Slovakia's prime minister said on Monday children of the European Union member's large Roma minority "must be taken" from their impoverished settlements and put into boarding schools to hasten integration.
Robert Fico's comments follow last week's criticism from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who rapped the Slovaks and their Czech neighbours for a worsening situation in the treatment of their Roma, sometimes known as gypsies.
With his SMER party leading opinion polls ahead of a June general election, the leftist prime minister said the schools were the only way to break a cycle of exclusion in which most Roma grow up without any hope of joining mainstream society.
"The (next) government's agenda must include a programme designed to gradually put as many Roma children as possible into boarding schools and gradually separate them from the life they live in their settlements," Fico said.
"It seems that there is no other system. Many things have been tried... If we don't do it, we will raise another generation of Roma which will not be able to integrate."
Slovak deputy Prime Minister for minority issues Dusan Caplovic said the plan had received preliminary approval from top Roma officials and children would only attend boarding schools if their parents agree.
The financial crisis has raised concern over a potential rise in intolerance and discrimination across Europe as economic hardship increases social tension and could embolden radical groups such as Hungary's anti-Roma, far-right Jobbik party.
Up to around 10 percent of Slovakia's 5.4 million people are Roma. Most live on the margins of society in squalid settlements with limited access to education, electricity and running water. In many communities, unemployment runs at well over 50 percent.
Violence is also a problem. Last year, Slovakia faced criticism after a video showed police abusing a group of Roma boys, while in 2008 a court sentenced two officers for beating a Roma man to death at a police station in 2001.
Fico said he expected the proposal to draw criticism from human rights groups and Ivan Ivanov, Executive Director of the European Roma Information Office in Brussels reacted cautiously to the plan.
But Ivanov said if it meant Roma children would attend Roma-exclusive boarding schools, and not regular Slovak schools, it went against the principles of the European Union.
"If this is what they say, this is a very bad development," Ivanov said. "This is against all principles of the European Union because we are talking about desegregation, about the integration of this Roma community."
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