According to statistics, every third citizen in Serbia is not of Serbian nationality. It is a multicultural society and is not defined as a national state of any nation. The Constitution of FR Yugoslavia defines the country as a “democratic state of all citizens who live in it”. The Constitution generally defines the rights of minorities as the rights to preservation, development and the expression of ethnic, linguistic and other specifics of national minorities. However, in practice there have been great anomalies, which even include the breaking of certain legal norms. Even if, in certain cases, there was obvious evidence (for example, breaking certain legal regulations regarding official language use), these cases have not been properly sanctioned. This was particularly true of the period of communism (“titoism”) in former Yugoslavia. Everybody merely talked about equality and freedom, but rarely dared to ask: “What kind of equality and freedom am I really being offered?” It is sufficient to say that this was a period of great hypocrisy and complete moral decline.
After the political changes in 2000, the new government inherited great minority rights problems, especially with regard to the Roma people. There are about 150 000 Roma living in Serbia. One should however bear in mind that official statistics are not always a reliable source since Roma often resort to ethnic mimicry in order to escape the daily problems they experience because of their ethnicity. Roma are a highly deprived social group. They are the targets of various strongly manifested stereotypes (traditionally marked as a negative group). The Romany settlements (mahalas) in Serbia (that were set up during the “titoist” era) are ghetto-like. They are also poverty-stricken. The houses are made of low quality materials (cardboard, waste material) and there is no infrastructure of public supplies. In some cases, mahalas are swamped with garbage that public services do not remove. The hypocrisy of the system is more apparent when one realises that these ghettoes are cunningly hidden from the public eye. They are located away from the railways, highways, i.e., away from any area where foreigners might see them, in order to maintain an impression of welfare.
Besides, the differences in language are one of the chief reasons why Roma children have a poorer school performance or drop out of elementary school. Only 21% of Roma children have finished elementary school, 10% have graduated from high school, and there is an alarming number of illiterate children and adults. In the 70s and 80s the political stipulations did not require Roma children to learn Serbian in kindergartens until the age of 7(which is late). Consequently, most of them did not begin the first grade until the age of 9 or 10.
The causes for lack of education should also be sought in tradition and particularly in the families’ economic condition and parents’ level of education. On the other hand, the causes also lie in the lack of understanding on the part of the wider community of the specific problems of Roma life, and especially in the refusal of school teachers to pay adequate attention to Roma children.
The daily life of a Roma family in Serbia is a struggle for survival. Only 18.6% of heads of family hold a steady job. These steady jobs are at the lowest level of skill and income. 68.4% are unemployed, while 8.3% work as seasonal labourers. The numbers of people on “paid leave” (a phrase engendered by Serbia’s economic disaster over the past 15 years) and pensioners tells us that most Roma have never had the chance of holding a steady job from which they could retire.
It is particularly difficult for the Roma displaced from Kosovo (about 45 000). They have problems registering their residence. Therefore, they are victims of discrimination in health care and employment. One case out of many is for example the fate of the Romany railway workers from Kosovo who moved to Central Serbia (to the town of Kraljevo) and lost their status and were fired, whereas the Serbs did not lose the status of being permanently employed. The explanation given by the authorities is that the Roma did not register at the appropriate office. This is obvious evidence of a very complicated bureaucratic system that still exists in Serbia. Later on the authorities added that Roma are mostly unskilled workers and “are not needed”. As a result, most Roma turn to smuggling and “black market” as the only possible source of income.
Furthermore, during the 90s, marginal groups (so-called ‘skinheads’) emerged. Their members are particularly violent towards Roma. With the increase of skinhead members the recorded cases of abuse committed towards Roma has also risen. During the years 2001/02 alone (according to the Ministry of National and Ethnic Communities) there were 36 cases of injustice in which the victims were Roma. Even the police have prejudices about Roma, and most of the police members treat them as criminals. The official reports of recorded cases of non-legal police actions against Roma show them to be an assault on human dignity and physical integrity.
To sum up, the problems of Roma in Serbia are complex. One problem leads to another, so it is a kind of a ‘vicious circle’.
In 2002 The Federal Ministry of National and Ethnic Community (since the separation of Montenegro known as The Ministry of Human and Minority Rights) issued a new law and undertook the following measures:
1) Adopting and realizing the strategy for fighting poverty, i.e., helping and supporting minority communities and its members (financial aid, education about rights and their realization; the law published in English and in the language of minorities, more TV and radio programmes in the language of minorities; educational system reform);
2) Improving tolerance and building trust (round tables and tribunes organized to enable direct communication between the authorities and minority representatives);
3) Developing special programmes for fighting prejudice against Roma in the form of multicultural and Internet centres and multiethnic camps for the young;
4) Membership in the “Non-Discrimination Review”;
5) Creating a special sector of the Ministry dealing with the improvement of Romany lifestyle and a position led by a member of Romany community;
6) Preparation of elements for the integration of Roma into social life.
The integration, however, should not turn into assimilation. It must proceed in accordance with the needs and free will of Roma themselves, but also with the participation and support of the whole society. The basis of the new politics is full integration of minority community into social life with the preservation of their national and cultural specifics.
The majority community will have to give up the current model of cultural ambivalence or rejection and replace it with the adoptive model, implying interpretation and mutual influence of cultures.
Integration ought to be understood as an open process in which the state is first and foremost responsible for the improvement of socio-economic conditions, as a prerequisite for preservation and advancement of Roma national identity. This implies the active participation in and control over, programmes, plans and resources on the part of the Roma.
Ivana Milenovic, Nis/Serbia