Polar bears are better protected than Romani people in Serbia
24 November 2022
By Milena Reljić
Roma are "protected like polar bears", a phrase that is becoming increasingly common from people in Serbia when the Romani community is mentioned. This is how they react to things like affirmative measures to enrol Romani students in schools and colleges, to the mention of the high unemployment rate amongst Roma, or to any social protection of this minority.
Historically speaking, Roma have been subject to genocide, exclusion, racist attacks, and targeting by nationalists and the far-right. Despite us numbering over 12 million people, Roma are one of the most vulnerable minorities in Europe.
The structure of discriminatory policies towards Roma is very complex, but it can be seen in a relatively simple way. There is virtually no sphere of society in Serbia where Roma are on an equal footing, not only with the majority population, but also with other national minorities.
According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) data from 2011 and 2017, the number of employed Roma in Serbia is two to three times lower than that of the majority population living in their immediate vicinity. This number is up to 10 times lower for Romani women. Although people may imagine that national minorities will be employed through the application of special affirmative measures, which are adopted to achieve equality of national minorities and are prescribed as a right to representation, these are largely disregarded. For example, Serbian law allows for a quota of 2% (according to population) for the representation of Roma in public institutions, but the law is not properly implemented.
When Roma are employed in public institutions, it is in public utility companies and in other low-skilled jobs that are often not in line with their professional qualifications. There are between 8,000 (officially) and 40,000 (unofficially) waste collectors in Serbia. It is well known that the majority of these people are Roma. Every day, thousands of Romani men, women, and children collect raw materials (metals, plastics, paper etc.) to ensure the survival of their families. Their work is not recognized by the state, they are not considered workers, they do not have working hours or any type of insurance. Their work is not even recognized by the recycling industry in which they are based and to which they provide profit. It is these people who are labelled as state parasites and idlers from whom society has no use, even though they are the people who keep Serbia clean and provide it with profit.
Since at least 2005, a generation of Romani men and women have graduated from schools and colleges with diplomas but due to discrimination in employment, very few of them are able to work. More than a thousand Romani people have graduated from universities in this time. More than 11, 500 have completed high school. Yet still we find Roma who hold master's degrees working in low-skilled jobs in public utility companies. In order to preserve racism, the great potential of the Romani community is wasted in Serbia, to the cost of billions of euros annually.
In addition to education and employment, housing is a frequent trigger for those who like to compare Roma to polar bears. It is a wonder how someone can be privileged if they live in a segregated community on a landfill, with no water, electricity, or sewage network. Nonetheless, it is supposedly the Roma who are protected as privileged members of society in Serbia.
Housing represents one of the key problems for people in Romani communities and is the area in which the least progress has been made in recent decades. It is estimated that more than half of all Roma in Serbia live in segregated, socially excluded neighbourhoods.
In employment, education, housing, and many other areas, it is very obvious that Romani people do not receive even basic protection, let alone special protection from inequalities and human rights violations. Although some progress has been made towards improvements in education and health care in recent years, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that showed how fragile this progress was and how much effort is still needed in order for Romani women and men to have the same rights as other citizens of Serbia.
Roma are a people who have never fought a war for themselves, but have fought in many wars for the countries in which they live. They work without insurance; doing long hours for low pay, in low-skilled jobs for which they are frequently over-qualified. Roma make their human resources available to the state, but the state does not return the favour. They have a rich culture of music, art, and tradition that is ignored or belittled by society. Romani contributions to Serbian society, rather than being celebrated, are rewarded by sarcastic comments comparing Roma to endangered arctic animals.
Thinking logically, we know that polar bears are protected because their lives are threatened by others, as well as their species from extinction. Roma receive not even the minimum protection afforded to others in society. In order for Roma to reach the same access to their rights that the majority of Serbians enjoy, there needs to be affirmative action. There needs to be special scholarships for Roma to go to university. There needs to be diversity hiring for Roma in the workplace. There needs to be provision of social housing for Roma currently forced to live in slums without basic services. This is the difference between equality and equity and is the minimum that the state can do in order to make amends for centuries of persecution and racism.