Roma children playing in front of their family house in the village of Alasovadasz, about 150 miles east of Budapest, Jan 22, 2007. (Istvan Huszti/Getty Images)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — In Budapest’s down-at-the-heels eighth district, known for its poverty and high Roma population, the soot-scared brick Lakatos Menyhert primary school is one of 200 schools in Hungary that civil rights proponents consider “segregated.” Indeed, of the 120 school kids enrolled here, virtually all of them are Roma.

All of their teachers, save two, are non-Roma and lack special training to deal with their pupils’ unique needs. Only a tiny fraction of these Roma kids, if any at all, will make it into and graduate from an elite high school [gymnasium], in Hungary the ticket to a decent job and middle-class income.

“Segregation in Hungary doesn’t happen as a result of racist laws,” explains Lilla Farkas, a lawyer with the NGO Chance for Children that tackles segregation in schools. “It’s de facto segregation. For different reasons in different locations, all of the Roma children, or at least large majorities of them together with financially disadvantaged non-Roma, wind up in the same classrooms or schools.”

In the eight district, Farkas explains, there’s a substantial Roma population in the first place. But, critically, the parents of non-Roma children make sure their kids are enrolled elsewhere, in another school, in more affluent “less Roma” districts. Many non-Roma families have simply picked up and moved, thus strengthening the Roma concentration in places such as the eighth district. The result is that institutions like the Lakatos Menyhert school wind up all-Roma, one of Hungary’s so-called “gypsy schools.”

The Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center estimates that about 25,000 Roma children in 1,500 classrooms are taught in segregated public schooling. The situation in Hungary, claims the ERRC, is not that different than in neighboring Central European countries, including Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic.

Although statistics are sketchy — many Roma deny their ethnicity to pollers — Hungary has an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Roma and Sinti, about 5.5 percent of the country’s 10 million population. The vast majority of Roma live below the average standard of living; a third live in extreme poverty. The collapse of communism has not been kind to Central Europe’s Roma. Many of the low-skilled factory jobs that Roma worked during communism disappeared when these industries went under.

In the first post-communist decade, poverty among Roma in Hungary doubled as unemployment shot up. The growing income disparities have catalyzed segregation in housing and education, and thus fueled discrimination as well.

Segregation in Hungary’s schools is commonplace, although Hungary is the one Central European country with legislation that explicitly outlaws segregation.

“On paper we are the best,” says Victoria Mohasci, a Roma activist and former European Parliament lawmaker. “But it seems we’ve created this law for nothing. The education ministry won’t monitor segregation and it won’t enforce the law. There’s huge resistance to it, from Hungarian parents, the police, local authorities, too. But that means these schools are operating illegally and everybody knows it.”

Mohasci quotes one poll that showed 94 percent of non-Roma Hungarians would not want their child sitting next to a Roma in school.

The Lakatos Menyhert’s primary school is only one model of segregation. Elsewhere, Roma kids are separated from non-Roma kids through testing, which lands them in lower-level classes with fewer budgetary and staffing resources. Often Roma children are misdiagnosed as being intellectually disabled and placed in special schools that perpetuate the cycle of under-education, poverty, and exclusion. The Chance for Children NGO estimates that one in five Roma children are misdiagnosed in this way. Segregation is also perpetuated through the authorities’ tolerance of truancy among Roma, as well as the refusal of better schools to accept Roma kids from other districts.

At the Lakatos Menyhert school, the teachers admit that the situation is extreme, but they resent being associated with the term “segregation.”

“The challenges of teaching here are immense, every day and every lesson is challenging,” said one teacher of a first-grade class, a non-Roma who asked not to be named. She recognizes that the social backgrounds and culture of the Roma kids are special, and that she could benefit from professional training to cope with them. But she say’s she’s doing her best in the conditions she’s confronted with.

“The principals of these schools or mayors of such villages say this isn’t really segregation because neither the school system nor the state is actively pursing segregation. They say it just happens that way as a result of the ethnic composition of the district or the village,“ says Farkas. In fact, the faculty and administration of segregated schools often fight against their closure. “They don’t want to lose their jobs and I can’t blame them,” says Farkas, who admits these instructors are also the victims of discrimination. Teachers who have taught in the “gypsy schools” find it difficult to get jobs afterward in other schools.

Every Hungarian government — at the federal and local levels — has pursued policies to address the exclusion and poverty of the Roma population. Roma children are guaranteed full access to education, and receive free-of charge textbooks and hot meals. Government and EU social funds have financed some desegregation initiatives and teacher training.

But, say activists, the programs and funding are inadequate and are often implemented half-heartedly. They have not stopped the Roma’s economic slide or segregation in schools. While integrating city schools is possible, it is almost impossible in villages or regions that are all-Roma. There are still far too few teachers who can instruct both Roma and non-Roma pupils in integrated classrooms with innovative, multicultural curricula.

In March, the European Court of Human Rights reaffirmed that school segregation of Roma children constitutes illegal discrimination. According to the ERRC, despite three such unequivocal rulings since 2007, “educational segregation of Romani children is systemic in many countries of the European Union,” including Hungary and its Central European neighbors. It claims that “the response of member states has been wholly inadequate.”

In Hungary, as elsewhere in Central Europe, the problems of the Roma communities remain one of the most stubborn and complicated to redress. Of late, public opinion about the Roma — long negative — has taken a further turn for the worse, fueling the fortunes of populist and right-wing parties with anti-Roma platforms. Roma rights proponents in Hungary have little hope that the new nationalist populist government — which has toyed with anti-Roma sloganeering in the past — will come up with either fresh solutions or more money for Roma issues. Their stress in the election campaign was on “public protection,” namely 10,000 additional police officers to protect Hungarians from crime. The far right parties explicitly used the term “Gypsy crime.”

EU court rulings or not, the Lakatos Menyhert school in the eighth district and its peers across the region are likely to remain segregated for some time to come.

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