An apology would change everything

ARTHUR Ivatts, senior consultant to the British Department for Children, Schools and Families and former HM Inspector for Roma/Gypsy and Traveller Education in the UK participated in early efforts to secure proper education for Roma children in the UK and is modesly proud of the progress he helped to make in his homeland. In 2004 he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions in this area. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ivatts during his mid-July visit to Bratislava where was invited by the Open Society Foundation and the British Embassy to lead a seminar on equal opportunities in education.

A lot of Slovak Roma live in terrible conditionsA lot of Slovak Roma live in terrible conditions (Source: TASR)

ARTHUR Ivatts, senior consultant to the British Department for Children, Schools and Families and former HM Inspector for Roma/Gypsy and Traveller Education in the UK participated in early efforts to secure proper education for Roma children in the UK and is modesly proud of the progress he helped to make in his homeland. In 2004 he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions in this area. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ivatts during his mid-July visit to Bratislava where was invited by the Open Society Foundation and the British Embassy to lead a seminar on equal opportunities in education.

The Slovak Spectator: In the UK you use the terms Roma, Gypsies and Travellers. What is the difference between them?

Arthur Ivatts: The difference is just in the name. The English Gypsies are Roma, they came from India in the 10th century in the same way as the Slovak Roma and they migrated further west to the Netherlands, Scotland and then travelled as nomadic groups in England, Ireland and Scotland since the 16th century. So they are Roma but they were called Egyptians because they said they had come from Egypt.

But the word ‘Gypsy’ was seen as a bit derogatory in the UK, as here. So in the 1950s and 60s the Gypsies said they didn’t want to be called Gypsies, they said they were ‘Travellers’. But then in the 1970s the Irish travellers came to the UK in more significant numbers and many Gypsies didn’t want to be called the same, with some wanting to be called Roma, to follow the rest of Europe. Then we had Central-Eastern European (CEE) Roma coming to the UK, so the English Gypsies wanted to be distinguished from them and so now perhaps a majority say they would prefer to be known as Gypsies again. So we use the terms Roma, Gypsies and Travellers to attempt to satisfy everyone in terms of the justified sensitivities surrounding ethnic self-ascription.

TSS: What are the differences between the CEE countries and Britain in the area of Roma education?

AI: There are many marked differences, and here I have to say I run the risk of being quite nationalistic in terms of being quite proud about what we have achieved in the UK.

First of all, the UK has a fairly long experience – mainly since WWII – when we had Afro-Caribbean workers coming to the UK and the government was reported to be reluctant at having to recruit black workers, because they, with the rest of the population, may well have had a degree of race prejudice stemming from an imperial history. In retrospect, that history, actually, has been an enormous benefit because it has taken us as a society at a relatively early stage on the journey of understanding and creatively managing the issues of diversity about race, ethnicity and culture.

In CEE I had quite a lot to do in education of Roma communities here [in Slovakia], in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria and other places of CEE. And for me, the big differences would be that we would not be very happy with the degree of segregation, because we would see to it that the country fulfils its international legal duties and follows its national rules on race relations and antidiscrimination legislation. So, I’m not saying we [in the UK] haven’t got any discrimination operating in education, and particularly in relation to the Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, there is a potential for discrimination, but the professional expectations override that and children have equal access to the same schools as everybody else. In the 1970s and 80s we did away with the notion that children with special needs should be segregated and excluded from the normal school. At that time, we had legislation which allowed us to close almost of the schools with children with special educational needs or learning difficulties. And the aim was that they would be integrated as everybody else in ‘normal’ schools.

Secondly, our education system was initially overwhelmed with teachers saying ‘look, I have a class of children and 85 percent of them are from Bangladesh and none of them speak English’. So we went through the learning process. And now that is not seen as a reason for discrimination, it’s not seen as a reason for not accepting children in school and it’s not seen as a reason for underachievement of those children. So now, in the UK you have teachers, for example in London, that may well have 50 languages spoken in their school by the background of the children, but most teachers are now skilled in teaching English as an additional language. We started off by saying we’re teaching English as a second language, and we slowly realised that these pupils sometimes speak three or four languages but not English, so we adjusted the terminology to teaching English as an additional language. So now we don’t have teachers who turn their backs to children with no English, they have learned the skills to teach the language of instruction and also to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of the children’s linguistic backgrounds.

So I would have to say there are big differences and we benefited from having had to go through that process 40-50 years ago. It’s been a long, slow process of learning, but now we have something to offer and that to some extent reveals the reasoning behind these seminars, so that we can share our experience with Slovak officials, the government and other key players to the benefit of the children and in the interest of community cohesion, human rights and non-discrimination.

TSS: The problem with segregation still exists in Slovakia, but do you see any progress in this area in the last 20 years? Or is the trend positive?

AI: I think the situation of the Roma has deteriorated in the last 20 years as market forces have been allowed to operate and the controls on the exercising of racial prejudice do not seem to have been operating effectively. And so, it may well be that the international documentation – and we need to remember that most of the reliable quality information is coming from the international agencies who’ve done in-depth studies, including the World Bank and OSCE and UNDP and the Council of Europe – is saying the situation is not good. Since the end of communism there’s been an increasing amount of prejudice and discrimination operating within the labour market, within the housing market and within the educational and health systems.

International and national legislation has been implemented to manage the issue of increasingly complex societies with huge issues of diversity and inter-ethnic relationships. But for a lot of disadvantaged Roma communities the danger is that despite the context of attractive and almost reassuring legislation, when policies are developed within that context, you are able to identify distortions of policies which don’t relate accurately to the spirit of the law.
So, for instance in Slovakia, the government could argue that it is between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the international legislative context – the UN High Commission on Human Rights, OSCE, Council of Europe, the World Bank – there are expectations for equality and human rights to actually be delivered. And the international evidence makes it look like the society is not delivering, specifically for the Roma.

So I think there is a sense in which the situation is much better in that people are much freer, but in a freer situation prejudices can be exercised with very little license; and also international and national law against discrimination and human rights abuses can be exercised but with the potential for the very clever distortions of policy that I referred to earlier. It’s leading to a frustration among the representatives of the Roma in many European states, who say ‘I live in this society with all these wonderful laws about non-discrimination, but I suffer it every day, people spit on me on the streets, my children are not allowed to go to the school of our choice, or they are put in the special schools’.

I think the challenge now is to actually help governments manage these two forces: one being the international expectations of human rights law and anti-discrimination and the other, the hard place, being the endemic public race hatred towards the Roma, which is very difficult to manage politically.

I believe that the Roma will bring non-Roma Europeans face to face with their own racism in the same way that Black Afro-Caribbeans brought the white British face to face with their imperial racism. This will be to the good of all Europeans. Europe will be eternally indebted to them for that as the processes of globalisation take deeper and deeper root.

TSS: The majority population is prejudiced, but on the other hand one senses resignation from many people from the Roma community who feel they are on the outskirts of society and can do nothing about it. Do you see a way how to raise motivation among them?

AI: Yes, it has to be changed. I can see the point you are making, but I think the problem in the whole of Europe is ubiquitous. The weakness is that there is a lack of understanding of history. Things went wrong in the 16th century and it’s never recovered. The Roma have been abused for over 500 years. They are the classic example of the whole continent’s racial abuse of a minority. And now, everybody stands back and says: ‘Just look at them, they are happy in their ghetto communities, they don’t want to work, they are not interested in education, they are just interested in the benefits’.

The non-Roma world is not accepting their responsibility for what they’ve done to this minority over five centuries. And when we come to pick up the pieces of this abuse, what do we do? We blame the victims. We don’t blame ourselves. This is the tragedy of Europe today.

What we need is an apology to the Roma. We need an historic apology from the governments to say ‘We are sorry about what has happened to you in this society’. Because what European society has done to the Roma has included enslavement, banishment, discrimination, persecution and attempted genocide time and time again. Has any of that ever been apologised for or even publicly acknowledged? Is it part of the history curriculum of children in Slovak schools? No, you shake your head.

We need to recognise that the initiations need to come from the non-Roma societies and governments. One well known British politician said that if they [Roma] start behaving properly we would treat them properly – such a comment shows a complete lack of understanding of the history, it blames the victims of racial abuse and suggests that human rights are a conditional commodity linked to the stereotypes of particular groups of people..

So your remark is right, but this issue cannot be so very easily solved because you need political decisions and politicians who will be seen to be saying ‘wait a minute, we need to do a lot for these communities, they are owed a huge debt for the ill-treatment they’ve suffered’. There are massive sums of money and policy decisions now that we need to put in place. And that costs taxpayers money. However, we know that politicians are really committing political suicide if they are seen to be making those pronouncements and policy decisions to the benefit of Roma communities. That’s why it’s so difficult. Politicians have their hands tied behind their backs, and that’s the hard place I was telling you about. But at the same time they have to be convinced about the solid nature of the rock – which is the world’s expectations, including the Roma communities, about human rights and its delivery for all members of society.

There’s a long way to go and I’m not quite sure how it is going to go. But the other aspect of how these things can be solved is to try and pump money into the Roma communities so that they can come to terms with what has happened to them and to try and find forgiveness for the non-Roma world. And I know Roma all over Europe who respond so positively to their situation and they are cooperative, well-informed, well-educated. The Roma intelligentsia must be supported and their number must increase, because the self-advocacy of the communities is going to be crucially important in claiming human rights and fighting unlawful discrimination.

The danger of abusing minorities over a very long period is that people may internalise the stereotypes which are heaped on them day after day, year after year, century after century. And the danger of that is that people can have under-expectations of themselves in terms of what their rights should be and what they can achieve. And there’s a kind of passive acceptance by many Roma about their situation. And there is a terrible danger of this acceptance of abuse in the communities which can manifest itself in apathy, despair and oppressive acceptance of the abuse of their human rights.

TSS: So what do you see as the reasons that society is unable to acknowledge the mistreatment of Roma in the past and how can it stop imposing negative stereotypes?

AI: I think a lot is tied up – not with prejudiced views towards different racial groups – but in ignorant and unhelpful belief systems in human beings, particularly around intelligence. You hear interviews talking about ‘these children are not very bright and so they’re best in another school or a special class’. This really betrays an enormous ignorance, and again an ignorance of history in that human beings have always delivered what the ecology of society has demanded. In medieval Europe the ecology demanded a peasant population with a fairly tough, ruthless, hierarchical system of lords, bailiffs and then the serfs. But as technologies changed and we had an industrial age we needed human beings to be more skilled. When I went to university in the UK there were 3 percent of the people at the university and it was said ‘yes, they are the brightest people’ and 70 percent of the children went to what we called secondary modern schools - ‘you know, they aren’t very clever, but they are nice practical children who would be happy and work well in factories’.

But now the technologies have changed and we need 50 percent of the population with university degrees as we cannot operate effectively and efficiently as an economic society without that level of skills, knowledge and understandings. And we find that with sufficient investment in education the population actually delivers it. So human beings always deliver what is demanded, all children have massive potential, all children have the potential of being little geniuses.

But often people think that if 3 percent go to the university and 20 percent have technical training and 70 plus percent have low-level training it’s because God had delivered and distributed intelligence this way. But that’s absolute nonsense. And if people could only just understand that, they would realise that all children should be educated together in the same schools and they are all capable of everything. So that’s a hard message to be delivered to the non-Roma parents, but it’s very hard also to send it to the Roma parents, to tell them that it’s their kids who can be fantastic, that they too can do and achieve anything. We have a black president in the US, how long did it take? Maybe one day we can have a Roma president or prime minister somewhere in Europe and it might change everything. We will see.

We have two or three Roma MEPs now, which is fantastic, and it is lifting expectations of Roma families about what their children can do, but also the expectations of the non-Roma world to realise their human potential.

TSS: What do you think about suggestions to send children from the Roma communities to special boarding schools?

AI: Suggestions like this betray a serious lack of understanding. First of all, it betrays a negative attitude to Roma communities. It is really saying that the socialisation processes in their families are not good and are in contradiction to the sort of human beings society would like to produce. My personal knowledge of the Roma is that they are fantastic human beings that I would love to live next-door to and my children to marry. And in fact my son now goes out with a young Roma woman and she is delightful, highly intelligent, sensitive and in every sense, just charming.

The other serious aspect of such a comment is that these boarding schools may well end up being segregated which would be in direct contradiction to international and national law in any European country.

But more worryingly, if compulsion was involved, it comes very near to being in tension with the UN convention on genocide. One of the criteria of the UN convention is when children are taken away from their parents. And this could be moving on to very thin ice in this particular case.. This might be seen by international lawyers as being tantamount to a forced extraction of children from their parents and families. The parents in these circumstances may flee a particular country to avoid such a policy or law because one of the pillars of the Roma community is the love and strength of the family and the solidarity which has been born from coping with the abusive societies in which they have had to live. And it would be a society which is moving dangerously close to these obvious infringements of the UN convention on genocide which was the case with Austria, Switzerland and Scotland, which in past times took Roma children away from their parents. This development would be very unlikely in EU Member States, but if it was to be proposed seriously somewhere then I think it would be an abuse of human rights of the first order and I am sure that Roma families would be very concerned about any suggestions of that nature.

TSS: Would you say that one of the problems is also that the majority population is not trying to learn about the Roma and understand them? Is this one of the issues?

AI: The trouble is that the non-Roma world is not given accurate information on these communities. I have studied books about Roma and Gypsies and the knowledge basis is enormous, but most Europeans have no idea about it. In the UK most non-Roma citizens have no idea that the Gypsies have their own language, for example. So there is a learning process both ways. But remember, Roma have learned quite a lot about the non-Roma world. They’ve learned it the hard way, they’ve been kicked in the teeth all the time and spat on in the streets and asked to leave restaurants and not allowed to be educated in schools. So how are they going to learn about the ‘non-Roma world’ unless they are integrated structurally within all the institutions society has? But I think it does depend on the non-Roma world saying ‘we are sorry and we are willing to work with you’. And then the Roma would be able to learn that there are positive, non-prejudiced and compassionate attitudes in the non-Roma world.

There’s massive ignorance also in the UK non-Roma community and we need political leadership to change the situation. But if the Queen made an apology to the Gypsy/Roma people, it would change everything. It would be a trigger to the vital changes that are needed. People would say ‘Come on, what’s going on here, are we apologising to the Roma? Look what they did to my auntie!!!’ But then it would also open up the discussion about the history and what’s gone wrong and how we can put it right and be accepting of our part in this history of racial abuse.

Because in my view, and it’s shared by others, Europe is living dangerously. If you look at the UN convention on genocide and all its criteria, one of them is that you cannot let people live in abusive conditions which damages their life chances, and the Czech, the Slovak, the Bulgarian governments, as examples, none of them can say they do not know the evidence. And the evidence is that Roma in Europe live 10-12 years less than the average European, and Roma women are 20 times more likely to have the death of a young child than the European average. And increasingly there are far-right murders of Roma and police abuse of human rights, and in some countries Roma women have suffered forced sterilisation. There are also far right political parities that appear to have unchallenged licence to talk publicly about the ‘final solution’ for the Roma. The governments know about all of this, but what is being done about it? Europe is living in a dangerous situation where a country could actually be held accountable for ‘genocide by default’.

I remember visiting one Roma mother who had four or five children living in one little hut with a mud floor, surrounded by a sea of mud; the most terrible circumstances, and she said to me as I left ‘Don’t forget us’ and it’s had a lasting impact on me because I know too many Roma are living in the most terrible conditions and little is being done about it. Perhaps this is the real message for all non-Roma Europeans, “Don’t forget the Roma”. It is in Europe’s and humanity’s best interest not to.

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