Tackling Educational Segregation of Hungarian Roma children: A Journey with Many Challenges.

Striding forwards: a small victory shows hope for tackling the discrimination of Roma children in Hungary.

Two weeks ago, hope glistened for the future of Roma children as a lawyer fought for their rights in a decade-long court case, in which Church-run schools discriminated against them.

When asked what the feeling was before entering the Hungarian Civil Court a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Adel Kegye, lawyer for Chance for Children Foundation replied gravely, “very, very bad.” It was over a decade ago that the case was opened to challenge Church-owned schools for discriminating against Roma children and depriving them of equal opportunity.  But during the court ruling, excitement gradually began to infuse the air, eyes shooting across the room meeting others that shared the same disbelief.

“We won everything, everything,” Dr. Kegye says, her eyes watering as she embraced her colleague.

This case sets a precedent for future cases of the same type, ushering in an environment for change and a brighter future. But when one understands the long, deeply-rooted history attached to this present case, it can be seen that the path to complete desegregation and equal rights is still heavily blockaded. This is partly due to the lack of aligning implementation with legislation.

“The problem is that even though we have judgements declaring that segregation is unlawful, nothing happens after this, no schools are closed down, no big desegregation plans are elaborated, it’s a very depressing situation,” says Dr. Kegye.

Segregation upheld by Church-run schools

In 2011, the Fidesz government approved changes to the Public Education Act, which led to a huge increase of schools run by the Church, opening in Roma settlements. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of Church-run schools jumped from around 600 to approximately 1,000. The rising existence of Church-led schools in Hungary has aided segregation due to the Church’s right to pick and choose their students, whilst regular schools must include all students within its district. Segregation is, of course, unlawful, but often occurs indirectly. Simultaneously, it remains unenforced by authorities, leaving the job up to NGOs such as the Roma Education Fund (REF) and Chance for Children.

“They can segregate because they don’t have this compulsory admission rule, they don’t have to comply compared to all public schools which have a catchment area, like a school district – the churches can choose whoever they want to work with.

“So, this is the main problem, that Roma and socially disadvantaged children don’t get access to these church schools,” says Dr. Kegye. She also told London Review of Books Blog that this was a way for the government to wash its hands of the segregation problem – “by giving it to the Church.”

Currently, 45 per cent of Roma children attend segregated schools or classes, one of the highest percentages among EU member states.

Dr. Zsolt Kalanyos, Hungary representative for the Roma Education Fund, says that the lack of government action is partly due to a desire to satisfy voters.

“Even if they contested this segregation, the non-Roma parents don’t want to have their children at schools with poor or Roma people, and this is kind of a benefit from the government to them.”

“Every government wants to be kind to [the non-Roma population], a big social group, because if the government stopped segregation, many of this community would never vote for them,” he said.

The impact of perpetuating stereotypes

“You might have work experience or skills, or a proper education, but as soon as they hear your name or see you, then it often leads to a bad ending.”

László Lakatos is 20 years old, Roma, and living in Budapest. He expressed how stereotypes are enforced in Hungarian society by classmates and employers, resultantly encouraging many Roma to embody this negative stigma.

“Once my friend asked me if I was interested in a position that was available at his workplace, to which I said ‘yes’. Two days later he came back to me and said that he told his boss that he had found someone. But when he said my name, his boss said no. He hadn’t seen or spoken to me, but because of my name, Lakatos, his boss knew that I was from a Roma family so instantly said ‘no’.”

László says he even considered changing his name for this reason

Timi Kinczelné, teacher at Berzeviczy Gergely High School in Budapest says that systematic segregation does not occur at her school, but discrimination and bullying of the few Roma attendees is perpetrated by fellow students who recycle values from their families.

“Many people still believe, unfortunately, that if there is a Roma student then they will wear dirty clothes, they will not be hygienic, and are likely to become a criminal,” Kinczelné says.

“When they come to school at the age of fourteen, many children are already affected by these negative stereotypes.

Dr. Kegye asserts that in many cases, people disregard social situations which has a major role in the behaviour of many Roma.

“It’s not just the colour of their skin, in most cases it’s a social problem. They are living in deep poverty; Roma children are mostly coming from undereducated families,” Dr. Kegye says.

“Before even considering colour of skin and the prejudices against Roma people – you will find children who have difficulties learning because they don’t have the family support (because of under-education and a lack of money) that middle-class, white children do.”

This discrimination and perpetuating of stereotypes causes a reciprocal situation. Roma children are discriminated against, however, Roma families are simultaneously less inclined to even attempt to apply their children to schools where there are less Roma students, for fear of bullying. Roma people also often reside separately from non-Roma people, and lack the means to commute to better schools. Their choices are very much limited to low-quality schools in close proximity.

“There are no free school busses from Roma settlements, so Roma children would not even be able to get there because their parents don’t have the money,” says Dr. Kegye.

“Many Roma children are refused entry, but often the problem is mainly that they don’t even have the chance to apply to these schools,” she says.

Educationally enforcing poverty

Dr. Kalanyos explained that discrimination occurs both internally and externally. In some cases, Roma children attend the same schools as non-Roma, however, they are placed in separate classrooms. In others, they are disallowed admittance altogether. The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe expressed that “direct and indirect discrimination prevents a great portion of the Roma population from breaking the vicious circle of poverty in which they are caught.” A 2016 Country Report found that unemployment rates for Roma people are three to five times higher than that of non-Roma people.

As a Romani himself, Dr. Kalanyos experienced discrimination as a child. Based on his inability to speak Hungarian, he was classed as a ‘special-needs’ child and placed in a special-needs school.

“I could only speak Romanese, but this didn’t mean that I was a stupid or mentally disadvantaged child,” he says.

Roma children are harshly over-represented in special-needs schools, with up to 70-80 per cent of students being Roma. Many of these cases reflect a misdiagnosis of children, with one historically famous case being the 2013 Horváth and Kiss v Hungary case. The European Court of Human Rights found that the Hungarian authorities had wrongly placed the applicants in remedial schools, resultantly worsening their opportunity to integrate into society.

“There is no chance to get the opportunity to go to secondary school, no chance at all. Many Roma children, nearly 60,000 are in these special-needs schools, and the other 100,000 children are still being segregated,” says Dr. Kalanyos.

With a deep sadness he expressed the state of schools that are exclusively for Roma children.

Sound clip: Dr. Kalanyos expressing terrible state of schools


Providing hope for Roma children

The situation of the segregation of Roma children in Hungary is complex and deeply-rooted in historical societal values and a lack of political rear from the government. The Roma Education Fund provides opportunities for poor, socially disadvantaged Roma children by helping with enrolment processes, financial support, and mentoring. On the other hand, organisations like Chance for Children help keep the perpetrators of discrimination accountable.

“We provide an educational model plus support, such as teachers to help them catch up, in order to close this social gap. I can definitely tell you that it works, but the demand is too high so, sadly, we cannot help everyone,” says Dr. Kalanyos.

Since 2005, the REF has supported 900 teachers, 21,500 Roma children and youth, and 22,000 Roma parents and caregivers, in the effort to tackle segregation and negative stereotypes of Roma children.

The heavy job of tackling this widespread, hugely-consequential discrimination in which children are the victims, is placed on the shoulders of passionate and bold individuals like Dr. Kegye and Dr. Kalanyos. However, the incredibly high prevalence of segregation and discrimination requires more backup if proper strides forward are to be made. Despite the lack of government rear, they continue in the fight to brighten the future of Roma children in Hungary.