In the Roma settlement of Obiliq, on the outskirts of Pristina in Kosovo, people have little access to basic amenities like electricity and running water.
Since the pandemic hit, schools have closed their doors and shifted to online learning. With little access to WiFi and no laptops, Roma children have now missed almost a year of learning.
The same story is repeated in other settlements across the region.
The most marginalised children in Europe, have once again been excluded and fallen completely behind.
The Global Education Monitoring Report published by UNESCO has launched a new study, in partnership with the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education and the Network of Education Policy Centers, that examines 30 education systems in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Looking back over the past twenty years, undoubtedly ethnic minorities have more protection now than they did then.
There are also more opportunities for the most disadvantaged children and young people to attend school.
But for some groups, many changes are only happening on paper. Deep-held beliefs and actual practices remain unchanged.
This is certainly true for the Roma communities, where centuries of discrimination still run deep. Roma people continue to be the most impoverished and excluded people in the region. This situation does not look set to change soon.
New analysis in the report finds that in the Western Balkans, 60% of Roma, Egyptian and Ashkali young people do not attend upper secondary school. Only 3% of the Roma complete high school in Montenegro.
A key challenge affecting not just Roma children, but also other ethnic minorities and, especially, children with disabilities is that the region has still not shed its legacy of segregation, which was wrongly considered the solution during the era of state socialism of the second half of the 20th century.
When Roma children do go to school, it is often with other Roma children. They attend separate schools in the Czech Republic, Montenegro and Slovakia. In Hungary, segregation of Roma students has actually increased in the last few years. Exclusion is so pervasive against them, that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has raised the issue of segregation in the education of Roma children in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
For Kendiza, a young Roma woman from the small town of Gjakova in Kosovo, progress on paper has also not translated into real change. When she was younger, she would accompany her grandfather, to the nearby Roma settlement to pick up a few children who had no other means to go to school in town. Sometimes, Kendiza would go back to the settlement after school and help children with their homework. She has seen the challenges that Roma children face first-hand. The particular settlement in Gjakova is situated next to a rubbish dump – which is the main source of income for this community. Children are growing up in dire poverty and they receive very little support in their schooling. When they do have some mentoring or tutoring, Kendiza says the results are remarkable. But inevitably, it’s too little too late. Most of the young people get married early and the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
Kendiza says she is one of the lucky ones. Her grandfather was a maths teacher and he encouraged her to go to school. She has received a scholarship to study at the American University in Pristina. She is an example of what Roma young people can accomplish if they receive quality education and the right support.
This is possible for everyone. In at least 25 countries and territories in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the rights of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities are guaranteed in legislation. Grassroots movements have pushed the rights of Roma further, such as in Romania where a movement led to the successful desegregation of schools for Roma students backed up with policy changes and a revision of curriculum that better reflects Roma history.
Education systems in the region are becoming more inclusive than they were twenty years ago. Most countries now offer counselling and mentoring at schools as well as learning assistance. But this support does not extend to the most marginalised students. It must.
Teachers play a critical role and should be trained to teach all students. Currently, only one in three teachers in secondary schools in the region felt they were able to work in culturally diverse classrooms. North Macedonia provides a shining example in the region where a recent law on primary education encourages interethnic integration by allowing for education mediators to help Roma children from socially vulnerable families integrate into mainstream schools.
Roma communities face acute discrimination which prevents children and young people from participating in education. Real acceptance takes time and it comes not just through laws but also changing the norms in society. The pre-requisite to an adequate policy response is seeing diversity as an opportunity and dismantling the barriers that prevent the most marginalised groups from accessing school. As the example of Kediza demonstrates, Roma youth have great potential, if only they were enabled to reach it.
Momentum was there before the pandemic and it can be harnessed again to drive change forward. Quality education for all children regardless of their background is possible. But only if it becomes a priority.
Manos Antoninis is director of UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring Report.