UNLIKE the EU, which rebuked Eric van der Linden, its ambassador to Slovakia, for saying that Roma children should be educated in boarding schools, Roma leaders in Slovakia are embracing the idea.
In a May 1 interview on Dutch television, van der Linden said: "It may sound simplistic, but we may have to, I'll say it in quotation marks, 'force' the Roma children to stay in some kind of boarding schools, from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, where they will be continuously subjected to the system of values that is dominant in our society."
Van der Linden's words have caused outrage among Roma activists, who accused him of suggesting the violent separation of Roma children from their parents. Although van der Linden denied those allegations, the European Commission (EC) banned the diplomat from commenting on the topic of the Roma.
Reijo Kemppinen, the chief spokesman for the EC, described the comments as an "unfortunate choice of words" and "regrettable".
An NGO called the European Roma Information Office (ERIO) even demanded that van der Linden leave his diplomatic post and started a protest against his statements and the slow reaction on the part of the commission.
"Defending the separation of children from their parents so that they are raised according to the values of the majority is absurd. It is a policy of forced assimilation," Valeriu Nicolae from the ERIO told the Slovak news channel TA3 on May 14.
But some Roma politicians and activists in Slovakia agreed, even though van der Linden chose to use unfortunate words. Alexander Patkoló, head of the Slovak Roma Initiative, said the idea "came at the right time and is great".
Another group, the Slovak Roma Council, also welcomed the idea. František Guľáš, head of the council, said that Roma education levels could profit from the idea.
Ladislav Fízik from an unofficial Roma body called the Roma Parliament also welcomed the idea.
"[Van der Linden] mentioned one possible way of solving the Roma issue. I don't see any problem with that. His statement may be a bit unfortunate because he did not specify what children it would include. I believe he did not mean small children, but teenagers," said Fízik.
Branislav Slyško, press secretary with the EC delegation in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator on May 17 that, respecting the EC's decision, the ambassador would no longer comment on his previous statements.
Before van der Linden was banned from speaking on the topic, he explained to Slovakia's state-run news agency TASR, as well as to several other Slovak media, what he had meant. He said he was not suggesting the forced separation of Roma children from their parents.
"In a democracy it is not possible to force children to leave their parents. However, it is possible to try and convince them that it is in the interest of their children to have them attend the boarding schools," van der Linden told TASR.
Van der Linden also said that, when he talked about forcing children to attend the boarding schools, he had used the phrase in quotation marks and had meant the "active persuasion" of the Roma.
"I am sure that all Roma parents would be happy if they knew that their children were going to get a better chance at getting an education and a job and, as a result, potentially improve the living standard of the whole family," he said on May 13.
Slovak Roma leaders have approved the idea of boarding schools. Patkoló called it a possibly "effective step in the improvement of the educational level of the young Roma generation".
Another Roma representative, activist Tibor Loran, told TASR that van der Linden, in his opinion, had suggested the "possibility of systematic education in the civilised conditions of boarding schools, [something] that could help many Roma children in the third millennium."
Official Slovak bodies, however, are not preparing any such project, Klára Orgovánová, the cabinet's plenipotentiary for Roma communities, confirmed.
Instead, the Education Ministry has recently submitted a plan for the integrated education of Roma children and youth to the cabinet.
The white paper of the plan reads that the "Roma are in an unequal position as regards the majority in the area of education, housing, employment, and healthcare."
"The key component of the problems that the Roma face are negative stereotypes, the insufficient amount of available objective information about the minority, and prejudice and the resulting intolerance on the part of the majority," the white paper reads.
The ministry proposes the improvement of Roma education levels through greater attention to the preparation of teachers, assistants, and other educators who work with Roma children.
The plan also stipulates that Roma children should receive tools and other materials needed in the educational process, and that there should be greater inclusion of their parents in the educational process by providing them with more information about the performance of their children.
The plan also aims to change the Slovak education system to a multicultural type of learning and prevent segregated Roma classes.
It is estimated that there are 400,000 to 500,000 Roma in Slovakia, although only about 90,000 stated that they were Roma on the national census. Many Roma, especially in eastern Slovakia, live in rundown settlements segregated from nearby villages, often with no electricity or running water. There are about 600 such settlements in the country.
24. May 2004 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová