Happening right now in Slovakia:
Downstairs at the village school there is one class for "whites", upstairs a separate class for "blacks". The two never mingle, the apartheid is entrenched. The parents or the buses collecting the infants from school are instructed to come at different times to solidify the racial separation.
The scene is not from the American deep south of 40 years ago or from South Africa 20 years ago, but from contemporary Europe, from an EU member state where racism, segregation and discrimination are outlawed but practised systematically nonetheless.
The "blacks" are the Roma children from Europe's biggest and most persecuted minority, the place is eastern Slovakia, home to one of the densest concentrations of Roma or Gypsy communities in Europe. The educational plight of the Roma children in Slovakia and across central Europe is little short of disastrous.
"If I open a Roma class, I will lose all the white children. They are not clean enough, nor do I have space for them," a headteacher told Amnesty International in a report on the persistence of schooling apartheid issued yesterday. "I don't think you would let your child go to a Roma class if you lived here as your child would have everything stolen."
In a landmark ruling this week, the European court of human rights in Strasbourg found the Czech Republic guilty of racism and discrimination against the Roma minority for dumping the children in "special schools" for those with learning difficulties, and segregating classes between Roma and Czechs.
It was the first time an EU member state had been found in breach of the European convention on human rights because of educational discrimination against the Roma. The ruling is being closely watched for its impact across central and south-eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Europe's estimated 8 million Roma live.
But studies from Amnesty International and the philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI) confirm that similar discrimination is rampant in Slovakia. "Segregation happens in two ways," said Amnesty. "Huge numbers of Roma continue to be segregated into Roma-only schools and classes. Many are also inappropriately placed in 'special schools' for children with physical and mental disabilities ... As many as 80% of children placed in special schools in Slovakia are Roma."
The OSI study found that Roma children in Slovakia are 28 times more likely to be put in special schools than non-Roma pupils, and in the Czech Republic 27 times more likely.
Slovakia is reckoned to have a Roma population of around half a million or 10%, most of them settled in ghettoes and shanties in the east where in some regions, according to a Slovak school inspector, all schools are segregated.
The Roma are broadly seen as the big losers from the collapse of communism across central Europe 18 years ago. Parents now have the right to choose which schools their children go to and they exploit that right to shift their children from co-education with Roma. The government in Bratislava is doing little to stop them, according to Amnesty.
"The residents of the village, the whites, wanted their children to move out of this school to the other school," said a headteacher. "They went through the municipality and regional offices up to the ministry. Everybody agreed and the white children were moved."
At a primary school near Trebisov in eastern Slovakia two years ago, Roma parents protested about segregation. The school refused to integrate the pupils and the parents appealed. Last year the education ministry ordered the school to yield. "The school inspectorate ordered the school to refrain from placing the children in classes according to their skin colour or ethnicity." The school continues to segregate the children, Amnesty found.
In addition, the Roma are penalised by a lack of preschool places, the lack of special teachers and language difficulties. The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner reported last year that 80% of pupils in "special schools" in parts of Slovakia were Roma, while only 3% of Roma children made it to secondary education.
"Children here are mentally retarded," the headteacher of a "special school", almost all of whose pupils are Roma, told Amnesty. "There is a tendency to integrate Roma children in primary schools, but pupils with mental and social retardation stay the same."
Let's do something about this!!
I am organizing a trip to Slovakia next month and I have two more spots open for people who want to help out!
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org