25 years after Yugoslavia: Roma exclusion (Part 1)

20 July 2016

By Bernard Rorke

“Ahh, Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia … in 1975-76 when I started school, I was living together with non-Roma, Macedonians, Albanians and Turks in a multiethnic society. As a Rom who was born in Yugoslavia, a country of six republics and two provinces … a man who was born in Kumanovo, I think that Yugoslav socialism was good for Roma … Roma could find work and travel from state to state without any need for special documents …”

                                                                                                          Ashmet Elezovski

It is not hard to empathise with this lament for a bygone era, in view of the dark times that followed. As a result of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, tens of thousands of Roma from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia were forced to leave their homes. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, hundreds of Roma were killed, but Roma were never recognised as victims of the war. Tens of thousands of Roma fled to Western Europe. According to estimates, more than 100,000 Roma were forced to leave Kosovo during and after the conflict in 1999. Up to 40,000–50,000 Roma from Kosovo fled to Serbia.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of Yugoslavia, many thousands of Roma continue to live the lives of the displaced, subsisting in camps, shacks and metal containers, facing the constant threat of forced evictions; harried and harassed, enduring ethnic profiling, police violence and racist intimidation. The plight of Roma during the wars elicited little sympathy, was largely ignored and quickly forgotten. More than two decades later many thousands of Roma are still affected by the consequences of wars waged by others.

The ERRC recently submitted an overview of the situation of Roma in the Western Balkans to the European Commission, based on its work and that of partner organisations in 2015. It is clear from the findings that apart from some improvements in education, the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 failed to make a difference on the ground, and the ambition to close the gap in living standards between Roma and non-Roma remains as remote ever before. Some snapshots from the ERRC report provide a vivid sense of just how wide the gap remains between Roma and non-Roma at the end of the Decade.

Report Snapshots

Access to water

The ERRC research on access to safe and affordable water and sanitation revealed that Roma suffer disproportionately from the failures of public authorities to secure access to water and sanitation. In eight of 10 Roma settlements surveyed in Macedonia, residents had no tap water; nine had no sewerage system and had to use external pit latrines as toilets; seven used uncontrolled open sources of water which are unprotected from insects, stray dogs and wild animals; and four used wells reportedly contaminated by faeces from nearby pit latrines and dry toilets.

Access to education

Only about half of Montenegro’s Roma and Egyptian children are in primary school at any given time. Less than a third complete primary school and only 7% complete secondary school, compared to 98% and 86% respectively for the mainstream population. Across the Western Balkans, the situation is one of low attendance in compulsory education, high drop-out rates, and low participation in higher education, especially among girls. Children are often subject to discrimination, and there is a lack of teachers and staff from these communities, as well as a lack of quality mother-tongue materials and education.

Access to public services

The 2015 US State Department report on Bosnia found that Roma continued to experience more discrimination and exclusion than any other segment of the population: “Almost 95 percent of them remained unemployed. A significant percentage were homeless or without water or electricity in their homes. Many dwellings were overcrowded, and residents lacked proof of property ownership. Approximately three-fourths lived in openly segregated neighborhoods. Roma had significantly less access to health insurance than other groups, and infant mortality among Roma was four times greater than among the rest of the population.”

Access to housing and the threat of forced evictions

A 2015 Amnesty International briefing found that more than three years after the forced eviction of more than one hundred Roma families from the Belvil settlement in Belgrade, a combination of bureaucratic incompetence, inertia and discrimination has condemned these families to continued misery. Despite commitments from the City of Belgrade and €3.6 million funding from the EC, not one of the planned new housing blocks has been finished. Meanwhile evicted Roma have spent years living in squalid racially segregated metal containers far from schools, social services and access to employment.

Amnesty reported that under EC rules the €3.6 million was due to be spent by February 2015. The City of Belgrade failed to meet this deadline, which has now been extended by a year. Despite this extension, the city authorities told the Roma that there was no money left to rehouse 50 families.

On her 2015 visit to Serbia, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, described conditions in the settlements she visited as appalling:

“The authorities in Serbia provide virtually no services to the informal Roma settlements. Those that I visited were almost completely unserviced. Children play amidst garbage heaps and broken glass because garbage collection services are at best sporadic. Without public infrastructure, housing and the communal areas were both unsanitary and unsafe. I heard accounts of rats posing a significant risk to children, including in one case disfiguring a child. I was also made aware that electricity is generally not provided, and in some cases there is not even piped water. These conditions are in violation of international human rights law and standards …”

Looking ahead …

The Commission recently stated that enlargement policy remains focused on the “fundamentals first” principle, which includes the rule of law and fundamental rights, with specific mention of the “need to better protect minorities, in particular Roma.” Based on the experience of the EU Framework, the Commission’s assertion that “stepping up the fight against racism and discrimination” remains essential to making any advances in Roma inclusion in the Western Balkans.

The stated objective of the newly-launched Roma Integration 2020 in enlargement countries is “to contribute to reducing the socio-economic gap between the Roma and non-Roma population … and to strengthen the institutional obligations of governments to incorporate and deliver specific Roma integration goals in mainstream policy developments.” The prospects for any successes in this five-year extension of the Decade must be set against wider political developments and crises of governance in the Western Balkans. The prospects appear slim, for the current situation remains inextricably grim.

Twenty-five years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the fleeting optimism of the early years of the 21st Century has long dissipated. As Zselyke Csaky put it, “The first decade of this century was a period of optimism for the Balkans. The wars of the 1990s had ended, ethnic hostility was subdued, and the countries of the region started on the long and bumpy road toward membership in the European Union…” But over the last six years, Europe’s ‘south-eastern underbelly’ has been wracked by crises of governance, the region “dominated by weak (and weakening) states, racked by crime and corruption, and sliding towards authoritarianism.”

Amidst the political crises, as Jasmin Mujanović has noted is the comparatively slower but no less disturbing trend of economic exodus from countries such as Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina: “It is no longer war these Balkan migrants are fleeing but years of political brinkmanship, economic stagnation and depression, widespread criminality, and persistent social atrophy … everyone aspiring for any kind of meaningful future for themselves and their children is leaving now.”

Effective policy making that can offer a semblance of hope for a meaningful future seems remote; and for the most marginalised, impoverished and disenfranchised Roma populations, the prospects are remoter still. Successful implementation of social inclusion policies requires a modicum of good governance, and there is precious little of that in evidence across the region today. The hope expressed by George Soros, at the launch of Roma Integration 2020, that accession countries, on joining the EU, might provide an example for the older member states on how to treat Roma minorities remains for now, a somewhat forlorn hope.

Views from the Ground: the EU and Roma in the Western Balkans. Romedia and Open Society Foundations (2010).

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