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Field Report: ERRC in Montenegro

29 October 2003

Djordje Jovanovic1

in the period of November 11-15, 2002, I conducted field research investigating the situation of Roma in Montenegro. My mission included visits to the municipalities Nikšic, Berane and the capital Podgorica.

The Romani population of Montenegro is not numerous: According to the most recent official census, conducted in 1991, 3,282 persons registered themselves as Romani, out of a total of 615,035 citizens in the whole republic. However, as is the case in many other countries, the statistical data concerning the number of Roma based on official censuses is not a reliable indicator of the real number of Roma in Montenegro. As anywhere else in Europe, the Romani ethnicity in Montenegro is also burdened with stigma, the result being that large numbers of Roma tend to hide their ethnicity and to identify themselves with a more
respected ethnic group. The prevalent tendency in Montenegro is for many Roma to identify themselves as members of the ethnic majority in the area they inhabit, which in this case means Montenegrins, Serbs or ethnic Albanians. Local non-governmental organisations estimate that the real number of Roma in Montenegro is between 20,000 and 28,000. Additionally, in the last decade the number of Roma in Montenegro grew because of the arrival of Romani refugees who fled from the wars in other regions of former Yugoslavia, mostly from Kosovo. According to estimates by non-governmental organisations, in Montenegro there are about 8,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Romani ethnicity from Kosovo. The official records put this figure at 6,492 Romani IDPs from Kosovo, and 96 Romani and 16 Egyptian "double refugees" - persons who are refugees from Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, who first fled to Kosovo, and later to Montenegro.2

Housing

The quality of Romani housing in Montenegro varies from one settlement to another. In Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, Roma live in several settlements. On November 11, 2002, I visited one settlement on May 1 Street, called Vrela Ribnicka, where Roma live next to their non-Romani neighbours. In this settlement, Romani houses have been constructed with the requisite permits and the Roma have regular access to electricity and running water. However, that same day I visited another Podgorica neighbourhood, usually referred to as the "tent settlement" because at the time of the war in Kosovo in 1999, many Kosovo Roma found refuge in this settlement and were provided with tents as temporary accommodation. This settlement also houses some long-term settlers, local Roma, who live in about twenty houses. On the average, each home accommodates seven persons and all of the houses have been built illegally. The households have been connected to electricity and water sources without permission from the competent authorities and a sewage system does not exist. There are no paved roads in this settlement, and there are no streetlights. There are only two garbage containers placed at the entrance of the settlement. Because the garbage is collected only once every five days, the inhabitants have to dispose of their garbage at a spot in the middle of the settlement. Not only does this create a bad image of the settlement, but it is also very dangerous for the children who use the pile of garbage as their playground because they could easily catch a disease.

On November 14, 2002, I visited another Podgorica Romani settlement, the refugee camp Konik 1. This camp has been in existence since 1999 when it was provided as a location for the Romani IDPs coming from Kosovo: During the NATO bombing of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, around 4,000 Roma, Egyptians and Ashkaelia from Kosovo fled to Podgorica. At first, the IDPs were accommodated in tents and in the autumn of 1999, international non-governmental organisations raised shacks that today accommodate 2,928 Roma, Egyptians and Ashkaelia.3 In the vicinity of Konik 1 is the Konik 2 camp, accommodating Romani IDPs from Kosovo as well. The following testimony of Mr Glim Zeciri, a 41-year-old Romani man originally from Djakovica, can serve to illustrate the living conditions in the Konik 2 camp:

"Three years ago the non-governmental organisation World Vision built these shacks. Today, three years later, the shacks are all dilapidated. During the summer it is so hot inside that we must spend the whole day outside. During the winter it is so cold that no heating can help. We do not have bathrooms at all and for every three shacks only one toilet was built. Our camp is isolated and we live in some kind of a ghetto. There is no close bus line to the centre. All the inhabitants who arrived together in 1999 have regular IDP documents, but some families arrived later in this settlement and they do not have IDP documents. For example, my sister and her family arrived from Kosovo six months ago and they cannot get personal documents because the Commissariat for Refugees does not issue IDP documents anymore."4

The humanitarian aid that the Romani IDPs receive from some organisations is insufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living. As of late spring 2003, all the inhabitants have to pay their electricity and water bills because the donors can no longer provide funds to cover these expenses. The shacks are in serious need of repair, but there are no funds available for that either. INTERSOS, an Italian non-governmental organisation now active in the Konik 1 and 2 camps, stated that they have funds to run their programme only until the summer of 2003.

Across the road from the Konik 2 camp there is a settlement of Romani IDPs in which the conditions are markedly worse than those in the camps. Some Romani families in this settlement without a name still live in tents, while others have houses made of paper, cardboard and tin sheets. Only one water tap provides water for the entire settlement and there is no provision of electricity. Mr Ramadan Bezaku, a 56-year-old Romani man from Pec, told me the following:

"I live in a house made of tin, and there is no electricity or running water in it. I have IDP documents, however I did not get a shack to use because, I was told, I had a horse and some hens. At first I lived in a tent like everybody else from my group, so I really cannot understand why I did not get to move to a shack too."5

Education

Primary school education is compulsory in Montenegro, but authorities do not enforce this rule with respect to Roma. According to the Podgorica-based daily newspaper Pobjeda of March 10, 2003, there are about a thousand Romani children and young people aged 5 to 16 who are eligible to go to school and have this right and duty according to Montenegrin legislation, but who do not go to school. Seat Selimovic, a 17-year-old Romani male from the Vrela Ribnicka settlement in Podgorica, never went to school and is illiterate. His parents are illiterate too. Tradition is another reason why Romani girls almost never leave their houses without mothers and are hardly ever enrolled in school. For example, Sanija Beganaj, a 17-year-old Romani girl also from Vrela Ribnicka, told me that she never went to school so she is totally illiterate; she does not know how to write her name and she cannot even tell the time. Poverty is also a major obstacle for many Romani families to educate their children.

The problems involved in educating Romani IDP children are even graver due to language obstacles, as many of them do not speak Serbian and the language of instruction in the schools they attended in Kosovo was Albanian. In Podgorica, both formal and non-formal education was organised for IDP children. For example, UNICEF and the local non-governmental organisation Eduka organised an informal educational program for children between 3 and 10 years of age. Eduka also worked with older children who have already finished some school grades in Kosovo, and these pupils later joined the school for adults where they finally graduated from primary school.

In formal education and regular schools, Romani IDP children are separated from Serbian and Montenegrin children, as is the case in the camp Konik 2. Twenty-five Romani children from the camp do not attend the nearest elementary school Božidar Vukovic Podgoricanin. They study in separate classes organised for them by the school in the camp. According to a teacher running the classes for the Romani children, the reason for the separation of the Romani children is the shortage of classrooms in the school building.

Educated separately, young Roma have little chance to become a part of the Montenegrin society. The society itself often closes its doors on them: Young Roma are sometimes banned from entering discotheques in Podgorica, as was the case, for example, of 16-year-old Faton Beganaj and his friends, who wanted to enter the Queen discotheque in Podgorica in September 2002 but were turned away by security guards.

Employment

The official currency in Montenegro is the Euro and the cost of living in Montenegro has risen since the Euro was introduced. The average salary in Montenegro is only about 230 Euro per month, which is hardly enough to cover basic expenses. Roma in Montenegro earn much less than this amount, when they earn anything at all. Employment possibilities for Roma in Montenegro are very few: There are cases of persons who have been registered with the employment bureaus for 10 to 15 years, and often they have not received any job offers. Mr Ramiz Redžepov, a 58-year-old Romani man from Podgorica, told me that both he and his wife were unemployed and that in his 13 years of being registered at the local employment office, he had never received a single job offer.

Roma with no education have even fewer chances for employment. For example, most of the Romani people I met in the Vrela Ribnicka settlement were illiterate or at best they had attended a few grades of primary school. They usually earn money through traditional handicrafts, such as knitting willow baskets and making tin dishes, which they sell at flea markets. Mr Seat Selimovic, in whose family not one member is employed in the public sector, told me that they make items out of metal, such as trash bins, and sell them for a living. Roma in Montenegro most often do seasonal jobs or difficult manual one-day jobs, such as loading and unloading trucks with goods. I have heard complaints that Roma are paid much less for these jobs than non-Roma. Because of the level of poverty of the families, Romani children often have to work as well. Only some of the Roma I met received social benefits, but I was told that the money comes in irregularly and that it is sufficient merely for food provisions for several days.

Some of the Roma who have jobs complained that their employers do not officially register them, thereby avoiding payment of the employer's health care contribution and, therefore, the Roma at issue are not entitled to state-provided health care. Mr Ivan Toskic, a 20-year-old Romani man from Podgorica, told me about his case:

"I have been working for the municipal cleaning service for three years. I always work on the night shift: From 10 PM to 5 AM. I am not regularly employed there so I do not have a health insurance. However I cannot get the insurance from the Employment Bureau either, because I have a job. There are other Roma employed in our firm who are in the same situation. So, all of us Roma have made a request and we sent it to our firm in order to get the health insurance. It was more than five months ago, but we have not received any response yet."6

The only state jobs open to Roma in practice seem to be those with the municipal cleaning service. Romani employees are given the night shifts and there have been numerous cases of attacks and beatings of Roma by non-Romani persons or racist vigilante "skinheads". Denis Asanovic, a 16-year-old Romani boy from Podgorica, told me about one such experience:

"Some non-Romani young men beat my brother Alja Asanovic, during a night shift. It happened in September 2002, in the part of town called Masline. When he came home that night he was covered with blood: His lips were torn and you could see the marks and bruises on his right eye and on his back because they kicked him all over. My brother told me that the young men asked him whether he had a lighter. He said he did not have one, and they started beating him. The next thing he remembered was waking up under a truck in the street he was cleaning, where his boss found him. My brother did not report this to the police".7

Violence and Harassment

During my research in Montenegro, numerous incidents of police violence against Roma were reported to me by the victims themselves, as well as by witnesses. Some Roma have also testified that the police failed to protect them against violent racist attacks by non-Roma.

I have, for example, investigated a case of extreme physical violence by police officers against two Romani boys, aged 13 and 9. The case took place on November 8, 2002, in Nikšic, northern Montenegro. According to the brothers M.L . and S.L . and their parents Mr A.L . and Ms S.L ., several police officers came to the home of the L . family, internally displaced Roma from Kosovo, after they were allegedly informed that the brothers M.L . and S.L . had committed a theft. The police officers took the brothers to the police station and threatened them that if they did not confess to having committed the crime they would physically abuse their parents and "send them all back to Kosovo". One of the police officers beat M.L . on his palms and slapped him. In the course of the interrogation, one of the officers took out a knife, and ordered M.L . to take off his trousers, threatening to cut off his genitals. The officers continued beating M.L . on the soles of his feet and kicking him, after which they locked him in a solitary confinement cell. Meanwhile, the police officers also beat S.L . on his feet and kicked him. After the officers threatened to cut his throat, the boy confessed that his brother committed the theft, although this was not true. Around 4:30 PM the boys were taken to another building where three police officers beat them with cables. They threatened the boys that the beating would continue "for the rest of the night" and that afterwards they would throw them into a solitary cell to "freeze and die there". The police released the brothers around 6:30 AM. Their family decided to seek remedy for the violence against their sons and, on November 25, 2002, with the assistance of the Podgorica office of the non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Law Center, they filed complaints against the officers concerned with the Nikšic prosecutor's office. As of September 23, 2003, an investigation into the involvement of the two police officers from Nikšic in this case was underway.

In another case of police abuse, in the summer of 2002, in Podgorica, Mr F.D., a 47-year-old Romani man, was sitting in a café, waiting for a friend, when a policeman who had just entered the café slapped him on the back and asked him why he "behaved like a punk". The officer then left and returned shortly afterwards with two other officers. All three officers sat at Mr F.D.'s table and ordered drinks; they insulted Mr F.D. and accused him of being a thief because he had "so much money that he could afford buying all those drinks". In about half an hour the officers left the café and left their bill for Mr F.D. to pay.

Roma have also reported cases in which the police refused to intervene to protect them against assaults by non-Romani individuals. Such is, for example, the case of Mr Z.I., a 22-year old Romani IDP from Kosovo based in Podgorica, who in the summer of 2002 was attacked by a group of non-Romani young men. While he and his brother were looking for some food in garbage containers, four young men came up to them. One of them hit Mr Z.I. in the mouth, knocking him down. As Mr Z.I.was lying on the ground, all four men were kicking him. As this was happening, a man who presented himself as a policeman approached them and asked them what they were doing. The attackers replied that they were "just beating" Mr Z.I., then they threw him in the nearby ditch and walked away. When Mr Z.I. asked the purported policeman why he did not intervene, he replied that Mr Z.I. was "lucky not to be beaten more", and went away. Mr Z.I. did not report this case to the authorities because he had several unpleasant encounters with the police in the past. For example, the previous summer Mr Z.I. went to a local market close to his settlement in order to find a manual job. While he was sitting on a bench, a woman came up to him and accused him of theft. As Mr Z.I. was trying to explain that he did not know what she was talking about, she called the police. Soon thereafter, some officers arrived on the spot, and after a brief interrogation took Mr Z.I. to the police station. At the station they continued interrogating him, and after Mr Z.I. declined to confess stealing the woman's bag, one of the officers ordered him to stretch out his arms and show his palms. After hitting him approximately twenty times on the palms with a truncheon, the police officer hit him one last time in the head. The officers then took Mr Z.I.to a basement cell and made him spend an entire day and night there. In the morning they took him to the office again, and after another interrogation they released him.

In another case, Mr Borko Ramadanovic, a 34-year old Romani man from Knjaževac, Serbia, told me about the failure of police officers to protect Roma victims of violence.8 Mr Ramadanovic is the owner of an amusement park with which he travels around Montenegro. One August evening in 2002 he was in the town of Gusinje with his amusement park. As he and his employees closed the park earlier and prepared to go to sleep, a group of ten non-Romani young men attacked the buses the Roma slept in. The attackers hurled stones at the buses and broke several windows, and a fight broke out between them and the funfair employees. Mr Ramadanovic called the police, and some officers soon arrived on the spot, but they refused to talk to Mr Ramadanovic after it turned out that one of the non-Romani youngsters was the son of a high ranking police officer. When Mr Ramadanovic insisted on telling them what happened, one of the police officers cursed his "Gypsy mother" and ordered him to stay away. The police officers took an employee of Mr Ramadanovic's into custody and released him at 1:00 AM that night. 

Romani children drink water in the Konik 2 camp in Podgorica, Montenegro, November 2002.
Photo: ERRC

Conclusion

The situation of Roma in Montenegro is very difficult. The local Roma have no representatives in the institutions of the state. The situation of the internally-displaced Roma from Kosovo is even more difficult, as the foreign donors cut their budgets for the programs concerning this group and the government of Montenegro has not allocated any funds to support such projects. The poverty of Roma in Montenegro is visible: During my visit the weather was very cold but many children I saw did not have adequate clothes or shoes. Many of the Roma I have encountered told me that they have not had enough food, that they were starving and that they were forced to beg for food or search for it in garbage containers. Because of their poverty, the parents are not motivated to pursue their children's education vigorously, as under the circumstances it appears more beneficial that children do not attend school, but work and help support the family instead. Besides that, Roma in Montenegro face discrimination and racism. Last but not least, there is no adequate legal framework for their protection, as anti-discrimination law in Montenegro is very weak.

Endnotes:

  1. Djordje Jovanović is a human rights researcher and former Research Assistant at the European Roma Rights Center. This field mission was conducted with the technical support of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) and its Human Rights Field Mission in Serbia and Montenegro. The author is grateful to all who assisted him in conducting this research mission.
  2. Commissariat for Displaced Persons of the Government of the Republic of Montenegro and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Census of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in Montenegro. Podgorica, March 2002.
  3. Data provided by the Italian non-governemtnal organisation INTERSOS.
  4. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr Glim Zećiri, November 14, 2002, Podgorica.
  5. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr Ramadan Bezaku, November 15, 2002, Podgorica.
  6. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr Ivan Toskić, November 11, 2002, Podgorica.
  7. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr Denis Asanović, November 11, 2002, Podgorica.
  8. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr Borko Ramadanović, November 12, 2002, Berane.

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