Amnesty chief: Roma children face racism in Czech Republic

Salil Shetty

Salil Shetty [Amnesty International]

Roma children in the Czech Republic are consistently discriminated against in schools due to the Czech government’s longstanding failure to address prejudices within the society, says Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Czech Republic.

Salil Shetty was interviewed by EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Adéla Denková and Eliška Kubátová.

Discrimination against the Roma is a long-term problem in the Czech Republic. What exactly do you think is the core of the problem?

In our view, the core of the problem is not technical. The core of the problem is prejudice, which is leading to stereotyping of Roma people. There is a public perception that Roma people do not value education, they are lazy and they do not work hard. Unless the Czech Republic directly deals with the problem of prejudice based on racism, it will be difficult to tackle discrimination.

This is a call I have made to the Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka – that the leaders in the Czech Republic need to stop being in denial. You need to stand up and say, “We have a problem, the problem is prejudice and discrimination, and we have to tackle it.”

What is the core of the problem within educational system?

Within the educational system, there are specific ways in which it manifests itself. So-called ‘practical schools’ are the worst example, because you are treating children with social disadvantages as children with mental disabilities. This is the most outrageous idea. The proportion of Roma children in practical schools has actually gone up in the last year.

But in volume terms, the biggest problem is within the mainstream schools which have become completely segregated. There are Roma schools and non-Roma schools. But even in the so-called non-Roma schools, there are separate buildings, separate classrooms or separate sub-groups. Inside the schools, the children face a lot of discrimination, bullying, harassment and blaming the victims.

When Roma children are bullied and they start standing up for themselves, they are seen as the cause of the problem. The worst thing is that the teachers and the educators themselves are complicit in this problem, because they have the same attitude. They do not want these kids to come to school. As soon as the Roma children come in, they are worried that the non-Roma kids will leave the school.

The important thing is that all of this can be fixed, and that it is not unique. They face these things in other countries as well. If the government is serious, it can fix it. Until now, we have not seen the needed seriousness. The government has announced a revised action plan, which has some good components in it, and I think that the European Commission infringement procedure is creating more urgency than ever before.

Maybe the problem lies also in the preschool educational system. It is the same problem. The only difference is that in the preschool system, the barrier to enter is slightly lower, because at that stage, the gap is not so wide in terms of the ability of the children. But apart from that, in terms of attitude, the behaviour of the system is not very different.

The government proposed that the final year at preschool should be mandatory for all children. Is that a good step?

It is a good idea. But we have to make sure we do not repeat the problems we have in the primary school system. There is no solution to the underlying causes. Things have been tried before. The Czech Republic tried to get rid of the so-called “special schools” for children with mental disabilities, but they just changed the name and make them “practical schools”. You cannot deal with the symptom, you have to deal with the cause.

You talked to the Czech Prime Minister. Do you have a feeling that he does understand the problem?

Maybe partly because there is the infringement procedure, this government has proposed more concrete and better steps than the previous ones. But nobody believes the governments; their plans do not get funded, they do not get implemented. Even in the new plans announced, and they have not put the additional decrees in place. They are not putting additional funding mechanisms in place, so at this time we have words, but there is no action. Certainly, at the end of the meeting with the prime minister, I do not think we got a sense of urgency. I cannot say I came back from the meeting and said “okay, they are going to move”.

What should happen if the issue is not solved quickly?

Amnesty is launching a campaign, which is going to put international pressure on the Czech government. I think the government has not fully understood the seriousness of the Commission’s infringement procedure, because if it goes to the European Court of Justice, there could be quite severe penalties. But more than the external pressure, it is how the world sees Czech society. I come from India and when you say Czech Republic, I think of a modern society which respects the rule of law and respects human rights. You cannot have a minority group which is facing human rights violations. The society should decide that this must be ended.

What practical measures can be done on the ground, apart from the changes in educational system? Education of teachers? Or is there also possibility to work with the Roma parents who often send their children to Roma schools because they are scared of bullying?

If you are a Roma parent now, you are faced with a totally bizarre choice. Either you can send the child to a safe school with poor quality education or into a mainstream school where you do not feel that your child is in a friendly environment. I do not think it is the question of educating parents. It is nonsense to say that the Roma parents do not want good education for their children.

I rather meant some help for the parents who are in the situation that their children are bullied, so they send them to other school as they do not know how to deal with it. All of that is good and I met many good NGOs who are doing a great job in this way. But that is only a substitute for what the government has to do. Right now the problem you have is segregation. When a Roma parent goes to a mainstream school and asks for the child to be admitted, the teachers will say that there is no free capacity, because the schools is full. When a non-Roma parent comes, they have capacity. You need the Czech school inspectorate to have the capacity to monitor and to impose sanctions. If a local authority or local school is segregating, then the government should impose sanctions.

So the role of school inspectors is crucial in this problem. And the role of ministry of education, and all of the government departments. The accountability goes right to the top, to the prime minister, as it is a very serious problem. It can be fixed. We are talking about 200,000 people, so it is in the overall scheme of things, and the Czech Republic is not a poor country. You have the money, the capability and you stand for the human rights on the world stage, so it has to be fixed.

Does Amnesty monitor problems also in other sectors, not just education?

Our experience all over the world is that inequality and discrimination is intersectorial. When I met Roma mothers in Ostrava in the Eastern part of the country, it was quite shocking for me that they have Roma maternity rooms in the hospital. If a Roma mother goes to deliver, she is not in the same room as the other mothers. It goes into all sectors – employment, education, health or housing. In other countries, Amnesty has worked on the issue of Roma housing. But we have focused on schools here because if you crack the problem of discrimination in one sector, it is the same issue in all the sectors.

You already said that the problem lies within the whole society. What should be particularly done to get rid of these prejudices?

If you have leadership figures who do not speak openly about it and this problem is hidden, that does not help. You need public figures to start speaking. There is kind of a long-term denial that the problem is not technical, but it is a problem of racial prejudice. Let us call things with the right names. It is not unique to the Czech Republic, but you cannot solve the problem if you do not acknowledge it first.

There are solutions. One of the things which is often used is that you take positive role models from the Roma themselves to show that these stereotypes are not true. You have some exceptionally bright Roma kids who are going to – despite all of the challenges – come out successful. But it should not be like that. The idea that you cannot have a successful Roma child is not true. But you have to allow them the opportunity to become successful. Right now the system goes in an opposite direction.

Is it possible to say that discrimination of Roma people is a European problem? Or are there countries that are successful in addressing the problem?

Of course, the problems are not entirely solved anywhere. But people have gone a long way. The problem is that in the Czech Republic, we have not seen progress. When you compare with Slovakia which is your closest neighbour, you cannot make that comparison in a real way because the Czech Republic has much higher economic capability, human capital and technical quality. It may be interesting to compare, but what are you going to prove? Are you going to say that the French have not solved the Roma problem and therefore it is fine for to discriminate the Roma children in the Czech Republic?

I meant taking best practises from other countries.

There is no shortage of good examples. The question is whether you want to change things.

Do you think that the pressure from the European Commission can help in this sense?

Definitely. I think it is a wrong reason for the Czech Republic to act, I thing the Czech Republic and the Czech society should act because it is the right thing to do and it is in line with the Czech values. You did not have a revolution here for nothing. It was for fairness, for justice, for equality. So why do you need somebody from the outside to lecture you? But fine, if things are not moving, I think the infringement procedure will make a difference.

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