I have worked for years in an NGO using strategic litigation as a tool to protect women’s rights and I strongly believe that strategic litigation is a key tool for protecting Roma rights, too. The strategic litigation I have most often taken was in the context of Albania’s struggle with the rule of law: it aimed at the implementation of international standards stemming from international acts ratified by the Albanian State, the implementation of standards found in the jurisprudence of international courts and other bodies, and the implementation of the rights foreseen in the law, but which are not used before and changes of the available judicial practices which affected women.
I am particularly proud of the work colleagues and I have done securing favourable decisions from the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination, aiming to change the situation not only for an individual but for the group she represents. The recommendation or the judgement has to be used strongly, to make a change. Otherwise, the aim is not achieved. The same energy needs to be devoted by the litigation team after the recommendation or the judgement is issued, to see a real outcome. In Albania, like everywhere the ERRC works, that is a challenge.
Using strategic litigation to challenge segregation in Albanian schools
This was the experience I brought to my work at the ERRC as a legal consultant, which started last year. There are cases of segregation of Romani children in education in Albania. Not everyone knows that: many people think this is a problem only in some Central European countries, but it is in fact a European problem. There are representatives of educational institutions in central and local levels who often say: “No, I do not think that there are cases of segregation in Albania.” But they are wrong: there are cases of segregation of Romani children into specific schools or in certain classes within a school.
But some officials know what is going on. These people try to explain that the priority is getting the kids through school. That it doesn’t matter what results the Romani pupils get, that it is of greater importance that they pass the classes; they do not care seriously about the drop-out rate and do not seem to understand why it would matter if only a few pupils continue on to high school. There are a few willing to admit that it is impossible for these pupils, with this kind of school and with these results, to continue their studies alongside non-Romani pupils. Laws and policies in Albania speak about the integration of Roma. But how can we get them into the labour market and mainstream society when they have grades one to five in a segregated school? When they study in a segregated school, they are used to being separated from non-Roma children (and they and the non-Roma children have learned that they should be kept apart); they only make friends from the same community, who face the same challenges.
Segregated education is always inferior education. I do not need proof of this but I have it anyway. I had a meeting with one Roma mother, M.M. some weeks ago. Her two daughters were studying in a segregated school. She would prefer her two daughters to study in a mainstream school, with non-Roma children. She herself studied in a mainstream school many years ago. I have met Romani children who were in third grade but did not know to add, subtract or multiply numbers. When I tried to speak Albanian with some Romani children, their parents explained to me that since they had just returned from Greece their children do not speak Albanian well, but in these schools nothing is being done for them. If these problems will be in place how can we expect that these Roma children to continue their studies? This is a recipe for the oppression of another generation of Roma.
Law no.10221, dated 4.2.2010, “On protection from discrimination”, prohibits discrimination in education due to race or ethnicity and sanctions are envisaged. But, there are cases of de facto segregation of Romani children and there are no desegregation measures taken in Albania. Segregation is considered a “natural” phenomenon here. In this context, any challenge is strategic by the ERRC’s definition: the authorities are not expecting it and just complaining about it will undermine their worldview.
The ERRC has submitted information on two situations of segregation of Roma and Egyptians children due to race and ethnicity to Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination and the Ombudsman in Albania. Both institutions have the chance to open a debate on this issue and to make the authorities aware of effects of segregation and to undertake desegregation measures. The Regional Education Departments of both districts have accepted the segregation in education. Desegregation measures are necessary. We want to see free transport for Romani children to mainstream schools, redrawing the boundaries of the catchment areas and other behavioural changes that will signal an end to the segregationist mentality we are fighting.
The Commissioner and the Ombudsman are our first stop on the way to court. In Albania, there is still little race discrimination litigation and judges are unfamiliar with these concepts. These specialised institutions will lay the ground for Roma to have their day in court. This process will strengthen respect for the rule of law in Albania but, more importantly for us, it will give Roma confidence in the system. It is also an important part of the ERRC’s strategy to show that school segregation is happening across the continent.