Roma are often accused of taking no interest in education – but when they do, Albanian schools are often far from welcoming.
Donald Qerimi, a teenager from the city of Korca in southeastern Albania, did not fare well during his freshman’s year and had to repeat it.
However, when he turned up to enroll last September at the Themistokli Germenji High School, the headmaster would not register him.
“The headmaster justified his decision by arguing that I had been absent too often and because of my behaviour. In reality, he did not want to register me because I am a Roma,” 15–year-old Qerimi says.
Powerless to stand up to the headmaster’s refusal to enroll Donald, his parents turned for help to a local non-profit group, the Qendistaret centre.
Although the centre’s main focus is on the integration of Roma women into society, they agreed to get involved to help resolve the case.
However, despite the mediation of the centre, the school headmaster remained adamant in his refusal to enroll Donald.
“After we made several attempts find a solution through the regional school board, the director still wouldn’t enroll Donald, even complaining with disdain that the ‘gypsy’ was causing trouble,” Etleva Tare, the executive director of Qendistaret, recalled.
“The headmaster repeated that even if his dead father rose from the grave, he still would not register the child,” Tare added.
When queried by BIRN, the head of the school, Vangjel Simaku, denied that the decision to bar Qerimi was the result of racial bias, saying it was based on his poor attendance rate.
“That student had many unjustified absences and breaches of discipline,” Simaku said. “I only learned later on that he was Roma,” he added.
After mediations attempts with the headmaster and the regional school board in Korca produced no results, in order to enroll Donald back in high school, in October 2013 Qendistaret filed a complaint of racial discrimination against the school with the country’s anti-discrimination commissioner.
After receiving the complaint, the commissioner launched an investigation. The probe found that the school headmaster had discriminated against Qerimi and ordered the school district and the high school to enroll him.
The commissioner’s investigation did not find any evidence that the discrimination was motivated by race, however. No fines or other penalties were imposed on the headmaster either, even though sanctions are prescribed by law.
Article 33 of Albania’s anti-discrimination law says that any public official found guilty of discrimination can face a fine ranging from 30,000 to 80,000 lek (€214 to €572.)
Albania’s anti-discrimination commissioner, Irma Baraku, told BIRN that imposing fines was not part of her philosophy, which aims to resolve cases of discrimination in a “positive manner”.
However, Baraku’s softly-softly approach is not endorsed by rights groups. They argue that discrimination against the Roma is widespread in the education sector, and those found responsible for such discrimination should face the full force of the law.
Because most Roma families are not officially registered at their place of residence, estimates concerning the size of the community in Albania vary widely.
The national population census in 2011, carried out by the Albanian National Institute of Statistics, INSTAT, estimated the Roma population in Albania at 8,301 individuals.
According to a separate partial census of the Roma population carried out by the Open Society Foundation in Albania, OSFA, in 2014 the “linguistic minority” was estimated to number 18,276 individuals, 6,799 of them children.
Data published by the Ministry of Education and Sport suggest that only half of all Roma children in the country are enrolled in school.
According to the charity Save the Children, Qerimi’s case is not unusual. The children’s right group’s country report card underlines that Roma/Egyptian children in Albania continue to suffer exclusion and segregation in kindergarten and school.
“Only 13.5% of the Roma children aged 3-5 are attending pre-school in Albania. 54% of school age Roma children have never attended school while 43% of Roma children aged 15-16 are illiterate,” the organization noted.
“One out of two Roma children aged 6–16 drops out from school. 54% of Roma/Egyptian children of compulsory school age (6-16) have not yet completed school,” it added in 2013.
The commission is an independent institution. Created in 2010, it is tasked with implementing Albania’s anti-discrimination law, in order to combat and discourage all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or others.
The commissioner received seven complaints of discrimination in the education system based on race in 2013 and eight in 2014.
Out of seven administrative probes started in 2013, based on complaints or conducted ex officio, the Commissioner found no grounds for discrimination in six. In Qerimi’s case, the investigation concluded that his discrimination was not the result of his Roma background.
However, a review of the other cases were discrimination was not recorded officially it does not mean that it was discriminatory behavior was not present.
When the commissioner was able to resolve a case through mediation, the probe would conclude with a ruling that no discrimination had been found.
For example, when the head of a Tirana primary school refused to enroll a Roma child, the commissioner ended the investigation after the headmaster changed his mind – once the complaint was filed and an administrative probe opened.
“Our goal is not to impose fines but to remove the discriminatory situation,” Baraku said. “Some might have sanctions as part of their philosophy, but I only count the number of cases that have been resolved positively,” she added.
Baraku told BIRN that the current anti-discrimination law prescribes fines only in cases that a person or institution found guilty of discrimination and does not respect the rulings of the commissioner.
However, Albanian legislators in their June 2014 resolution on the work of the commissioner during 2013, chide Baraku for imposing “very few fines,” and call on the commissioner to apply a ‘stricter policy of administrative sanctions.”
Fation Qama, an anti-discrimination specialist with the organization Albania and World Children and their Human Rights, says heads or teachers who demonstrate discriminatory behaviour should be sanctioned and even fired if need be.
Albania’s Ombudsman Igli Totozani goes further, arguing that officials found guilty of discriminating against the Roma should be prosecuted.
“In cases of complaints from the members of the Roma community about racial discrimination in school, those responsible for such actions should be the subject of criminal cases,” Totozani said.
Qama says discrimination against Roma children in education explains why their drop-out rate is so high.
What is needed is to create a spirit of genuine inclusiveness, which means more active support from policymakers and education officials toward these children.
“All of these factors taken together would not only help their integration into school, but also into society,” Qama concluded.
This article was produced as part of the initiative “Strengthening Cooperation Between Civil Society and Investigative Journalists,” supported by the Open Society Foundation in Albania.