Nobel Prize-winning writer Günter Grass is among the first 700 signatories to a petition calling for the resignation of Eric Van der Linden, the EU ambassador to Slovakia. A month ago, Van der Linden called for Roma (Gypsy) children to be forcibly separated from their parents during the week and put in boarding schools.
Speaking on Dutch TV on the very day that Slovakia joined the European Union, 1 May 2004, Van der Linden stated: ‘It may sound simplistic but we may have to, I’ll say it in quotation marks, force Roma children to stay in a kind of boarding school from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, where they will continuously be subjected to a system of values that is dominant in our society.’
Asked by the interviewer whether such a policy would be acceptable to Roma families, the EU Commission’s Ambassador to Slovakia added that, in a democracy, Roma children could not be directly compelled to attend boarding schools away from their families but that financial inducements could be offered. The aim he said would be to make the next generation of Roma ‘fit better in the dominant society’ where ‘they will be able to co-operate truly productively to the growth of the economy’.
Van der Linden has also made similar comments in a previous interview with the BBC. The European Commission said it regretted the comments made by its representative but the ambassador would face no serious reprimand.
The European Roma Information Office (ERIO) has launched a petition calling for Van der Linden to be sacked as Ambassador. ERIO argues that Van der Linden’s comments echo an old tradition of ‘forced assimilation’ through the separation of Roma children from their parents. In Switzerland, child separation was introduced after the First World War and continued up to the 1970s, in an effort to eradicate Romani identity and culture.
Angela Kocze, ERIO’s executive director, said: ‘The solution to improving the school performance of Romani children lies in the abolition of discrimination within the regular school system, not in the pursuit of segregationist policies under the pretext of providing Romani children with better opportunities.’
The Roma of Slovakia, estimated to be ten per cent of the population, suffer some of the worst deprivation in the newly expanded European Union. In the so-called ‘settlements’, where many Roma live, unemployment nears 100 per cent and basic utilities such as water and electricity are lacking. According to official figures, 38 per cent of Roma children attend special remedial schools for the mentally handicapped, placed there on the basis of linguistically and culturally biased IQ tests. In reality, the level of segregation is even higher as many Romani children suffer de facto isolation in separate, sub-standard schools.