Nearing the end of the Decade of Inclusion initiative, Roma still struggle for survival and belonging.
Gypsy. Thief. Beggar. Outsiders. None of these words could possibly describe the three generations of Roma women standing with me in front of their home in Mostar. These women were born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and like many others, they face economic hardship and unemployment. Their dire situation, however, is amplified and perpetuated because they are Roma, the largest ethnic minority in BiH.
Elvira Golos, the matriarch of her family, sits down at the plastic table in her courtyard, a cigarette hanging from her lips, and beckons her friend and neighbor Vrecna Samija to join the conversation. The absence of the men around the house is noticeable. “Yes, I have a husband, but it’s as if I don’t have one,” Golos says. Though he technically lives with the family, he is an alcoholic and is rarely present. Luckily for Golos, her two sons have paying jobs washing cars, though working for 12 hours a day only brings in the equivalent of five US dollars in wages. Golos lives with her two sons, their wives, and her four granddaughters—all nine of them living in her small house on a meager income and Golos’ approximately $150 monthly pension. Running water, electricity, and a sewage system are luxuries they can’t currently afford.
“It would be nice to live like a proper woman,” Samija comments.
“Like a woman? I just want a toilet,” her daughter-in-law adds.
Despite their Roma heritage, both Golos and Samija strongly identify as with their nationality as Bosnians. They live in a multiethnic neighborhood where many of the families identify as one of three constituent ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, each of whom are explicitly mentioned in and represented by the constitution of BiH.
BiH is a country still struggling with its difficult ethnic landscape even now, 20 years after the deadly conflicts that rippled across the Balkans after the fall of Yugoslavia. BiH is often unable to overcome political deadlock to address much needed constitutional and socioeconomic reform. Seemingly the least of BiH’s problems is its neglect of the ethnic minorities on a political level, let alone in terms of social inclusion and discrimination. In fact, government officials have said as much, explicitly saying that the needs of the majority ethnicities take priority over those of the nation’s ethnic minorities.
Though it is commonly accepted that the Roma are the largest of the 17 national minorities in BiH, no accurate census data exists for their numbers. Instead, the best estimates can only give a broad range of 30,000 to 100,000 Roma within the total BiH population of 3.7 million. The Roma are an extremely vulnerable population across all of Eastern Europe, facing widespread social exclusion as well as challenges in access to basic healthcare, housing, education, and employment. Politicians, eager to keep their jobs, play up this distrustful attitude towards minorities and encourage people to vote along ethnic lines. “Bosnia and Herzegovina is our country, too. ” remarks Golos. “But, there are other people here who don’t think that we belong.”
Following the initiation of a World Bank-sponsored program called the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005, BiH and many other countries across Europe made commitments to address human rights issues and social inclusion for their Roma populations in exchange for program funding to accomplish these goals. BiH pledged to join in the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2008 and developed a National Action Plan through its Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR). According to Assistant Minister Saliha Djuderija at the MHRR, the EU gave 6 million euros to address the most pressing issues for the Roma population, and 2 million more was committed to the endeavor by the BiH government.
Housing is a main priority of the National Action Plan for Roma in the BiH because many Roma individuals live in informal settlements that are structurally unsound and usually lacking in essential utilities and sanitation. In the past, Roma families have been evicted from such structures and settlements but without being provided any housing alternatives. “We have had success in building over 700 houses for Roma families in the past five years, and we hope to complete 1,000 more by the end of 2016.” says Djuderija. “The trouble is getting local municipalities to coordinate with the ministry and assess need in their area.”
While the ministry stresses the importance of working together across ethnicities to improve communities, locals sometimes resent that money is being spent on minority issues. “We also find it difficult to work with some Roma communities because they don’t want to change their lifestyle and the men who are leaders of the community do not trust the government to help them,” Djuderija adds. “Everywhere that we have been successful, though, has started with getting the Roma leaders to accept our help and making an agreement with them.”
The aid that Djuderija talks about has not come to Golos and Samija’s neighborhood. Though Golos rebuilt her home as best as she could after it was destroyed during the Bosnian War, it is still mostly just the shell of a house. “The government built one or two new buildings for Roma a few kilometers away, but they are families who have come here from Kosovo,” says Golos. “Nothing has been done for Roma from BiH. We have never been asked if we need any help.”
It seems that a majority of the funding and resources of the MHRR’s action plan have gone to the immigrant Roma populations, those asylum-seekers and refugees who number in the thousands in BiH. However, the country itself still has tens of thousands of internally displaced-people residing within the nation’s borders and hundreds of stateless persons who have no proof of identity of citizenship. This issue of registration is another hurdle that BiH faces in attempting to deal with its suffering Roma population. Without proof of citizenship or unemployment registration, families are forced to the fringes of society—unable to access healthcare or benefit from Roma employment initiatives.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex political structure often impedes progress, but the nation’s constitution inherently discriminates against minority groups. The 1995 peace-agreement-turned-constitution prohibits anyone not of Bosniak, Croat, or Serb ethnicity from running for a seat in the national House of Peoples, one of the country’s two parliamentary chambers, let alone the nation’s tripartite presidency. Though the European Court of Human Rights deemed this to be a violation of human rights law in 2009, no effective action has been taken due to multiple failed attempts at constitutional reform.
Although Roma still do not have full political rights, Golos and her children vote in local elections, and like most people in BiH, they vote for the representatives of their ethnicity. However, Golos dismisses the effectiveness of Roma politicians, saying “Those men are the real thieves. The few Roma who win get rich and just show their face here briefly, but they do nothing to help us either.” In some regions of BiH, there are Roma Associations, usually with a male President who acts as a sort of lobbyist on behalf of his Roma community. President Bahrudin Ramic is one such leader of an association in Banja Luka. He is currently petitioning his canton for land to be given to the 50 Roma families he represents, hoping they can build houses there and farm for a living. “No one is representing us in government, so I have to do it from outside the government,” Ramic explains.
Though BiH has been making strides in helping its Roma population, whether they are BiH natives or refugees from other countries, there is still a great deal of work to be done. The Decade of Roma Inclusion ends on December 31, 2015, but there are still opportunities for countries to get more funding for future initiatives. While BiH government and foreign NGOs have come to the general consensus that more positive change will result from sustained efforts, it’s unclear whether enough is being done to change the public perception of Roma in BiH.
Most Roma believe that they were better off before the wars, when they were still a part of Yugoslavia. Golos reflects, “We used to have the same rights as everyone else, and no it’s a big difference. We all had jobs and no one would tease us for being Roma.” President Ramic of the Roma Association agreed that “the past 10 years have not changed just because they say they are trying harder. Things were better before.”
Today, a majority of BiH youth would leave the country if they had the opportunity to do so, unsurprising given the rising unemployment. For Roma, the desire to leave is even stronger. Golos fled to Germany with her family during the war to find work, only to be sent back after a few months for entering the country illegally. “If only we had a job, we wouldn’t need to ask anyone for anything,” Golos states. When asked if she has hope that the future will be better by the time her grand-daughters grow up, she just groans. “For us it is 100% hopeless, and for them maybe only 99%.”
These women, for all their strength, have no confidence in their future. Disenfranchised, they have accepted their condition in life. Golos and Samija are the more fortunate ones; they’re registered as citizens, are able to vote, and have access to healthcare and schools, though limited. Yet each day is a struggle to survive without sanitation, running water, or money for food. As Golos retreats into the interior of her home, the rush of passing cars on the highway drowns out the sounds of the four children playing on the concrete front yard and the women’s muttered chorus:
“No hope. Write that down.”
Chareeni Kurukulasuriya ’16 is a Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology major in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com.