Romani children in Slovakia are segregated in schools, bullied by teachers and misdiagnosed as mentally disabled because of anti-Roma racism, according to human rights groups.
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and Amnesty International said on Wednesday that Romani children in primary school, aged between five and 11, were systematically denied their rights to education, trapping them in a "cycle of poverty and marginalisation".
The report comes almost two years after the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Slovakia for discrimination and segregation in education.
"Slovakia's abject failure to address deeply ingrained prejudices within the education system is blighting the future of generations of Romani children from the moment they step into the classroom," said ERRC President Dorde Jovanovic.
There are as many as 500,000 Roma in Slovakia, mostly in the country's east and south, comprising almost 10 percent of the population.
"The piecemeal reforms and periodic declarations of intent by successive governments cannot obscure the fact that the discrimination and segregation of Roma in primary education remains widespread, and that the Slovak authorities are fundamentally failing to address them," the groups said in a joint report.
"Under national, European and international law, discrimination in the field of education is prohibited in Slovakia. However, in practice, Slovak authorities have not accompanied the ban on discrimination with concrete measures to address or prevent it," they added.
Roma in Slovakia are the second largest minority after Hungarians.
Wednesday's report was based on research carried out by the two groups in October and November in four regions: Sarisske Michalany; Moldava nad Bodvou; Rokycany and Krompachy.
Robert Kalinak, interior minister, said that programmes to "improve the situation" had been prepared as he accused the groups of exaggerating their claims on segregation, according to local media.
Researchers visited six Romani settlements and studied dozens of schools.
While many in the country blame Roma for failing to encourage their children to attend schools, little attention is paid to institutional racism, the report said.
"Segregation of Romani children in mainstream primary schools persists in Slovakia, either in schools that are fully or primarily composed of Roma pupils, or in Roma-only classes," the report said.
"Romani children educated in mixed educational settings [including Romani and non-Roma children] often face racial prejudice and harassment by non-Roma classmates and teachers," it added, calling on the education ministry to address the issue.
At one school in Sarisske Michalany, a teacher told researchers that she would not send her own children to a school with Romani pupils.
"Did you see the children from Ostrovany [a school for Roma]? How they speak? How they smell? No wonder the non-Roma don't want to be with them … It's a little zoo," the teacher reportedly said.
Fabricating mental disability
According to a 2016 report by the state school watchdog, 21.74 percent of pupils reported the use of derogatory language, including anti-Roma slurs, by teachers in schools.
"In Slovakia, Romani children have been overrepresented in special schools and classes for children with 'mild mental disabilities' for decades," the report said.
"Many have been misdiagnosed ... as a result of culturally-biased diagnostic tools and anti-Roma prejudice among psychological and pedagogical experts. These children are condemned to low-quality education and limited opportunities for further education and employment."
The report also documented a so-called white flight, when non-Roma parents remove their children from schools when they feel there are too many Romani pupils.
"Romani children do not start education on an equal footing with non-Roma children and segregation entrenches inequality at every stage of their lives," the report said.
Dafina Savic, founder of Canada-based Romanipe, a group advocating for human rights of Roma, told Al Jazeera: "Segregation not only deprives young Roma from a normal educational experience, but also from eventually successfully integrating into society, since their misdiagnosis prevents them from accessing higher education and certain jobs."
Schools across Europe have failed to integrate Roma children, she added, describing persistent racial segregation.
"Roma are seated separately from non-Roma children, are placed at the back of the class, or are given a lower curriculum," Savic said. "Educational systems across Europe are not proving safe spaces for Roma children, first and foremost because teachers and administrative [staff] have their prejudices."
She said that abuse against Roma would only be wiped out when governments addressed a history of persecution, including slavery, genocide during the Holocaust and forced sterilisation.
"It is only then that the emancipation rather than the integration of Roma can occur," she said. "An essential step in challenging the root causes of anti-gypsyism today lies in giving Roma the opportunity to voice their interests and influence the decision-making process which affects them directly."