Discrimination and segregation of Roma pupils in Croatian schools

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last week that the segregation of Roma in primary schools in Medjimurje, Republic of Croatia, was discriminatory. Fifteen Croatian nationals of Roma origin had complained to the Court in Strasbourg that they had been segregated at their primary schools because they belong to the Roma ethnicity.

The complaint to Strasbourg court happend after same complaints were rejected on Cakovec Municipal Court, and then again on Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia.

Local instances dismissing Roma complaints
In April 2002 the applicants brought proceedings against their primary schools. They claimed that the Roma-only curriculum in their schools had 30 % less content than the official national curriculum. They alleged that that situation was racially discriminating and violated their right to education as well as their right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment. They also submitted a psychological study of Roma children who attended Roma-only classes in their region which reported that segregated education produced emotional and psychological harm in Roma children, both in terms of self-esteem and development of their identity.

In September 2002 Cakovec Municipal Court dismissed the applicants’ complaint. It found that the reason why most Roma pupils were placed in separate classes was that they needed extra tuition in Croatian. Furthermore, the curriculum at Podturen and Macinec Elementary schools was the same as that used in parallel classes in those schools. Consequently, the applicants had failed to substantiate their allegations concerning racial discrimination. The applicants’ complaint was also subsequently dismissed on appeal.

The applicants’ constitutional complaint, lodged in November 2003, was dismissed on similar grounds in February 2007.

Roma alarming international court
After having their complaints dismissed on both instances, at the municipal court in Cakovec and at the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, Roma citizens of Croatia, have turned to the European Court of Human Rights placed in Strasbourg.  

The verdict in the case Orsus and others against Croatia, made quite a number of votes, since nine out of seventeen judges voted for it. This completely changed the earlier unanimous verdict in favor of Croatia at the same court case. 

The Court has, in fact, two years ago ruled that Roma children in Medjimurje were not subjected to segregation and discrimination, having school classes formed exclusively for Roma children in some primary schools.

The European Court of Human Rights today adopted the reasoning of such verdict, stating that the special classes for Roma pupils were established primarily due to their poor knowledge of the Croatian language, and not because of their ethnicity. However, they emphasize that such decision was not accompanied by legitimate measures of protection, which violated the prohibition of discrimination and the right to education.

The Court in Strasbourg thus, held that Croatia is to pay to each applicant 4,500 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and, to the applicants jointly, EUR 10,000 in respect of costs and expenses.

Conflicts between Croatian and Roma parents
In Medjimurje, northern Croatia, there were often conflicts between Croats and Roma. There were even several organized protests where parents of Croatian nationality did not want their children to go to the same class with Roma, giving arguments such as: ”Their children do not speak Croatian, they are more aggressive and do not have hygienic habits like we do. Our children therefore, cannot make any progress with them in the same class."

The applicants alleged that their segregation into Roma-only classes at school deprived them of their right to education in a multicultural environment and discriminated against them, and made them endure severe educational, psychological and emotional harm, and in particular feelings of alienation and lack of self-esteem.

Case judgment:

Orsus and others vs. Croatia

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