Polar bears on thin ice

Author Robert Kasumović, text published on the portal Machine 

The systemic discrimination of the Roma population is not a new social phenomenon. The key issues revolve around how the existing stereotypes regarding  Roma men and women reflect on their daily living conditions and to what extent they are a part of the official state policy.

Eviction of settlement under the Gazela Bridge; Photo: Marko Rupena / Kamerades

“Protected as white bears” – a sentence that is becoming a common reaction to the mention of the Roma. This is a usual response to the subject of affirmative actions concerning the enrollment of Roma children in schools and universities, and to the remarks about the high unemployment rate among the Roma population, but also in regard to the social protection of minorities. However, it is certain that most people who use this phrase are not even aware of the fact that it almost perfectly describes the current attitude of the state towards this community. Although polar bears are a protected species, mainly wherever they live, the ice that allows them hunting and survival is still rapidly melting which puts them in grave danger.

Historically speaking, the relationship between the Roma people and the government in this area, was very often described as discriminatory. Regardless of the fact that in the time of socialism, the unemployment of the Roma was only 18.7% (today it is well above 50%), their problems remained largely unresolved. This is supported primarily by the fact that the Roma did not have the status of a national minority, which represented former nationalities.

Today, however, this relationship is significantly damaged, due to the extreme hatred and intolerance. The recent demolition of the Roma family home in Belgrade passed unnoticed and without any government intervention, which only serves to further the persecution of the Roma and the simultaneous strengthening of the right-wing ideology.

Given that the attitude of the majority of population towards the Roma people is no different than in Europe, the discriminatory policies which Roma people are exposed to, have become a part of everyday life and have been taken lightly and generally accepted by the people. Although the problems of the Roma community are largely class- based, we cannot neglect the fact that Roma have been discriminated against for centuries because of the cultural and physical differences. Hence, when it comes to the problem that surrounds them, it is essential to observe this issue from the standpoint of the racially discriminated.


The structure of discriminatory policies towards the Roma national minority is very complex but can be seen in a relatively simple manner. There is almost no sphere of society in which Roma are on the same (or nearly the same) level, not only with the majority of the population, but also with other national minorities.

The most obvious fact which separates the Roma minority from the rest of society, is extreme poverty.Taking into consideration that the entire population is exposed to harsh living conditions, it is quite difficult to speak on the topic of poverty in Serbia, but it is evident that the Roma minority is by far the poorest, among the citizens of Serbia. This, by all accounts, is the best indicator of the effects of discriminatory policies throughout centuries and is caused by many factors, but one of the most important reasons is certainly the unobtainability of proper jobs, due to the discrimination of the Roma people in the labour market.

Seeing how the Roma are segregated from modern trends and that the lack of exposure to the information represents a decades-old problem of the minority in question (unavailability of media and means of informing in the Roma language), finding a job for some residents of informal settlements is an almost impossible task. However, the most serious problem is the fact that because of socially imposed stereotypes, employers are unwilling to employ Roma.

For the past few years, a significant number of organizations from civil sector branches, have been implementing projects preparing Roma peoplefor job search (writing CVs, preparing for job interviews..). The fact that the Roma men and women are being subjected to systemic discrimination, renders these projects almost useless. Also, the politicians in authority are stating more and more that the Roma population can find job opportunities through self-employment projects. It is a very unrealistic estimate because how can we expect a minority, with a high rate of illiteracy (15.1% illiterate), to have expertise in writing projects and business plans?

Discriminated against as members of the Roma minority, as well as for being women, Roma women suffer discrimination on many levels. Because of their status in the patriarchal (Roma and non-Roma) society, the position of Roma women is even more difficult when compared to that of Roma men. The illiteracy rate among Roma women is 21%, and of the total part of working Roma population, only 22.5% are women.

According to official data, in Serbia, there are eight thousand collectors of secondary raw materials. On the other hand, according to unofficial information, there are forty thousand collectors of secondary raw materials. It is a well known fact that most of these people are members of the Roma minority. In more than precarious working conditions, every day, thousands of Roma men, Roma women and Roma children are collecting secondary raw materials to be able to provide the bare 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 kind of insurance. Also, their work is not recognized by the recycling industry, to which this minority belongs and not to mention that it gains profit from their work. These very people are designated as state parasites and idlers of which society has no use.

These are just some examples of actual attempts of politicians to shift the blame for the high unemployment rate of the Roma minority onto Roma people themselves. Therefore, it can often be heard that the Roma do not want to work because they will automatically lose the right to welfare or that they are simply lazy. It is important to note that the social welfare is only a little more than six thousand dinars per month. A significant number of people are not entitled to the same due to lack of ID cards, because they are individuals who do not possess a place of residence.

The solution of the problem, or new problems?

At the beginning of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005), affirmative measure were introduced for enrollment of Roma children and students at the desired schools anduniversities . This rate, although the Roma people find it to be a good thing, was perhaps the only success that was not expensive for the state, but thanks to which the country received a positive evaluation by the EU. The state also joins those who transfer all the issues of Roma people onto the minority. Even though Roma children have the opportunity to enroll desired schools and universities, they still live in families that do not have enough money to buy clothes, school equipment, books, nor can they pay for transport to the school. It is for these reasons that a large number of Roma students was forced to to work and study. This kind of studying has caused a lot of students to prolong their studies, and/or drop out.

In addition, it is necessary to point out that the first generation of Roma enrolled in schools and colleges after 2005, graduated a long time ago, but due to the above mentioned discrimination in employment, very few of them work (in general and in particular in accordance with their qualifications), while a significant number of them migrated to western Europe after graduating.

Implementation of the aforementioned Decade of Roma Inclusion can be considered the country’s highly expensive act of discrimination towards the Roma national minority. Although the Decade was quite a well-conceived project on paper, due to the arrogant attitude towards the resources that the state received for solving problems of Roma people, in addition to the aforementioned positive measures in education, has not yielded positive results in other areas where its application was generally completed(healthcare, housing, employment).Moreover, two very important problems for the Roma people have stemmed from this project . Due to the willingness of many domestic and European foundations to fund projects relating to Roma issues, the government has completely left the responsibility for finding the solutions to the civil sector. In other words, the Roma issue has become a project issue.

Another significant problem resulting from the Decade is the decentralizationof the Roma community itself. In order to control the funds received, as well as the entire Roma population, the leading politicians have placed on all positions relevant to Roma people those individuals who did not, in any way, represent the interest of the minority, but only the personal interests of the parties they belonged to.

The problem of Roma is one of the most obvious forms of discriminatory policies. Most of the Roma population in Serbia (and throughout Europe), has been living in extremely inhumane conditions for centuries, most often in informal settlements. The state has rarely, if ever, showed any intention to deal with this issue seriously. There have beena lot of public violent evictions of Roma from towns in the container settlements outside the city in which they were prescribed a code of conduct (eg. “Do not urinate in your container”).

These acts have directly jeopardized the Roma livelihood. Due to the distance of the new place of residence, the people were not able to continue collecting secondary raw material, which for a large number of them is the only source of income. A good exampleof thisis the migration of Roma from informal settlements under the Gazela bridge in container settlements under the patronage of the then mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Djilas. Also, a good indication of discrimination against Roma in this sphere is the construction of a wall around a Roma settlement “Marko Orlović” in Krusevac by the city authorities, which completely isolated the said inhabitants.

It is a common occurrence that local residents organize protests against relocation of the Roma settlements or individual Roma families in their neighbourhoods, whenever such an attempt is made. Although hard to process, this situation represents a mirror of misunderstanding and lack of solidarity of ordinary people, with the problems ofthose who have shared and still share all the difficulties of everyday life, which are the result of deep-rooted prejudices.

It is what it is

It is obvious that, in addition to daily existential problems and pressures, the members of the Roma minority have to learn to live with everyday discrimination. Whether they go to the doctor, to the municipality or any other public service, even when crossing the street, almost every Roma man and woman expects to be treated differently. The Roma population has accepted the act of everyday discrimination as something that is simply a part of life.
What kind of fate awaits the Roma minority during the government of Aleksandar Vucic, was clear even in 2015 when his statement that Roma is “a traditionally poor population”, made it clear what his views were about the Roma and poverty in which they live. The implementation of the right-wing ideology of the current government will apparently just ignore these multilayered problems. All that Roma can expect in the coming period is merely a bureaucratic harmonization of strategies and action plans to solve their problems with EU documents, while the situation in Roma settlements and Roma families remains unchanged.

Analysing these facts, it is evident that Roma people do not have too much reasons for optimism in the coming years. When the Roma minority succeeds in self-organisation, from the inside, then it is possible tocreate structures that can be used for political struggle. Strengthening the unity and solidarity among the Roma community, but also with the wider population, may establish conditions needed for the politicization of the Roma problems because the struggle for a dignified life is never hopeless.