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Your comments: Educating Roma

Nikola Cervenakova
Nikola Cervenakova, one of the children at the heart of the case.

Across Europe, Roma children have often been educated in "Special Schools" for children with mental disabilities.

But last year, after a 10 year battle, a group of Roma children won their case against the Czech government at the European Court of Justice.

Reporter Ray Furlong travelled to the Czech Republic to see what difference the court ruling has made to Roma children and their families.

After the programme at 1130 BST on Thursday, 28 August, Ray Furlong and Jim Goldston - the lawyer who took the Czech State to court - took part in a live web-chat to discuss the issues raised by the programme.

This debate is now closed.


Ray Furlong writes: Thanks to everyone for taking part, and sorry if your comment is not published. The response was huge and we couldn't put them all up - but they were all read and I think the views published represent the broad range of opinion. As one contributor said, there are no simple solutions. I think this debate shows how true that is.

As long as we see any fellow human as different from us we are going to promote racism. It's sad that we are still not evolved enough to respect and accept differences and treat others as equal.

Minority groups the world over are realizing the importance of mainstream education. Everyone needs to reach out the hand of friendship to each other, and acknowledge that our needs and goals are the same.
Robyn, Australia

Jim Goldston writes: A number of commentators suggest they have never "seen" incidents of racism in the Czech Republic. One of the paradoxical things about racism is that often it cannot be seen. When a Romani job applicant is turned down for employment, or a Roma child is sent to special schools, it may not be immediately clear that racism is at issue. But racism is so insidious in part because it is often expressed subtly, in a manner that is hard to detect. It is in part for this reason that, in the Strasbourg judgment, the Court made clear that the rules for proving discrimination must be liberalized to take account of these factual difficulties.

Your very "politically correct" piece is a far cry from the truth. The Czech people are nothing like that. The problems with the Roma and Sinti are the same as in the rest of Europe; some of them work but most like to be on social welfare. The Czech government is taking steps to get these people to work by cutting their social dependency and demanding they start working for their money. Their "lack" of education is a result of self-inflicted interest in having anything to do with the rest of the population or educational system.
Willem de Vries, Brno

The US has its own large-scale version of the "Roma" situation. We have created one education system for economically disadvantaged students, and another for middle class/advantaged students. The disadvantaged students focus on "testucation", learning only what is going to get their schools rising scores on nationalized tests. Meanwhile students from advantaged backgrounds (who have the background to pass these useless tests) can devote their school years to the actual practice of the learning that brings lifelong joy of this all-important endeavor. The net effect is that disadvantaged children (there are a few extraordinary exceptions) are in essence denied education. I might further add that students are often put into special education classes or labelled as special needs as this will give them extra time on these national tests henceforth increasing the possibility of raising these all-important test scores. One more example of "education denied" yet not quite so blatant as the Roma situation.
GBL, Brooklyn, USA

Ray Furlong writes: Very briefly: although Nikola was originally judged to be 'mentally retarded,' this judgement was reversed by subsequent psychological testing (carried out by the Czechs, not outsiders) and she later attended a 'normal' school.

The facts reported don't make a picture of any discrimination. On the contrary, there are schools trying to do their best for Roma children (basically - to persuade Roma parents to care about children's education), there are social services trying to put children into the place most convenient and effective for them (is really 'nothing wrong' mentally with a 18-year old woman who's not able to do shopping?). Let's say - 'OK, we have a challenge. We have children with the special educational needs, children who are handicapped not physically or mentally but culturally. So we (majorities and minorities together) need to find a specialised approach to that'. And please, stop blaming white people for all the sins of the world, including fake discrimination and deprivation of poor little Roma from the luxury of literacy and numeracy.
Jane, Surgut, Russia

I rented out my house to a Roma family. The neighbours complained that they were rowdy and left rubbish lying on the street. They never paid the rent on time, they never paid electric/water bills. After putting up with their nonsense for 2 1/2 years, I evicted them by court order. As for education, their 5 children were enrolled at school, turned up for the first day, and never went again.
Maria Verivaki, Crete, Greece

Ray Furlong writes: The example of the Vietnamese is interesting. Vietnamese immigration to Czechoslovakia began during the communist era, though in small numbers - mostly students. It really grew in the 1990s, when many families came over as economic migrants. Most of them run small businesses, market stalls being especially popular. It has been documented (though I'm not sure how reliable the data is) that Vietnamese children are very successful in Czech schools. This seems to me to raise a few issues.

Firstly, immigrant communities are often very aspirational (otherwise, why emigrate?) and pass this on to their children. In the UK, too, children of some immigrant groups have excelled - even outperforming some indigenous children. Secondly, and I'm no expert on this, I think it is fair to say that educational attainment is extremely highly valued in all strata of Vietnamese society. The interviews that I have conducted with Vietnamese people in both the Czech Republic and Germany have at least suggested this to me. The third issue is racism: many Czechs are very dismissive of the Vietnamese. However, there is no ingrained culture of simply writing them off as people who 'can't be educated,' - a view voiced by more than one Czech teacher I've spoken to.

The problem is just as bad if not worse in Slovakia. It's very easy to judge what happens there as being racist from a Western point of view, but my partner's 78 year-old grandmother has been broken into by Roma twice, both times in daylight, and both times to steal firewood. It's not like there's any shortage of trees where she lives! It's very hard to believe that Roma want change in their lives, when they are supplied with state housing, and all they can think to do is sell off all the bathroom fittings. Most poor minority groups in most countries don't stoop to these levels, so get more sympathy. Unfortunately, most documentaries from the west just pay a 5-minute visit to the Roma camps, see the conditions, and smack a label on the hosting country, completely ignoring what they've tried to do (and has generally failed) in the past. Please don't generalise Central-Europeans as racist, as other people have pointed out this is untrue.
Steve, Oxford

I am originally from the Czech Republic. By British description I am "white other". Regarding the Roma issue, in my belief, it is similar problem as Australian government attitude towards aboriginal people. Roma racism is not just a problem of the Czech Republic, but Europe and whole world too. Racism of Roma people is just a tip of the iceberg in human society that reflects a bigger problem -being apart of an ethnic minority.
Veronika, UK

I wonder if we are presenting the wrong solution in insisting that Romany culture must alter itself to become more mainstream; is there not a way to encourage the Roma to hold on to what is valuable about their culture, drop the victim mentality and make a positive contribution to society? If parents fear that their children will become "white" if they go to standard schools, then we have to present an option that allows for the holding of a culture whilst still educating children with all the necessary skills. This is almost more difficult in a country with only a few minority groups as the issue becomes polarised (though I think the note about Vietnamese children is pertinent; they are a significant minority from a vastly different culture yet they have integrated with little problem). The question is not so much how to place blame on a government, make charges of racism or change an educational system but how do we develop a society where all people are encouraged to contribute in the way that is both conducive to societal cohesion and maintains the value of different cultures? This is not going to be decided on paper in Strasbourg; the real change will only come when Roma and "white people" have a different sort of vision for what society means and have the imagination to step out of the past. Yes, there are real economic and legal barriers, but the greater barrier are negative ideals on all sides.
Jason, Glasgow, UK

Jim Goldston writes: At the time I took on the case I was working for a non-profit organisation which took on cases for public good. We were funded by foundations set up to do altruistic work. I did not get any of the settlement money nor did the organisation.

Are you seriously suggesting that normal hard working people all over Europe are in a common conspiracy to deny human rights to a group of people called "Roma"? I think sometimes artificial anger is portrayed by journalists. As for the lawyer, how much was it a genuine concern and how much was a "good little earner"? It is certain that attitudes amongst us "settled people" need to change, but the change is nothing like as much as is required from the "Roma" and their like.
Peter Bolt, Redditch, UK

Discrimination means treating someone differently. It has many causes, not all the same for every group that is discriminated against. Roma/gypsy culture deliberately takes itself outside of normal society. Unfortunately, the conduct of a significant number of its people is undeniably criminal and harassing to many in society. In my work, I've personally witnessed some of this. What I find objectionable is that those who choose to operate outside society, and indeed abuse it so readily, also complain that the same society isn't providing for them when they need it. I'm sure there will be bleeding hearts who'll talk about the "human family" etc and that we all need to care for each other, but societies exist within accepted boundaries of right and wrong. If you are part of society you live by its rules, and (if you think the rules are wrong) you make a proper protest. You can't simply "opt in" and "opt out" when you feel like it. The freedoms we enjoy within society aren't unlimited - none of us can do what we please, just because it's what we want.
Michael, Manchester, UK

Ray Furlong writes: The fear and distrust that exists between the two communities clearly is a huge part of the barrier. Many years ago I was working on a TV documentary on race relations in the Czech Republic. The Roma we interviewed said they didn't go out at night for fear of attack by skinheads. White Czechs, including skinheads, told us they said they didn't go out at night for fear of attack by Roma! It would be a bit comic if it wasn't such a serious problem. There are very few friendships, or even acquaintances, between white Czechs and Roma. Segregation at schools only reinforces this.

A year or two ago, a group of Roma squatted a building beside a local park near me, and many others came to join them. They were there for well over a year and the local authorities gave them everything - education, medical care, free water and toilets. Despite this, they continued to use the park as a toilet and a dump so that nobody else could use it. I am a social scientist and was really surprised that they showed no adaptation. The community was very male dominated. The men were clearly not poor, with large cars and vans, and often sat drinking in the street. The women seem to work all the time, and were also sent into town to beg with the smaller children. They scavenged in all our dustbins and were often scolded and bullied by the men. Having been in education myself, I know these rather 'archaic' and tribal communities do not see education as important. Once you educate the women, this raises the children's standards. For me, the core of the problem is the extreme machismo of the men, who will, of course, have an interest in making the children suspicious of the outside world and try to cut them off from it. Making out they are hard done by is rubbish as they couldn't have been given more. People who behave badly often try to blame others.
Susan Shaw, France

The programme seemed to show that this was a clash of cultures. The one did not understand the other. The Roma community acts as a social group with the group being the most important aspect of life. The children, especially the males, felt they needed no education as they would get their income from the group. The Czech people are living as individuals and looking to schools to prepare them for life on their own. That is the big difference.
Peter McCabe, UK

Jim Goldston writes: A lot of comments are questioning the commitment of Roma parents. Given the length of time the case took and the number of families involved my experience is contrary to this. In fact we had to turn down a number of families who wanted to be part of the action.

In response to the comment from Meenakshi Kansal below, this reflects what our researchers documented as part of the case. Roma parents want their children to be safe and some children will have ended up in special schools when they have not needed to.

I live in the Czech republic and I have a lot of experiences with Roma population. I have to say, that Roma rapper is absolutely right. All depends on Roma parents and their community.
Panocha Al, Czech Republic

The main problem is not whether the Czechs are racist (many are) or the Roma are antisocial (many are, too). The problem is mutual incompatibility. If you ask an average Czech person whether they want Roma as neighbours, they wil say: "No!" It's not because the skin colour mattered so much, it's because good chances are, the new neighbours will be noisy, they will fill the flat with their many relatives, they will commit small crimes, they will litter the neighbourhood. Does anybody want such neighbours? The answer is simple - just no. I try not to be racist but if I see a group of young Roma on a tram or bus, I just make sure my wallet is secure. Foreign tourist don't do that - and they tend to be sorry quite often. I honestly try not to judge people based on their race but if you asked me whether I wanted my new neighbours to be a Roma family, my first instinctive reaction would be: "No way!" For I know people who live near such neighbours and their experience is sad. This incompatibility leads to racism and, in the end, to violence. And honestly, I don't see a simple solution there.
Robert Skopek, Prague

It is a sad situation. Perhaps these Sinti and Roma parents send their kids to these schools because they do not want them to feel discriminated against and suffer in the 'white schools'. These parents must fear the treatment their kids will receive at mainstream schools and feel that schools where there are others from their community are a warmer environment for their kids. Truly regrettable and difficult situation. My heart goes out to them.
Meenakshi Kansal, Delhi, India

Jim Goldston writes: A number of the comments illustrate stereotypes of Roma Education and Roma in general. A number of the comments refer to Roma committing crime - there is little to no data to ground these beliefs. One thing the judgment said was that governments need to provide quality education to all and gathering data on ethnic groups is part of the way to deliver this.

I lived in Italy for many years, and I am not ashamed to say I strongly dislike the Roma people. Not because of racism: I would dislike ANY group of people (Albanians or Zulus) that customarily: a) moved unauthorized into well-kept public gardens and turned them into open-air toilets and rubbish dumps within days; b) routinely sent their children to steal and burglarize as their only source of income, and the police cannot do anything because they are under-age; c) got public housing for free and turned them into favelas, smashing or stealing everything, from furniture to copper wiring. No wonder they are not liked anywhere in Europe. But of course the BBC will never explain that.
Rob Soria, UK

A fascinating programme. I am a Special Educational Needs co-ordinator at a challenging secondary school with a little experience of Roma migrants. It was difficult to integrate the young people due to a number of reasons; prior appalling experiences, little or no experience of mainstream education, and some attitudes in terms of rules and expectations. None of this came as a surprise to me having read extensively about Czechoslovakia. The challenge is still on but getting easier. One of the hardest problems was getting parents to accept special needs when it was obvious.
Veronica Dixon, Liverpool

Ray Furlong writes: Thank you everybody for your contributions to the debate. I assume that many of them are responses to my article, while others are simply people's personal experiences. It's all welcome. I hope the radio report was also stimulating and enlightening - on what is clearly an extremely complex topic. With us to discuss the issues is Jim Goldston, the lawyer who represented Berta Cervenakova in Strasbourg.

We will both be responding to your comments for the next hour or so.

I grew up next to Roma colonies. They are being helped a lot by social programmes, but that does little to improve the community in general. They wish to integrate in out society, yet they fail to obey to our common sense rules. Discrimination should be eliminated, yes, but on both sides. I do believe that their isolation has its causes which must be researched and dealt with in a proper manner. To melt those cultural gaps, time is our best ally. Education and rising awareness should help indeed. But people should realize that it's difficult to accomplish a non-destructive integration, as far as cultural elements are concerned, and that is valid both ways.
Dan, Cluj, Romania

I'm shock and appalled to see racism and injustice continue to occur in the heart of so-called civilized nations. It's hypocritical to see the European Union quick to condemn other countries for human rights abuses, while blocking their ears to their own members for injustices they commit against gypsies. It's mind-boggling to see it happening in 21st century in the heart of Europe. If the European Union was sincere to their ideas of justice and equality. They should have used justice and equality to its minority as standard for joining its union.
Hassan Rage, Minneapolis, USA

I feel very passionately about the plight of Roma communities across Europe. I have lived and worked in Budapest and Greece and the story is pretty much the same everywhere. Roma communities seem to be an demographic that no government, liberal or conservative, can deal with satisfactorily. It seems to me that there is one fundamental fact that commentators overlook when addressing this question. Roma communities don't really want to adapt to a staid society. The complaint is often heard that the government give them housing and offer schools and money and then they abuse all this, perhaps this happens because they don't want all that, perhaps they don't want to live confining so called 'civilised society? For centuries they have travelled the lands and brought joy and enrichment across Europe with through their culture, it is relatively recently that as a new organisation of state control became prevalent in Europe that the Roma were forced into what ere essentially ghettos and from this confinement, the problems of criminality began, who are we to say how and where they should live? Free them and allow them their culture back, assimilation is a dirty word and definitely is not the answer here.
Ben Davidson, London

I feel that Western Europe sees the Roma with an sympathetic outsider's eye. I would like for the Europeans who use "Roma" and "discrimination" in the same sentence to live in towns and cities with large Roma population for several years before voicing an opinion. I believe the most common reason while people stay away from Roma is fear for personal safety (which is very real and not some unfounded concern) and NOT cultural differences. Assaults by Roma on other citizens are far more prevalent than the other way around. Why is that do you think? I'd feel more open to them if they didn't make me afraid for my safety or that of my loved ones.
Adriana, Bucharest

It's not much different in the UK - the general population still vilifies and scapegoats the gypsy/traveller communities in Britain.
Emma, Leeds

Roma are treated like dirt here too in Italy. No one seems willing to acknowledge the incredible transfer of culture and traditions and knowledge that this community has brought to Europe from the Orient, enlightening the entire European society while doing so; yet there is no gratitude, just brickbats, sticks and stones. As for education, there are millions of "native" European kids in all of Europe whose parents do not read to them, interest themselves about scholastic curriculum or activities and let their children abuse their privilege of free access to education that runs up to high school. Think of the number of underprivileged children/youth in the world who strive to get an education, suffering indescribable privation and hardship; then it is easy to condemn the European Ministers/Ministries of Education who have the power to give but impede what is any child's right to education. What a sad state of affairs. How then can the European governments take it out on the Roma communities for not integrating into modern society when they themselves are largely responsible for the Roma marginalisation?
Mythili, Italy

It seems anytime BBC writes about the Roma people, they are painted as a minority and people who suffer from discrimination. Perhaps some of this exists although I feel self-inflicted in most cases. Why don't you publicise the problems with the Roma such as the crime, the ever destruction of property handed out by the Czech government such as apartments? Why don't you mention the work statistics, how many actual Roma work for living? Surely there is a small minority of Roma who want to truly be productive and work and blend into the Czech mainstream. The majority however is completely opposite. That story I suppose doesn't sell, and makes no headlines with the bleeding heart liberals in Brussels.
Michal Kloss, Prague

It was very sad reading this. I had to scroll back to the top several times to confirm the subject matter at hand. As I read through the article, many times I thought I was reading about inner city schools predominately attended by African American kids in the US. The similarity is uncanny and I am very sad that racism manifests itself in much the same way everywhere.
Terri, Toronto

If the Czech people are racist, could you explain to me why children of Vietnamese-Chinese immigrants, whose parents do not speak the Czech language, are learning in "standard" schools without problems? The problem is the level of importance of education - for the majority of Roma society, education is not seen as a way to live better.
Mirek, Prague

The problem with the Roma community seems widespread in Europe and not only in the Czech Republic. I am a Czech citizen and am lucky to have grown up abroad without any programmed stigma against the Roma. Racism or xenophobia? Maybe, but I see it as well from both sides. I am mixed race and with Arab origins (in looks as well) however, I have never faced any trouble in my stay in my country. I really hope that this stigma will disappear, however it's hard when I see even the young generation automatically programmed to be wary of the Roma community. On the other side, the Roma has managed as well to use the "victim song" as mentioned in the article allowing them to play on the senses of others. Several generations are needed to minimise the pain. I try to look elsewhere, and I can see countries downplaying their experiences with the Roma in Europe.
Farouk Mogheth, Prague

I am genuinely thrilled that this decision has been made. Living in Moscow, I see first-hand the discrimination the Roma endure here. It makes me sick. But I do not expect the changes to occur quickly. Doing it quickly would only lead to chaos and years of back-tracking later on. You have to get a new generation of teachers in there who have been educated with a different philosophy. This means you also need to replace your educators. Secondly, many Roma do not want their children mixing with "white" children. Others forbid contact with outside cultures. This is something the EU is going to have to overcome in order to really help the Roma. But I don't think it will be overcome easily. Europeans tend to think negatively of the Roma and the Roma are inclined to resent and avoid Europeans. These long-standing positions will be as hard to break down as they are in the US when it comes to African Americans. We are still dealing with racism and reverse-racism. It is an impossible cycle.
Susan, Moscow

I've been living in Prague for two years where as a teacher I talk to Czechs every day. In two years I have had one Roma student- that in itself was a surprise. In my experience nearly all Czechs strongly dislike the Roma - what is very worrying is that Czechs pass the hate onto their kids. It is a big problem. The Roma are certainly not innocent, lots of Czechs have horror stories of how their children were attacked by groups of young Roma men. Both sides are two blame but neither are willing to make concessions. With such prevailing attitudes it is difficult to see a solution.
Steve, Prague

The prejudices against the Roma and other gypsies throughout Europe really show the seamy side of the "high-minded" European liberal culture, alongside other race-related issues. I live in Switzerland, where the situation is similar, and the Roma are the whipping-boys of the popular media, and the politicians. It is not much better than the caste system in my country India, although there one has been seeing progress over the last few decades. Here in Europe, no one is interested. They are happy to brand an entire community as thieves and worse, and go on marginalising it, preventing it from bettering its lot. I see very little hope in the future, because deep down inside, Europeans really have a hard time letting go of their xenophobic tendencies.
Vivek, Zurich

I think this article fails to explain the reasons why the Roma community are not accepted in the Czech Republic. It's not a case of the minority spoiling it for the majority, it's the other way around. I have seen a Roma community move in to a town and then turn it into a favela. And then demand new flats/houses because their accommodation is unliveable. If they are not given new housing, they claim the state is being racist against them. I am a foreigner in the Czech Republic and I have never seen a single case of xenophobia. But I have seen an uncontrollable problem which can only be compared to a swarm of locusts devouring state money.
Kevin Smith, Zlín, Czech Republic

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