent need to start to desegregate education for Roma.

At the domestic level, however, our efforts to translate Roma political will for the desegregation of schools have met with only partial success so far. Although many governments in Central and Eastern Europe have adopted policies on Roma, which deal with the issue of education, these policies remain largely unimplemented. Nowhere in Central and Eastern Europe have governments undertaken concrete actions to resolve school segregation.

The nationwide desegregation of schools cannot be carried out by grass-roots initiatives or NGOs only. It will take comprehensive strategies and resources that can only be provided by the state. The sustainability of the desegregation initiatives we have undertaken depends on the full involvement of government. The failure of our governments to take resolute steps to eradicate segregation of Roma betrays a dangerous shortsightedness with respect to the general socio-economic development of our countries. The avalanche-like growth of uneducated or poorly educated Roma destroys not only our own Roma communities, it undermines the stability of the social processes in general. Each year in which the status quo of segregated education is allowed to remain increases the burden on society and makes social development less predictable and less controllable.

We need the support of your Commission and of the U.S. Congress and U.S. government agencies, such as USAID, to fight this fundamental inequality. We ask you, for immediate political, financial and technical support to help us achieve equal education opportunities. Your American experience with school desegregation is the model we are trying to learn from. We need American
civil rights leaders to come to our countries and address the issue with the highest level of government and with the public. We need the World Bank and the US government to show these countries the exorbitant costs of running parallel school systems and to find ways through loans and grants to help our governments finance systemic school desegregation. We need the World Food Program's School Lunch Program to provide lunches to Roma children whose families are too poor to do so themselves. We need the presence of groups like IRI and NDI in the region to help build Roma political capacity in national elections.

We need also the direct support of the U.S. Congress and we ask you to keep the pressure on your counterparts in our national parliaments, in the European parliament and on your own American Ambassadors to support school desegregation for the Roma people.

Chairmen Smith and Campbell, thank you for continuing support.