X and others v Albania: Another case of Roma and Egyptian children segregationicelds
Background and contexts
The recent 2019-22 Integration Plan drafted by the Municipality of Korça states that approximately 24,000 Roma and Egyptian people are currently living in particular areas of the city. Thus, Korça is one of the municipalities with the highest numbers of Roma and Egyptian communities. These communities have received considerable attention for their integration and rights. It complies with recent draft plans aimed at increasing their integration into society and providing communities with more access to education, employment, housing, etc. Despite these initiatives, in 2015, six households of 18 Roma and Egyptian people complained to the Commissioner for the Protection from Discrimination, claiming that the Albanian Government had failed to implement desegregation measures for Roma and Egyptian children in the Naim Frashëri Primary School. Thus, they violated Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination. More precisely, they claimed that the overrepresentation of the community was because at least 90 percent of pupils were of Roma and Egyptian ethnic origin.
The complaint was later taken up by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and brought before the People’s Advocate, another institution that protects individuals from any wrongdoing by the state. In turn, it reiterated the Commission’s concerns regarding indirect discrimination through segregation. On the other hand, the Albanian Ministry of Education and Sports claimed that any form of segregation was an unintentional result of the food support program for the pupils of the Naim Frashëri School, which had been in place since 2012. To counter the disproportionate number of Roma and Egyptian children, in 2017, the Ministry initiated the extension of the food support program to other communities, as well as the merging of the Naim Frashëri School with three other local schools. However, the lack of implementation of these desegregation measures persisted and the issue was eventually brought to the European Court of Human Rights. On May 31, 2022, the ECtHR ruled in favor of the 18 Roma and Egyptian individuals. Thus, it was acknowledged that the Albanian government had violated Article 1, Protocol No. 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to implement desegregation measures in the Naim Frashëri Primary School. Finally, it subjected the Albanian government to follow through with the implementation of desegregation measures and pay damages worth € 4,500 to each household applicant.
A pattern of discrimination against the Roma and Egyptian communities in Albania
Roma and Egyptian minorities in Albania have a long history of being among the least advantaged minorities in Albania. Before the 2011 population census, no accurate data were provided for the two communities, and they were recognized as a national minority only after 2017 and were formerly categorized as an ethnolinguistic minority. Even now, the accuracy of the actual numbers of Roma and Egyptian populations is still a subject of debate. This is not only a result of being historically erased in the population census in the 20th century but also an outcome of their disadvantageous situation in the country. Albania’s Ombudsman has continuously pointed to the lack of accuracy since 2014, among a large number of related issues, such as the lack of housing, lack of employment, property issues, and more.
Both communities face similar difficulties, especially as regards one of the most concerning: education. Thus, the case of X and others v Albania is a clear reflection of several plaguing issues that hampered the integration of Roma and Egyptian children. An investigative report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network highlighted the Naim Frashëri case as a reflection of deep segregation, citing claims of discrimination and causing psychological harm to the Roma and Egyptian children. Moreover, cases of segregation have been reported in other municipalities. In Moravë, Abdyl Avdia, another primary school is mainly attended by Roma children. The same form of discrimination has been present in two of Elbasan’s schools, Ptoleme Xhuvani and Sulë Misiri, which are situated in the Roma- and Egyptian-dominated areas. Similar to the Naim Frashëri school case, the Ministry is reported to have stated that segregation is an outcome of the high number of Roma and Egyptian pupils corresponding to the area that was dominated by minorities. It is worth noting that the Albanian Constitution provides protection against several forms of discrimination and, more importantly, has been amended in 2020 to increase the legal guarantees for the protection of national minorities. Additionally, the amendment further defined forms of discrimination, including segregation.
As the case showed, although the government reports claim that cases of segregation have been solved to an extent, there is a clear lack of implementation of desegregation measures and accountability on its part, and the BIRN reports that the government also shifted the blame onto non-governmental organizations. Due to the persistent lack of access to education, the issue of segregation is also connected with the generally low rate of Roma and Egyptian children registered in schools and problems of school dropouts by Roma children due to poverty, hence the initiation of programs such as that food support. Although the Albanian government has taken steps to tackle this issue, improvements have once again remained insufficient.
The ECtHR Ruling: one step forward but many to go
The development of the X and others v Albania case and the eventual Court ruling first reflects the persistent underperformance of the Albanian Government in meeting the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ requirements to battle discrimination and encourage the socioeconomic integration of Roma and Egyptian children for years. Though the ruling marks a victory for the integration rights of the Roma and Egyptian minorities and possibly raises awareness on the issue of segregation in education, it demonstrates that minorities are persistently disadvantaged. In addition to the justifications that the Ministry attempted to put forward, the ruling reflects on the Albanian government’s poor ability to adjust or implement its desegregation measures in a swift and comprehensible matter. Although the Ministry’s decision to remove the ethnicity criterion for pupils who benefited from the food support program is welcomed, the ECtHR notes that it was done almost one and a half years after the Commissioner’s decision. Moreover, the government’s efforts to integrate the Roma and Egyptian communities seem to have backfired because of a lack of appropriateness. Seeing as the food support program, initially launched to support Roma and Egyptian students, the two actively segregated minorities, more intricate planning and assessment of the plan’s effects was not sufficiently considered.
In this regard, underreporting also remains an issue, as both the applicants and representative NGOs claimed that the state report did not reflect the real number of pupils in the schools. The applicants contested the data submitted by the Albanian government, arguing that non-Roma and non-Egyptian pupils were only administratively registered in the Naim Frashëri School as they attended other schools in the area. The issue of underreporting also extends from the lack of inaccurate data in the population census itself, which has repeatedly cast the two minorities in the shadow and potentially hampers the resolution of many other forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, the ruling is an evidence of some efforts on the part of the Albanian government, and it demonstrates that two of the most important institutions in charge of protecting individuals against state abuse, the Commissioner and the Ombudsman are “alive and well.”
The situation of the Roma and Egyptian minorities in Albania has not been optimal, or without persistent setbacks. Although initiatives and plans have been set forth by the government, the ECtHR ruling in the X and others v Albania case shows that there is room for further improvement, or better put, a greater need to protect the rights of these minorities. The urgency to establish a mechanism for monitoring the implementation of desegregation measures in the education field is rightfully voiced by the Commissioner and the Ombudsman, and it seems that it would be a significant step to do so. How this mechanism would come to be or how effective it could be is yet to be seen, but there is no denying its necessity.
Image: Facebook page of the Naim Frashëri Public School in Korça