False starts – Romani children denied an education

The Romani settlement of Lonèarevo, Podturen Municipality, Croatia
The Romani settlement of Lonèarevo, Podturen Municipality, Croatia
© AI

Extreme poverty, discrimination in schools, and the lack of an inclusive and multicultural curriculum are preventing Romani children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia from enjoying their right to education.

Too often Romani children do not attend school, or do so only intermittently. With high drop-out rates, many fail to complete even primary education.

“Children do not come to school because they do not have clothes or a sandwich to bring.”
A teacher in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A pre-school in Cakovec, Croatia, attended by Romani children © AI
A pre-school in Cakovec, Croatia, attended by Romani children
© AI

Extreme poverty denies many Romani children the full advantages of education. Free meals, textbooks and transportation are only occasionally provided. Frequently children cannot overcome the obstacles of excessive distances between Romani settlements and schools, or the lack of warm clothing in winter.

Romani children often find it difficult to study or do homework in cold, overcrowded homes. For children who do go to school, poor clothing can mark them out as targets for bullying and harassment.

Drawings by Romani children in Slovenia © Private
Drawings by Romani children in Slovenia
© Private

“When something is wrong in the school it is always the Roma’s fault”
Romani school child in Croatia.

Some children are segregated into “Roma only” groups or classes, where they are offered only a reduced curriculum. Racist attitudes and prejudice are prevalent, in some cases even among teachers and educators working with Romani children.

Romani children from Slovenia dancing © Private
Romani children from Slovenia dancing
© Private

“The teacher tells me off when I speak my language… Teachers do not even want to hear our songs”
Romani school child in Croatia.

Many of the difficulties Romani children encounter in primary schools are due to language barriers – Romani children often do not speak the language of the majority population. Romani languages, culture and history are virtually absent from schools. Measures that could help overcome language obstacles have not been implemented in a systematic or comprehensive way.

Amnesty International is calling on the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia to:

  • Confront discrimination in schools: ensure no segregation occurs purely on the basis of children being Roma; provide training for teachers to eliminate prejudices;
  • Provide assistance to Romani children from the poorest families including textbooks, meals, transportation and school allowances
  • Take steps to include teaching in Romani language, and on Romani culture, history and traditions in school curricula in areas with a significant Romani population
  • Take steps to provide pre-school education, and employ teaching assistants in a systematic and comprehensive way, to help Romani children overcome language barriers

A Roma History

A Roma History

The Roma people have often been compared to the Jews, who, like the Roma, had no homeland until one was created for them in the state of Israel. And like the Jews during the Second World War, many Roma were killed in Nazi concentration camps; some estimates put the number as high as 1.5 million.

The Roma Migration
The Roma arrived in Europe more than 500 years ago, migrating in several waves from northern India by way of Asia Minor. The most significant waves were during the 11th century, when they travelled across Iran into the Byzantine Empire. Some scholars say they came with Kubla Khan’s armies, which had travelled through Central Asia at the same time as the Roma migration from India to Central Asia. Others say they moved on into Europe with returning Crusader armies in the early 13th century. By the early 16th century, the Roma had reached the most distant areas of Europe, including Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Spain.
The Roma in Czech Republic
The Roma arrived in Czechoslovakia in the 13th century. It was thought that they were Turkish spies, and fears of the invading Turks spurred anti-Roma sentiments among the Central Europeans.

Sedentary Roma in Slovakia were castle musicians and metalsmiths. When the increasing anti-Roma sentiment grew, the Roma metalsmiths were restricted in the trades in which they could work. They were prohibited from working in the finer, higher-paying work and were only allowed to make farm tools. They were also restricted to living on the edges of villages and towns. In 1538, the first anti-Roma legislation in the Czech region came into effect. In 1541, they were expelled from the country after several fires broke out in Prague, the cause of which were blamed on the Roma.

Prejudice and Persecution
Anti-Roma sentiment was exacerbated by the increasing destabilization that occurred as a result of the wars of the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Following these conflicts, the Roma were severely restricted in terms of what they could do to make a living and where they could live, which led them to begin living a nomadic lifestyle in isolated areas.

In 1697 and again in 1701, the Roma were declared “outlaws” by Leopold I, the Austrian emperor. In 1710, all adult male Roma were to be hanged without trial, and it was ordered that women and young men were to be flogged and banished. In Bohemia, their right ear was to be cut off; in Moravia, the left ear; in parts of Austria, they were to be branded on the back. These mutilations would allow any Roma to be easily identified upon re-arrest. In 1721, adult females were ordered to be executed, and in 1726, all Roma children and women re-entering Bohemia were to meet the same fate. Administrative reforms in 1737 put new tax burdens on the peasantry, and any Roma with a tent, wagon, and horses were taxed twice as much as those without.

During the 1760s, attempts were made to assimilate the Roma. All males between the ages of 12 and 16 were to be taught a craft, and those over 16 were eligible for the draft. There were also attempts to create Roma settlements, and to place children in foster homes, in schools, or in jobs.

Within a few decades, the assimilation attempts stopped. An 1887 regulation that all nomads be registered and that all Roma 14 years and over be registered was still being adhered to in the 1920s despite the fact that the Czechoslovakia Constitution of 1920 included a Bill of Rights for National Minorities, giving them all the same rights without distinction as to race, language, or religion.

The 1921 census showed 61 Roma in the Czech region, and 7967 in Slovakia. In 1926, the Slovak census accounted for 60 315 settled Roma and 1877 nomadic Roma, most of whom lived in the Slovak region. Government census figures of the number of Roma have not been precise.

The Second World War
As many as 1.5 million Roma died in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. The worst atrocities occurred in the Czech region, Romania, Croatia, and the Soviet Union. Recent studies show that in 1938 there were between 3000 and 4000 Roma in the Sudetenland, 6000 in Bohemia, and 8000 in Moravia. (These are all regions of the Czech Republic.) It is estimated that between 6000 and 8000 Czech Roma died.

Post-war Czechoslovakia
Following 1945, 1.8 million Germans and 68 000 Hungarians were forced out of Czechoslovakia, many of them from the Sudetenland. In turn, 1.5 million Czechs, many of them Roma, moved into the area from other parts of Czechoslovakia. In the 1947 census, there were 85 000 Roma in Slovakia and 16 500 in Czech lands.

The 1950s saw renewed attempts to force settlement as a means of assimilation. During the 1960s, attempts were made to address educational and housing issues. By 1968, Czechoslovakia had the largest Roma population of the Soviet bloc: 165 000 in Slovakia and 60 000 in Czech lands. During the 1970s, official government programs were implemented to encourage sterilization of Roma women, including financial reimbursement to those women who would undergo the procedure. The Roma population growth rate between 1970 and 1980 was 25.5 per cent in Slovakia and 47 per cent in the Czech region.

As the government got rid of substandard housing in Slovakia, many Roma moved to the Czech region. Others moved in search of better job opportunities. By 1988, an estimated
391 000 Roma lived in Czechoslovakia, a 35.6 per cent increase from 1980.

The Velvet Revolution
Since 1989 there have been significant political changes in Czechoslovakia; the “Velvet Revolution” saw the end of Communism in that country. Paradoxically, however, with democracy came the increased expression of racial prejudice. Thirty-five Roma have been killed since 1989 in what the Roma claim are racially motivated deaths. In anticipation of the break-up of Czechoslovakia, Slovak Roma began to move to the Czech region. Czechs reacted to this migration and protested the general increase in crime that was occurring because of the higher unemployment and increase in poverty, blaming the Roma, with little statistical basis for their accusations. Prague alone saw an increase in crime of 181 per cent. When the country divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic on January 1, 1993, all residents of the Czech Republic had to re-register for citizenship. Residency requirements meant that between 10 000 and 25 000 Roma lost their Czech citizenship because, having moved from the Slovak region, they did not have official Czech residency and therefore were caught between the two countries.

Public opinion surveys have recently shown that Czech anti-Roma sentiment is the highest in Europe. Some say the Roma have become the scapegoats for all that is wrong in that country, as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Those who express concern about the Roma point to their growth rate, which is much higher than the national averages of the countries in which they live, and express fears about the increase in crime rates occurring across the Czech region since 1989, implying that the phenomenon is occurring because of Roma.

The total number of Roma in the world today is estimated between seven and eight million, with most of them living in Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, and Hungary. Since the demise of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, there has been an increase in Roma cultural and ethnic unity. In the Czech Republic, 30 Roma cultural organizations were started and programs in Romani Studies were set up at the universities. As a result, there now exist Roma political parties and associations, and the word Roma, which means the people, is gradually replacing the term Gypsy.


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