Back in 2002, eight-year-old Danijel Stepanovic and his mother left Valjevo for Vienna. Danijel’s mother saw no prospects for a brighter and better future for herself or for her son if they remained in Serbia. They quickly settled in Vienna; Danijel enrolled in school, and his mother found a job. There they lived for seven years until the time came for Danijel to enroll in secondary school. As his legal status was still unresolved, and although his mother had the right to remain in Austria, Danijel was deported.
Both mother and son returned to Valjevo. Stuck in Serbia for a year, Danijel remained out of school, and his mother remained out of work. Immediately following visa liberalization in January 2010, they made their way back to Vienna.
For vast numbers of Roma in Serbia the future is bleak. In addition to higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the rest of the population, they face many forms of direct and indirect discrimination. With little hope of a better future in Serbia, it is a certainty that, just like Danijel and his mother, many thousands of Roma will choose to emigrate. They are tired of waiting for governments to keep their promises, tired of waiting for abstract policy to produce real change. This experience is not a Serbian particularity. It is the stark reality of the situation of Roma right across the Western Balkans.
There are about one million of us Roma in the Western Balkans countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. About 700,000 remain unemployed, and an estimated 300,000 of our youth are illiterate. For all of us, the eventual accession of our countries to the European Union holds forth the chance for a better life and a brighter future. In the meantime we ask ourselves: do we remain at home, or migrate and try to make our homes elsewhere in the European Union?
Right now, the choices are: stay at home, face discrimination, poverty and the lack of opportunity; or migrate in search of a better life. There is no doubt that our communities will face discrimination abroad, but many consider it a price worth paying to create a future for their children.
The European Union must increase funding and monitor its progressive impact on social cohesion, equal opportunities and Roma inclusion in this protracted accession process. It needs to ensure that prospective new Member States adhere to the Copenhagen Criteria for EU accession, which include a requirement that aspiring members demonstrate “respect for and protection of minorities”. It needs to hold these states to account if they fail in their commitments and binding obligations to their most vulnerable, deprived and excluded citizens.
The European Union also has a vital role to play in assisting governments and municipalities alike to build capacity and coordinate existing and future efforts to promote Roma inclusion. Toward this end, the European Union needs to ensure that current funding instruments are deployed to best effect across the Western Balkans. The EU needs to ensure that the guiding principle of “explicit but not exclusive targeting” forms the basis of a region-wide strategic Roma policy. As we mark the mid-point of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, it is clear that much more needs to be done to combat poverty and social exclusion in a way that makes a difference to people’s lives, to provide even a glimmer of hope for the future.
The accession of the Western Balkans countries to the European Union is a chance for progress for all citizens. Danijel and his mother also share in the hopes that enlargement will bring, among other things, greater employment opportunities, better education prospects and improved health care. There is a need to remain vigilant to ensure that this historic opportunity to promote social cohesion, combat exclusion, and instill a sense of hope for the future is not lost, and that in this historic transition, Roma will not be the losers.
A version of this post appears in Pathways to Progress? The European Union and Roma Inclusion in the Western Balkans, a new report commissioned by OSI Roma Initiatives. The report, written by Stephan Müller and Zeljko Jovanovic, was released together with Views from the Ground, a short documentary film by the Romedia Foundation that examines the challenges facing Roma in the Western Balkans today.