The European Commission sent a letter of warning to Hungary on May 26 over the segregation of Roma children in the country’s public school system. The Commission gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government two months to respond to concerns about the disproportionate number of Romani students in schools for the mentally disabled, as well as “a considerable degree of segregated education in mainstream schools”.
The formal notice begins an infringement procedure against Hungary, on the grounds that it is in violation of the European Union’s Racial Equality Directive.
The Commission’s letter echoed sentiments voiced in 2014 by the European Court of Human Rights in its judgment of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary, a case involving the misdiagnosis of two young Roma men as mentally disabled.
In that unanimous judgment, the Strasbourg court noted that primary school children in Hungary were being diagnosed as mentally disabled more than twice as often as the European Union average, the result of a “systemic misdiagnosis of Roma children as… a tool to segregate,” them from their non-Roma classmates in the Hungarian public school system, existent since “at least the 1970s”.
In response to the letter, Minister Overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár said he had “no idea how the European Commission knows who is and isn’t a gypsy”, according to the daily Népszava.
Hungarian citizens are allowed to abstain from reporting their ethnicity in the nationwide census. This right, afforded by the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities Act of 1993, was implemented so as to protect the privacy of Roma and other longstanding ethnic minorities in Hungary and thus safeguard them from potential discriminatory state policy.
In the 2011 census, 315,583 people reported themselves as Roma, about 3.7% of the country’s populace. Some scholars estimate the real number to be nearer to 700,000.
Without reliable demographic information, the extent of segregation in the educational system is impossible to measure. But Roma rights activists claim that the governmental response to the letter is a diversionary tactic which deliberately misses the forest for the trees.
“The existence of segregation of Roma schoolchildren in Hungarian schools… it just exists,” says Péter Molnár, a researcher at Central European University who has sued the Ministry of Human Capacities for allegedly withholding information from the public about governmental desegregation policy. “It’s probably not possible to get exact numbers, but… the existence of segregation: it’s not really possible to seriously question or challenge it.”
A report by sociologist Gábor Havas estimated that in 2004 “at least” 15% of Hungarian Roma primary school children were enrolled in special education classes, more than four times the national average.
Members of the Fidesz administration argue that the underperformance of Roma in school is intimately tied to the population’s deep poverty, which the party says it is striving to alleviate.
At a Roma Coordination Council meeting in Kaposvár in June, Minister of State for Social Affairs and Inclusion Károly Czibere said poverty rates among Hungarian Roma had dropped over the past three years. Czibere noted nationwide initiatives meant to assist Roma youth, such as compulsory kindergarten attendance and one free hot meal per day in schools.
But opponents see glaring setbacks, including a May 2015 decision by the Kúria, the country’s supreme court, to keep open a state-funded parochial school, operated by the Greek Catholic Church, in the city of Nyíregyháza.
The Chance for Children Foundation, a Roma educational rights group, sued to have the school closed in 2007 on the grounds that it was substandard and promoted Roma segregation. Electing not to challenge the lawsuit, the federal government instead allocated funds so as to bus the children to better schools in the city as part of a wider desegregation effort.
In 2010, the newly elected Fidesz administration reversed course on the decision and had the school reopened under the administration of the church, causing the foundation to once again bring litigation against the municipality and the church.
The Kúria ruled in favour of the church last May on the grounds that the school granted Roma children freedom of religion. Those at the Chance for Children Foundation say this parochial schooling is just a new avenue for Hungarian schools to segregate, and creates a dangerous precedent for other cities with Roma populations to follow suit.
“This model can be used in other places,” said Gábor Daróczi, a former chair of the board for the foundation, adding that the European Commission’s letter was a direct result of the court’s decision.
Roma rights activists add that the matter of segregation is exacerbated by Hungary’s system of free choice school enrollment, which grants students the right to attend any public school in the country, provided the school is not at full capacity and that the student’s family can afford to transport them to and from premises.
“The rich parents take their kids to wherever they want,” said Ernő Kadét, an editor at the Roma Press Centre, a news agency that covers Hungary’s Roma population. “Those who don’t have money… their kids get stuck in the schools where they live. And that’s how schools get polarised.”
Efforts to desegregate the school system are further complicated by pervasive anti-Roma sentiment nationwide. According to a 2014 Medián poll, 73% of Hungarians would not feel comfortable having a Roma living next door. A February Publicus Research poll found that 82% of Hungarians either “completely agree” or “mostly agree” that “the problems of most Roma would be solved if they would finally start working”. Those numbers hold steady regardless of the respondents’ political party allegiances.
Kadét, who worked at the Ministry of Education from 2005 to 2009 under the left-leaning MSZP-SZDSZ administration, said he saw firsthand the expediency of anti-Roma sentiment across the political spectrum, when in 2008 and 2009 “more than a dozen” MSZP mayors protested efforts by the ministry to desegregate and proportionally increase funding to neglected Roma schools through a National Roma Integration Strategy.
He says efforts to desegregate schools were hampered at the time by limitations on the federal government’s control over local school districts.
Since 2013, Hungary’s public schools have all fallen under the purview of one centralised body: the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre (KLIK).
“If there’s one central power, and everything’s in one hand, then if you want to take care of segregation in Hungarian schools, you can,” Kadét said. “The issue usually with segregation is that if you poke at it here, then it just shifts over there. But if it’s all in one central power’s hands… they could eliminate it if they wanted to. But they don’t.”
Adam Janos @AdamTJanos