Credit: Opre Roma SrbijaSerbia

Surviving a pandemic from the margins of society: an interview with Opre Roma Srbija

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As the coronavirus pandemic rolls on, many are looking to vaccination as a pathway to the freedoms they have sacrificed. The Balkan region has been struck particularly hard, with death rates in Sarajevo, for example, exceeding those experienced during the city’s siege of 1992-96. Meanwhile, in Serbia a relatively successful vaccination programme has seen both infection and death rates fall since March-April. But while the national picture may look impressive, the experiences of Serbia’s Roma have followed a much different trajectory. Opre Roma Srbija (ORS) is a civic movement designed to promote the self-organising of Roma-led movements across Serbia. Politika News sits down (virtually) with three ORS representatives, Stevan Gligorin (ORS co-founder and State Secretary at the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government), Stevica Nikolić and Jelena Reljić, to find out more about Roma experiences during the pandemic.

In June 2020, Opre Roma Srbija (ORS) published the results of its investigation into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma communities across Serbia. According to the investigation’s findings, 70% of Roma surveyed lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Why may this figure be so high?

It is known and has been noted by several NGOs that Roma in Serbia mostly work in the grey economy; their jobs are often connected to working in nature and the outside world. Data from Serbia’s statistical office shows that 80% of our people are unemployed in the formal economy. Data from the UN shows that unemployment among Roma is two to three times higher than among workers of other ethnic groups in Serbia (combined data from both the formal and informal economy). 

Moreover, unemployment among Romani women is ten times higher than among women of other ethnic groups! This situation is nothing new because it has existed for decades, and has been induced by wars and crises. In the Second World war almost the entire Roma middle class were killed by the Nazis. In the NDH [Independent State of Croatia, which was a Nazi puppet state] Roma were killed under the same ideology.

In Yugoslavia, Roma usually accessed the lowest-ranking jobs and were rarely, for example, directors, even under a socialist system that promised equality to all. With the collapse of Yugoslavia, when non-Roma fought between their national groups, we were collateral damage and pushed to an existential edge. Following the Yugoslav Wars, when the state was privatised, our people never reaped benefits in the capitalist economy. This and many more events from history has brought Serbia’s Roma to where we are today. 

As a result, Roma’s income comes from jobs that are low paid, informal and therefore less secure. The Roma community in Serbia is usually working in markets, on construction sites, as musicians, as mercenaries etc. 

The COVID pandemic and its various quarantines have drastically affected these ‘sectors’ and therefore Roma workers’ employment, as shown by our investigation.

Politika News spoke with Stevan Gligorin, Stevica Nikolić and Jelena Reljić from Opre Roma Srbija

What financial aid have Serbia’s unemployed Roma received from the state?

There has been no specific aid for Roma people.

Instead there have been general humanitarian packages with food and hygienic supplies for the vulnerable. There was a financial subsidy of €100 for Serbian citizens, including Roma. There will be a further state subsidy of €30 in May and then November 2021.

Another finding from the ORS investigation was that, of those surveyed, 55% did not have access to water or electricity. What are some of the main factors that have led to Roma living in such precarious conditions in Serbia?

Poor living conditions are a reflection of what jobs Roma people can usually access, which often do not bring enough money home for food or basic living standards. So we have communities that do not have money to pay for electricity or water. If we consider where some of the Roma communities are situated geographically, sometimes they do not have the infrastructure to provide electricity or water in the first place. 

How has the pandemic exacerbated these precarious living conditions? 

Some of the main recommendations of the medics were to wash our hands and disinfect surfaces in the home, which could not be practiced by Roma people who do not have running water. Mental health experts recommended meditation and entertainment (such as films), which is also difficult in conditions where there is no electricity for example. Not to mention that Roma children could not attend online school lessons. And again, people couldn’t work because the jobs Roma have access to are impossible to do ‘from home’ or online (especially if there is no electricity).

How effective have government responses to these conditions been?

Only in some municipalities were water tanks sent to Roma communities left without water under quarantine. When the vaccination process started and our movement presented the concerning data to government institutions, only then did Roma communities have their electricity restored unconditionally.

Serbia has led a notably more successful vaccination programme in the Western Balkans. How successful has the vaccination of Serbia’s Roma communities been, and why?

At the beginning of the vaccination programme there was a lot of confusion as to which vaccine to choose, and lots of conspiracy theories about their effectiveness. Noticing that problem, our movement organised a live show with epidemiologist and member of Serbia’s crisis staff for controlling infectious diseases, Predrag Kon, Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government, Marija Obradovic, and secretary of the same Ministry (as well as ORS co-founder), Stevan Gligorin. 

The purpose of that live event was not just to acknowledge the difference between vaccines and their importance, but also to show state institutions that Serbia cannot immunise effectively if its Roma community is not included in its process of immunisation. 

Before our event, Serbia’s vaccination process was run online and required an ID number, which many Roma in Serbia do not have. After ORS’ organised event, the government brought into effect measures to assist Roma such as the installation of vaccination application stands in or near Roma settlements, ID cards becoming optional when registering, Roma volunteers to help with the application, and the creation of a group of Roma medics. 

These measures have helped to finally bring Serbia’s Roma to a higher number of vaccinated members.

In the ORS investigative report, a lack of trust was noted between Roma communities and government institutions as a problem when it comes to vaccination. Why is there a lack of trust here? 

This is not just a problem when we talk about vaccination but generally in Roma-state relations. One of the factors for this is that Roma people have, historically, not been treated equally by government institutions, which have tended to regard us with a level of contempt.

There have been cases of Roma not being accepted into institutions such as social aid centres or municipal offices. Institutions have often been blind to our socio-economic situation, which in turn has created a lack of trust.

There is the impression among Roma that we have been depicted [by successive governments] as the ‘bad guys’, or ‘lazy’, or that we want to ‘stay poor’.

In many communities around the world, domestic violence and violence against women has increased during the pandemic. In Serbia, what have Roma women’s experiences looked like since the pandemic started?

There have been fears that, at a national level, domestic violence has increased during quarantine due to the inability to leave the home. Among Roma, there are concerns that the data may look the same, and it could be even worse in families that have lost their income due to not being able to work from home. 

Subsequent increases in stress levels, as well as fear, will have played their part in abusive homes. Roma women have continued to carry out housework, made harder because all family members have been in the home at all times, as well as to take care of each member as traditional gender norms expect of them.

How has the pandemic affected young Roma’s education? 

One aspect of Roma life most affected by the pandemic is definitely education. Online education has led to a lower presence of Roma students in classes and a higher drop-out rate. 

Our movement, in cooperation with the Roma Education Fund and Open Society foundation, purchased 300 tablets for Roma students in 10 locations across Serbia with a high number of Roma pupils. 

But there are still many Roma children that do not have the proper technological means and this will undoubtedly affect their future education, including accessing the jobs they want later in life.

Finally, what would you like to see Belgrade do to ensure the safety and prosperity of Roma communities in the coming months?

Provide jobs for Roma in accordance with their qualifications. 

Provide assistance for Roma children to access online classes. 

The provision of summer schools for students who have not been able to attend online classes so far, given that the spread of the virus has now decreased and measures are being relaxed. 

It is also important that the government follows the data available on Roma livelihoods, and to take proactive action to prevent such unjust situations from recurring due to unforeseen circumstances.

Politika News would like to thank Opre Roma Srbija for their time.

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