The Right to an Education

In the beginning, the ADC “Memorial”
project “Legal Assistance for Settlements of Caldarari Roma in Russia”
primarily offered legal support to those experiencing difficulties with
respect to housing.  Over time, however, more and more attention
has come to be paid to the problem of primary education for Roma children.
Unfortunately, few school-age children in compact Roma settlements have
the opportunity to study in school on an equal footing with their peers.
Moreover, this is often related not to a lack of desire on the part
of the parents to send their children to school, but to various obstacles
that require legal attention. 

Problems can arise at the very moment
of school registration:  frequently children are not allowed to
attend school because their parents do not have official registration
of permanent residence.  This is unacceptable:  according
to information from a representative of the Ministry of Education and
Science of the Russian Federation, Tatiana Petrova, presented at the
73rd Session of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination, the Ministry sent a clarification to schools that they
do not have the right to demand that parents present residency documentation
or documentation concerning citizenship status upon the registration
of a child into an institution of primary education.  This rule
also applies to foreign citizens.  Nevertheless, instances in which
children do not attend school because their parents do not have registration
of permanent residence are common in compact Roma settlements such as
those in Ivanovo, Cheliabinsk, and Vladimir Region.

For those children who are, in the
end, allowed to attend school, then over the course of their education
a series of other unpleasant surprises might await them.  There
are well-known cases in which Roma children are placed into special
classes of compensatory education for children who are lagging behind
and are not competent to study according to the standard school program.
This is frequently related to the fact that upon entering school, many
Roma children, as might be expected, do not know Russian well.
Moreover, another reason Roma children are commonly segregated into
special classes is the desire of many non-Roma parents to have their
children study apart from Roma children:  this is not at all acceptable,
as was recently made clear by a decision of the European Court of Human

On November 13, 2007, the Grand Chamber
of the European Court of Human Rights determined that in the case of
“D. H. and Others v. the Czech Republic” a violation of Article
14 (the article on discrimination) of the European Convention for the
Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and Protocol 1,
Article 2 of the Convention (the right to education) had occurred.
The placement of Roma children in special classes for those experiencing
difficulties in their studies was found to be disproportionate:
the European Roma Rights Center showed the court that the likelihood
that Roma students be placed in special schools was 27 times higher
than that for students of other nationalities with the same background.

Unfortunately, the Czech Republic is
not an exception.  We recently discovered that in the village of
Kosaia Gora (Tula), on the basis of the results of examinations carried
out by a medical and psychological commission, 42 Roma first-graders
were put into a special class.  As it turns out, not one Roma child
passed the test, and each was found to have “a low level of development
in the cognitive sphere” and poor preparation for school.  Not
long ago the Roma residents of Kosaia Gora in Tula Region informed us
that their children were dismissed from school due to truancy. Of course,
there are many reasons why Roma children are unable to attend school;
first and foremost, as was already mentioned, lack of attendance is
related to poverty among the families.  However, in ordinary circumstances,
any child who has not been able to successfully complete a grade or
who has missed classes is allowed to re-take the same grade again in
order to make up lost material, but children from the Roma settlement
were deprived of this right.  This situation is reminiscent of
the situation in the Czech Republic, and now, on the basis of the decision
of the European Court of Human Rights, petitioners should be able to
contest the commission’s unfair decision to segregate the Roma children.

On June 5, 2008, the European Court
made a decision on the case “Sampanis and Others v. Greece,” in
which a violation of the right of Roma children to an education was
also found.  For a second time, the Court found a violation of
Article 14 of the Convention and of Protocol 1, Article 2 of the Convention.
In this instance, children had missed a year of elementary education
as a result of difficulties in the admittance process, after which they
were placed in preparatory classes, located in a separate building.
The court did not see any clear criteria for the separation of the children
and emphasized that although some of the children actually did need
the additional help offered in the preparatory classes, the placement
into such classes should not take place on discriminatory basis.
It does happen that Roma parents themselves prefer that their children
be placed into special classes or schools.  For instance, in Chudovo,
several families did not contest their children’s placement into a
school for those who had fallen behind because they were satisfied with
the conditions in that school.  It is, indeed, possible to understand
where the parents were coming from:  free lunches are no small
incentive to poor Roma families.  In the Czech case, the parents
also agreed to their children’s placement into special schools.
However, the European Court for Human Rights found that the behavior
of parents cannot infringe upon the right of their children to an education
and that the government must, by law, protect the children’s rights.
The parents’ consent to have their children study in separate facilities
cannot, in such instances, have any power.  Moreover, the Roma
parents in the case “D. H. and Others” as well as many other Roma
parents in the various countries of Europe simply do not have sufficient
information about what it actually means to be placed into “special
schools.”  Because the parents themselves are not very educated,
they are not aware of the consequences and risks that come out of such
segregated instruction; they do not realize that they are allowed to
appeal the results of the testing that puts their children into special
schools, and they do not know that alternative forms of education would
also be possible.  The result is a vicious circle:  because
the Roma parents are not sufficiently educated, they do not understand
that they are within their rights to protect their children’s right
to receive the education that is necessary for every modern person.
And the powers that be often take advantage of this.

Segregated classes or schools for Roma
children are common.  For instance, in the village Kalinichi in
Tambov Region there is a school in which children of the local Caldarari
Roma and Yazidi Kurds study.  The building has been in a dangerous
state of disrepair for a long time and is in no condition to be the
place of instruction of children.  However, the school continues
to serve 65 students studying at the elementary school level.

In order to change the situation, legal
support for the parents was arranged, so that they might represent the
interests of their children.  These parents are being assisted
by the lawyer Valentina Shaisipova.  However, even this legal assistance
has not helped to initiate a dialogue with the local authorities:
the lawyer’s questions were not answered within the designated deadline,
and all efforts to meet with the head of the administration of the Tambov
Region, V. F. Semchenko, were rejected.  With the help of their
lawyer, the parents turned to the court; however, here too the parents
ran into difficulties.  The petitioners were asked to present their
complaint at an arbitration court because the regular court decided
that the case was related only to economic questions, namely school
repairs, demanding significant funding.  Currently, the Roma parents’
petition regarding the inactivity of the local authorities (of the province
and municipality) have again been filed with the district court and
will shortly be reviewed.

Despite all of the difficulties that
the lawyer and petitioners have faced, their actions have nevertheless
had some effect on the attitude of the local authorities to the education
of Roma children:  in the fall of 2008, a school bus was arranged
to take junior high and high school students to a school in the village
of Kuz’mina Gat’.  Unfortunately, many families, because of
their relative poverty, were unable to provide their children with the
necessary school clothes or even with any warm clothes at all.
Therefore, in the winter the number of schoolchildren in Kuz’mina
Gat’ drops dramatically:  only 9-10 children ride on the bus
to school.  It is not surprising that these children, after attending
Roma elementary school, are not as well-prepared for the upper-level
grades as the non-Roma children in their age group who studied in regular
schools.  But the very fact that these Roma children had the opportunity
to continue their education after fourth grade, and, moreover, in classes
with non-Roma children, offers some hope that the situation with the
education of Roma children in Tambov Region has begun to take a turn
for the better.

In the village Nizhnie Viazovye (Tatarstan),
for example, Roma children study in the regular village school, but
children of all ages and levels of preparation sit in a single, separate
class.  They are taught the same subjects as the other students,
and are even presented with a multi-level program, for each student
from all four grades.  After elementary school, it would seem,
nothing should prevent these Roma children from moving on to the fifth
grade.  Indeed, it did happen that a Roma boy continued on to fifth
grade, entering the class with non-Roma children, but then after just
a few months, he dropped out and returned to the Roma class.  As
it turns out, it is not just the general level of preparation that plays
a role in the segregation of the Roma children, but also the attitude
in the school with regard to Roma students.  Although the administration
of the school points to the lack of desire of the Roma parents themselves
to send their children into the regular classes, from our conversations
with the Roma in the Roma community, the actual reason is completely
different:  “Russian children receive an all-around better education
because after completing the first grade, Russian children move on to
the second grade, whereas Roma children are taught for four years all
in one class,” the local Roma explain.  In addition to being
segregated into a special class, the Roma children are also not allowed
(or allowed only with great difficulty) to use the school bathrooms,
which not only insults their human dignity, but also potentially threatens
their health, inasmuch as the children are forced to go out to the street
even in winter.

Meanwhile, European and world standards
for education do not allow for segregation in schools or other educational
facilities. In 1960, UNESCO adopted its Convention against Discrimination
in Education.  Article 1 of the Convention defines “discrimination”
in the following way:

the term “discrimination” includes
any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based
on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, economic condition or birth, has the purpose
or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education
and in particular:

(a) Of depriving any person or group of persons of access to education
of any type or at any level;

(b) Of limiting any person or group of persons to education of an inferior

(c) Subject to the provisions of Article 2 of this Convention, of establishing
or maintaining separate educational systems or institutions for persons
or groups of persons; or

(d) Of inflicting on any person or group of persons conditions which
are in-compatible with the dignity of man.

Moreover, the creation of separate
educational facilities on the basis of language is considered admissible
and justifiable only when such education is offered in accordance “with
the wishes of the pupil’s parents or legal guardians, if participation
in such systems or attendance at such institutions is optional and if
the education provided conforms to such standards as may be laid down
or approved by the competent authorities, in particular for education
of the same level” (Article 2, b).

The participant states are also obliged
to “ensure, by legislation where necessary, that there is no discrimination
in the admission of pupils to educational institutions” (Article 3,

The UN Committee on the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination (CERD)’s General Recommendation XXVII (http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/type,GENERAL,CERD,,45139d4f4,0.html) of August 6, 2000, was devoted to the question
of discrimination against the Roma. Point 18 of the Recommendation
of the Committee calls for the party states:

To prevent and avoid as much as
possible the segregation of Roma students, while keeping open the possibility
for bilingual or mother-tongue tuition; to this end, to endeavour to
raise the quality of education in all schools and the level of achievement
in schools by the minority community, to recruit school personnel from
among members of Roma communities and to promote intercultural education.

In the closing observations of this
document, the Committee makes note of the marginalization of Roma in
the sphere of education:  a disproportionately large number of
Roma children are put into special schools, and the segregation of Roma
children results in a lower number of Roma children moving on to receive
a junior high and high school education.

In his article “The key to the promotion
of Roma rights: early and inclusive education” (http://www.coe.int/t/commissioner/Viewpoints/080331_en.asp; March 31, 2008) the Commissioner for Human
Rights of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg, emphasized that
“a comprehensive programme is needed” in order to resolve all of
the problems related to the education of Roma children.  Among
the most important aspects to be considered, he listed the following:
that the Roma receive a quality education, that adult Roma be given
the opportunity to receive a basic education, that educational materials
be offered in the Roma language, that personnel be recruited from the
Roma community, and that preschool education be offered for free.

Of course, much time and hard work
will be necessary for these plans to come to fruition.  But for
now we can start small:  we can make Roma parents and children
aware that their right to an education on par with that received by
all children can be protected, and we can provide them with the legal
assistance necessary to protect this right.

Marina Arefieva, lawyer

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