Who needs Roma anyway?

  • Autor: Željko Jovanović Open Society Roma Initiatives
  • Datum: 23 May 2023
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Who needs Roma anyway?

Some say they've had enough of stories about discrimination, minorities, and human rights. Whenever Roma are mentioned, I increasingly hear how Serbs are actually the most endangered and Roma are privileged; as some say, we are the "white bears." And then these white bears have various fascist organizations like Leviathan aggressively intrude into their homes to instill fear in them; they have electricity cuts in the middle of winter due to debts, as happened in Niš, while debtors at the level of millions of dinars across Serbia freely consume electricity; and they are ethnically targeted as lawbreakers for living in illegal housing, while those with significantly more assets, such as the former president of the country, enjoy their unauthorized properties undisturbed by public ethnic witch hunts.

Roma families live in such good "privileged" conditions that our lives are about 10 years shorter than those living around us. Now I already hear the voices of Aleksandar Šapić, mayor of Belgrade, and others who say that we Roma are to blame for being harassed and beaten by extremists, for living in inhumane conditions, and for dying prematurely. But let's not talk about discrimination and why this situation is bad for Roma. Let's talk about why this is bad for everyone in Serbia.

How does this affect the wallet of every person in Serbia today?

First of all, Serbia is shrinking. The census is over, but the political and social reflection over its results has only just begun. Serbia has more than 530,000 fewer inhabitants, which is a loss of over 7%, while the number of those identifying as Serbs has decreased by over 10%. The officially largest minority, the Hungarians, have decreased in number by over 27%. Bosniaks have experienced a growth of almost 6%, with around 7,000 individuals identifying as such.

The Roma who have identified themselves represent a slightly smaller number than in the previous census, around 10% or slightly over 15,000 identified members. However, the census has not been a relevant source for the real number of Roma for years, either in Serbia or throughout Europe. The pressures on Roma not to identify themselves in the census are enormous due to the fear of the discrimination they already experience, as well as an environment in which being Roma is a shame and a stamp of social condemnation such as the one recently put on Roma by Aleksandar Šapić. On the other hand, manipulations by census takers and other minority groups who capture Roma for their own counting are additional reasons why more realistic numbers of Roma in Serbia and other countries is usually estimated to be two to three times higher than those registered in the official census.

Apart from the numbers, when you are born into a Roma family, you must learn to speak at least two languages. And if you live alongside another minority, such as Hungarians or Albanians, then you speak at least three languages. Since you are constantly confronted with prejudice and poverty from an early age, you must face the toughest life situations and often change the places where you live and work. You are always expected to do more in school or in the workplace simply because you are labelled as "naturally" stupid, lazy, and suspicious. Then you are often forced to work harder and perform jobs that others refuse, whether in formal or informal jobs, because otherwise, you and your family have no chance of survival. So, being Roma is not easy, and this makes us adaptable, resourceful polyglots who work hard for our survival.

Secondly, four years ago, the World Bank indicated that the education and work qualifications of Roma would have profound effects on Serbia's economy due to the aging population and emigration. Despite their shorter life expectancy, the Roma population in all countries is significantly younger than the total population. This is true even in countries with younger populations, such as Albania. In Serbia, within just 12 years, Roma will account for 14% to 29% of all individuals of working age.

But even if we don't look into the future 12 years from now, as people rarely think that far ahead, it is clear that if Roma were employed like everyone else, Serbia would increase its productivity by an amount estimated by the World Bank to range from €314 million to €1.28 billion per year, which represents between 0.9% and 3.5% of Serbia's gross domestic product. According to the same estimates, the increase in tax revenue collection and the reduction of social assistance costs would boost public revenue by €71 million to €317 million, equivalent to between 0.5% and 2.1% of public expenditures.

Of course, demagogues will immediately seize census results to deepen panic, fear, and hatred in order to gain cheap votes. Who will they target? The weakest and least feared, of course, the Roma and others in similar situations. However, their politics inflicts damage on the public budget and the wallets of all Serbian citizens, as worsening the existing conditions only makes matters worse.

So, the economic calculations clearly show that not only would everyone in Serbia become wealthier in the future if Roma were employed like everyone else, but they are becoming poorer at present because Roma are not employed. Therefore, in the long run there is no alternative to removing barriers to employment and investing in education and qualifications for Roma and all other citizens of Serbia in similar situations.

In the short term, the alternative is importing labor. The National Employment Service issued over 35,000 work permits to foreigners in 2022. A year earlier, the number of permits was over 23,000. We primarily import construction workers, who mostly come from India, China, and Turkey. Hygienists, drivers, and delivery personnel are imported from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Uzbekistan. It is certain that those who come to work in Serbia have qualifications and experience. However, this still does not negate the fact that the current situation of Roma in Serbia costs and can only cost more. Creating a qualified domestic workforce, not only among Roma but also among all citizens who face similar problems in finding and qualifying for jobs, is a matter of investment of national importance, not a cost to the state.

Where does Serbia stand in comparison to Europe?

The situation in Serbia is not different from how Roma are treated in the countries of the Western Balkans region and the European Union. In the region, Serbia, as the largest economy and the country with the highest number of Roma citizens, has the greatest losses and potentially, if we had at least a little bit of wisdom, it could have the greatest gains.

In the European Union, the situation is relatively better in Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, and Benelux, but not because they are doing something special for Roma, but because they are the economically most powerful countries in Europe with strong institutions and the rule of law. That is why everyone, including Roma, migrates to those countries.

On the other hand, there are countries where the situation is even worse than in Serbia, such as Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In the first three countries, the Roma population is estimated to be around 10%, which means that these countries suffer even greater economic losses than Serbia. In Romania, the number of Roma is around 1.5 million. These countries mostly showed signs of promising to treat Roma better before they joined the European Union, but those promises vanished as soon as they obtained membership, and the situation worsened.

For the past ten years, the European Union has been trying, through its policies and funds, to somehow improve the situation. However, politicians keep the status quo; they are guided by their own political calculations in domestic politics precisely because of their voters' nurtured attitude that Roma are “privileged white bears” and that everyone else is a victim of Roma.

Political versus personal responsibility

Comparing Serbia to other countries does not help in finding solutions. However, the only thing in which Serbia is different and can serve as an example is that in the past four years its president has shown positive signals towards Roma through concrete initiatives and statements. For now, I do not see any other politician in the highest position in the country doing something similar anywhere in Europe, which is unfortunate for both Europe and Serbia.

On one hand, the actions of the president of Serbia in the past four years are commendable. On the other hand, they are far from what needs to be done. State institutions and those responsible within the state, such as teachers, mayors, doctors, and officials in the employment agency, still do not follow the president's actions or words.

Of course, there is individual responsibility among the citizens themselves, among both Roma and others. However, the state and state institutions cannot hide behind the responsibility of individual citizens. This is precisely what, for example, Belgrade mayor Aleksandar Šapić, attempts to do. His key argument is that Roma are to blame for their own situation and that they not only endanger themselves but also the people living in their proximity. According to Šapić, statistics indicating the problems faced by Roma in education and employment only confirm his argument.

However, if people can step back for just a moment and take a slightly broader view of this situation, setting aside whether it pertains to Roma or not, they would see that the government is blaming citizens for the problems of the whole society. This logic would also lead us to think that the statistics showing Serbia as one of the least educated nations in Europe is the evidence that children and parents are to blame, rather than the government that shapes the educational system. Šapić uses the Roma as a testing ground for his autocratic tendencies, seeking to hold citizens accountable to the government, rather than the other way around. Roma cannot defend themselves against Šapić alone because our political power is limited, despite the brave voices and protests of activists from the Opre Roma movement and a few other public figures, although only a very few. However, resistance to such politics is necessary for the defense of all citizens, not just Roma. This type of politics is being tested on Roma, but it is a fundamental threat to all citizens.

Intelligent people can see that the question of where Serbia is going and where it should go is deeply connected to the situation and future of the Roma population. This is not just a question of human rights and minorities in terms of the conditions for EU accession. This is an economic question in which discrimination costs not only Roma but also everyone living in Serbia, because Roma are the youngest part of Serbia's population. This is also a political question, because we are being used for political experiments that are dangerous for all citizens, not just us. The answers to these questions lie in wisdom and a vision of Serbia that has healthy institutions and an economy that protect interests and bring benefits to everyone.