Roma Denied Electricity in Serbia: Discriminatory Collective Punishment for Roma Paying Through Collective Meter

14 October 2016

Budapest, 14 October 2016: The electricity supply to a majority Romani settlement in Serbia has been cut without notice, and with winter fast approaching. So far there have been no signs of the power returning to the hundred family homes in Crvena Zvezda any time soon.

The electricity company cut power to the Romani settlement in Nis on 22nd August 2016. Romani homes in the area have remained without power ever since, yet astoundingly not one of the houses belonging to non-Roma in the settlement are reported to be without electricity. This is because in Crvena Zvezda, Roma and non-Roma are not treated equally and on the same basis by the electricity company.

For Roma in this settlement, electricity is paid via collective meters for the entire Romani community whilst non-Roma have individual meters per household. This results in the settlement’s Roma, who live in material deprivation and are already in a vulnerable situation, paying the highest possible band for electricity to the company.

Romani residents must organise collection of cash between themselves and pay this to the electricity company collectively. Such an arrangement is otherwise unheard of for non-Roma. Treating a hundred households as one entity for billing purposes is discriminatory, and reflects cultural stereotypes of Roma.

There is a dispute over how much is owed to the electricity company by the residents of the settlement. In 2014, the community was cut off for 5 months because of this, resulting in the Serbian Equality Commissioner issuing a recommendation on the case that the disconnection was discriminatory. This recommendation was clear that electricity should be provided to the inhabitants of the settlement “on an equal basis with other persons in Serbia”, i.e. with individual meters and separate household billing. It is quite clear from recent events that there have been no attempts by the electricity company or the local authorities to follow the commissioner’s recommendation.

Representatives from the ERRC and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have visited the area to investigate what appears to be an obvious case of discrimination. Information gathered on the ground suggests Serbian authorities are breaching human rights obligations by allowing the electricity company to relegate this community to total deprivation.

Disconnecting the electricity has seriously worsened the already dilapidated conditions in the settlement. The decision to cut electricity is already unnecessarily heightening the risk of illness, and putting the lives of children and the elderly at risk.

The ERRC have contacted the Mayor’s office as well as the President of the Municipality, the EU Delegation to Serbia and the United Nations Country Team in Serbia about the matter. We firmly reiterate that there is a duty on electricity providers to show that they are treating their Romani customers no differently than non-Romani customers, and that electricity providers have an obligation not to discriminate based on ethnicity. Furthermore, we note a similar case (Case C-83/14, CHEZ Razpredelenie Bulgaria AD) involving discrimination in supply of electricity was heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that the company’s practices of denying people in a Romani neighbourhood access to their meters, contrary to their normal practice, amounted to discrimination under the EU’s Race Equality Directive. The Serbian government has an obligation to Roma in relation to protection of their homes and standard of living. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Roma require special protection from the authorities, including when it comes to protection of their homes (D.H. and others v Czech Republic (Grand Chamber 2007), § 182; Winterstein and others v France (2013), § 159).

The ERRC have demanded further information from authorities on their proposed next steps to return power to the settlement. We will continue to investigate and explore all available avenues to resolve this precarious situation as swiftly as possible: including supporting the affected Roma through litigation in the courts if necessary.

“Collective billing of Roma is, in reality, a form of collective punishment which can be used for leverage over the community when the electricity is disconnected. We have been told that previous electricity bills have been made out to ‘the Roma Community in Crvena Zvezda’– this simply doesn’t happen to non-Roma in the area. It is a discriminatory practice which is being carried out by the company, and it is being ignored, if not sanctioned by the local authorities. This cannot be allowed to continue, and we are prepared to take legal action against those responsible if measures are not taken to end this discrimination.” said ERRC President, Dorde Jovanovic.

For more information contact:

Jonathan Lee
Communications Officer
European Roma Rights Centre
jonathan.lee@errc.org
+36 30 500 2118

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