This story was first published in Balkan Insight on January 9, 2018.
by Claire Taylor, Belgrade
On a cold, rainy day, seven Roma women gather in their children’s education centre in the Vojni Put settlement in Belgrade. They sit around a small table in child-sized chairs to talk about their pasts and futures.
Through sips of coffee and bites of homemade Serbian cakes, they tell their stories. All their stories, whether personal or anecdotal, are connected by similar themes, of being separate, marginalized and living on the outskirts of society.
One of the women, Sanela Sadiki, was only five when she and her parents fled from Kosovo to Serbia, arriving with nothing, not even birth certificates.
“Our house was burned down and we lost everything,” she says, shifting uncomfortably, recalling the bitter independence war in Kosovo in the late 1990s that killed and displaced thousands of people. Roma were frequently targeted – seen by some Kosovo Albanians as allies of the Serbs. “We had to make a completely new life for ourselves in Serbia,” she recalls.
Sadiki’s family lost all their identification documents when their home was destroyed. When they arrived in Serbia they could not prove their identity in order to gain citizenship or access social benefits.
Her parents “had to fight the legal system for years to get us new documents,” Sadiki recalls. Now she is the mother of a six-year-old daughter who attends the Vojni Put education centre, which Gordana Tosic runs. For a few hours each day, the children come to learn, play and practice their Serbian with Tosic.
Tosic sees many Roma families struggle. “Many of our families have these kinds of difficult stories, often initially caused by lack of documents,” she says.
Roma throughout Europe are one of the most persecuted and marginalized of all ethnic groups. The Roma in Serbia are unique, however, in that many of them fled to Serbia from Kosovo. Consequently, many of them, like Sadiki, face the critical issue of lack of identification.
It is estimated that Serbia is home to about 500,000 Roma in all, of whom about 32,000, or 6 per cent, do not have IDs. Without these documents – lost through war, displacement or just sheer bad luck – they are classified as stateless persons.
As a result, they are legally invisible. Without documents, such as birth certificates and ID cards, almost all social benefits are inaccessible. The children can attend school but cannot get diplomas, as IDs are needed to graduate. Access to healthcare and housing is limited. Almost the only jobs available to them are illegal, leaving many to beg on the street or collect and sell garbage and scraps.
“IDs are needed for everything,” says Vuk Raicevic, a program coordinator for Praxis, a human rights NGO based in Belgrade that works with the Roma community. “Without them, you don’t exist and have no way to defend or protect yourself.”
Nerdzivana Emini, whose child attends the Vojni Put centre, recalls her life without documents when she first came to Serbia from Kosovo during the war. “We lived in total uncertainty. There was fear in each day,” she says.
Serbia’s government has done some work to improve the status of Roma. Laws have been adopted or amended to address the systematic causes of statelessness.
The 2011 Declaration of Place of Residence allowed people without a legal residence to claim the nearest social welfare centre as their legal address.
This was important for Roma communities in Serbia, since many live in illegal settlements without basic amenities and have no address, which is required in order to apply for an ID.
A government project set up in part to help the Roma community was “Baby, Welcome to the World”. Under this program, birth registration was simplified by allowing parents to do this in maternity wards, saving them both time and money.
Rajka Vukomanovic, secretary of the Committee on Human and Minority Rights and Gender Equality in Serbia’s parliament, says the program has had some success in bridging an “education gap” among many Roma.
“Most of them are not aware that there is a 30-day birth registration deadline which, if they miss it, begins the cycle of a lack of documents,” she says. “These laws have been instrumental in decreasing Serbia’s Roma statelessness problem.”
On the other hand, Raicevic, from Praxis, questions the effectiveness of these reforms. “’Baby, Welcome to the World’ isn’t a fully formed and effective program,” he says, explaining that this is because many Roma women are reluctant to give birth in hospital, fearing they will not receive good treatment. Instead, they give birth at home.
The much-heralded 2011 Declaration of Place of Residence is also ineffective, he believes. “It is not enforced, so many social welfare centres simply deny individuals the right to register them as their place of residence, leaving them still without a legal address and no documents.”
While government institutions and NGOs debate the effectiveness of each other’s actions, the UN’s refugee arm, UNHCR, says the number of stateless Roma in Serbia has fallen by half since 2010.
There are also questions about the political motivation behind these government programs for Roma.
Serbia has been a European Union candidate country since 2012 and in accession talks since 2014. With EU membership comes many new policies and regulations. Among them are standards on human and minority rights.
There is no disagreement between government institutions and NGOs on whether or not the reforms intended to help the Roma are motivated mainly by the need to progress EU negotiations. But, there are stark differences on whether that means the reforms are also inherently problematic.
“All of these laws directly relate to our EU path but I do not see a problem with that,” Vukomanovic, from the government’s Committee on Human and Minority Rights and Gender Equality, says.
Raicevic, on the other hand, believes intention matters. “The EU just wants to check the human rights box and not follow up on implementation,” he says with a tinge of anger. “With that attitude, nothing meaningful will be accomplished.”
While political questions of EU involvement are important, they are of more concern to Roma advocates than Roma themselves.
Serbia’s Roma face more pressing daily struggles, some of which are worsened by their lack of documents. Discrimination, hate crimes, forced evictions, low employment, early marriages and education are major issues in the community.
Vukomanovic believes laws on gender equality, housing and education will soon be amended and will have broad implications, especially for the Roma.
“Many of these Roma issues can be connected in some way to a lack of documents. And these laws we are planning on creating will certainly help,” Vukomanovic says.
“I remain hopeful about the state of Roma in Serbia, but … legislative progress has been very uneven and many of the Roma’s issues have deeper roots that need to be more directly addressed,” she adds, with compassion.
Back at the centre in Vojni Put, the seven Roma women are grateful that their issues are at least on the radar of government officials, and that their children are receiving educational support.
The centre is run by Hleb Zivot [Bread of Life], an NGO that has provided early childhood education to Roma children in Vojni Put for the past 14 years.
The Vojni Put settlement is more developed than many in Serbia. Most Roma settlements are illegal with homes often made from scavenged scrap material and surrounded by piles of garbage. They often lack water and electricity.
In Vojni Put, most homes are legal and made of sturdy concrete. The garbage is put in dumpsters, not on the streets. The houses have basic amenities. However, that does not mean the lives of the Roma living here are easy, especially when it comes to school.
“When Roma children enter school, they face many problems,” school director Gordana Tosic says, as she prepares a breakfast of sandwiches for the children. “They do not know much Serbian, are academically left behind and often have to repeat grades. They are also made fun of and left out by their [non-Roma] peers [in school] a lot.”
“As a result, many Roma children drop out by sixth grade. If they’re lucky, they graduate from primary school. But that’s only if they have documents to get a diploma,” Tosic adds.
According to the UN children’s arm, UNICEF, around 80 per cent of Roma children in Serbia start primary school, which is 18 per cent below the national average. By the time Roma children reach upper secondary school only 21 per cent of them are enrolled, compared to the national average of 89 per cent.
“They are so often left behind,” says Tosic. “We want to show them that they are not alone and we will not abandon them.”
Education alone will not solve all the numerous issues that Roma in Serbia face. But it is an important stepping stone to a better life, says Sanela Sadiki.
“I am so grateful that my parents got my documents because if I didn’t have them, my daughter couldn’t go to school,” she says. “If she couldn’t get an education, I don’t know where she would be.”