Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-BALKANS: Bringing Roma in From the Fringes

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Aug 12 2008 (IPS) - Some weeks ago, Serbia said farewell to folk singer Saban Bajramovic who died of heart failure at age 72 in the southern city of Nis. In an unusual gesture, Serbian President Boris Tadic attended the funeral, paying his last respects to 'The King of Gypsy Music'.

But the President's presence was not the only thing unusual.

"It's sad that he (Bajramovic) is gone," Osman Balic, a Roma (Gypsy) activist told IPS. "But it's also a miracle he lived so long. I'm sure that in his home town of Nis there is no Roma of that age now." Some 25,000 Roma are believed to be living in Nis.

The Roma are a people who migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century. An estimated 12 million live in Europe, facing deprivation and discrimination.

Only one in 60 Roma in Serbia lives to see their 60th birthday, and not many live up to age 50, according to studies by several Roma rights groups.

"The shortest life expectancy is among recycled material collectors, (a trade) popular among Roma as a means to earn their living," Balic said. "Their life expectancy is around 45 years, due to the extremely hard conditions surrounding them."

Serbia has recently taken over presidency of the 'Decade of Roma Inclusion', the international initiative aimed at improving the status of Roma from 2005 until 2015. Nine countries were involved in the project – Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

Last month, they were joined by Albania, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Spain are also expected to join. Slovenia has the status of observer.

The efforts are centred on improvement of the socio-economic status of this highly marginalised group, with priorities set for education, employment, healthcare and housing.

"One does not have to rely on statistics to see the poverty that prevails among Roma," Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic said at a recent press conference. "There are 593 Roma settlements surrounding the big cities of Serbia, without any infrastructure or normal living standards."

Djelic said the new Serbian government that took over in July would allocate 500 million dinars (10 million dollars) instead of the 2.4 million dollars planned earlier, for measures to improve the living standards of Roma.

But Serbia, like other nations of former Yugoslavia, does not know the exact number of Roma in the country. Serbia has a population of 7.5 million. The 2002 census puts the number of Roma at 108,000, but Djelic points to estimates that only one in three Roma admit they belong to the ethnic group.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 1991 census counted 6,868 Roma among the pre-war population of 4.3 million. But according to the Committee for Roma within the nation's Council of Ministers (federal government), the number is close to 70,000.

The 2001 census in Croatia found 9,463 Roma in a population of 4.4 million. Roma organisations say the real number is between 30,000 and 40,000, and that most have no permanent source of income.

Local Roma rights groups suffered a blow in July when the European Court of Human rights ruled that Croatia did not discriminate against Roma pupils by putting them in separate all-Roma classes at school, a frequent practice in the Balkans.

"This ruling could have an impact on many countries in Europe," Anita Danka of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest told Belgrade B92 RTV. "The Court was not able to see that segregated education can have a variety of manifestations, including segregation in mainstream schools."

Segregation exists in Serbia as well, where Roma children have ended up in special schools for decades.

Roma Information Centre statistics show that 60 percent of Roma leave school by the age of 10. Only four percent of Roma children in Serbia ever attend pre-school or kindergarten.

The birth of most is never recorded, activists say. Serbia launched a campaign last month for providing documents for Roma.

"The bottom line is the politics of providing a decent existence for Roma after many years of negligence," Luan Koka from the National Strategy for Roma Organisation told IPS.

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