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Roma Feel Less Fear and More Hope After Census

A grassroots campaign to increase Roma registration in Serbia’s official census has made a major contribution to an unprecedented success there. Announcing the official results of the 2011 census, the Serbian Statistical Office reported a 40 percent increase in the official number of Roma in comparison to the last census held in 2002. As of a week ago, 147,604 Roma are officially registered in Serbia, making them the second biggest minority in the country, right after Hungarians.

This increase is expected to affect Serbian public policies concerning Roma. As outlined in Serbia’s minority legislation, census data is directly translated into assigned quotas in employment for public administration and police. A higher, more representative figure for the Roma population in Serbia means the government will be legally obliged to hire more Roma in public enterprises and increase Roma representation in public institutions and public service media. Also, it is expected that more accurate statistics will be factored into the Roma Decade policies promising to provide fair opportunities for Roma children in education and their parents in employment.

Overall, the Serbian census has registered a decrease in the population of minorities. A demographic drop was registered for the Croat minority of 18 percent, Romanian 15.2 percent and Hungarian of 13.3 percent. Besides Roma, only the Bosniak minority has recorded an increase of 6.7 percent. In addition to the overall population decline due to migration and higher mortality rates, experts recognize ethnic mimicry and assimilation as the main reasons for the decrease.

However, the population increase in the census does not mean that there are more Roma in Serbia. Actually, the real number is much higher. According to minimum estimates by the Council of Europe, at least 400,000 Roma people live in Serbia. The new census demonstrates that there are more Roma in Serbia who are ready to declare and officially register their ethnic identity.

Too many Roma still face more challenges than other minorities when it comes to openly and proudly saying who they are. In the last decade, many Roma have left Serbia for Western Europe. Fear and experiences of discrimination, and for some, the memory of the Second World War and the rounding up of Roma, influence their decision not to register their details with the state. Whilst other minorities in Serbia, such as Hungarians, are supported by their nation states, Roma do not have well-resourced institutions protecting their ethnic identity amongst the majority population. Right now, the biggest challenge for us is a lack of large scale self-organization.

To address this, we focused on self-organizing during the census campaign. Our campaign—to increase the number of Roma registering their ethnic identity in the Serbian census—was prepared for a year and carried out by young Roma. Most had no experience in the non-profit sector; most were from poor backgrounds and all of them volunteered, working for free. The Open Society Roma Initiatives Office built a network of 1,200 Roma that tirelessly worked door-to-door over three months, visiting 33,000 households and intensively speaking to more than 120,000 Roma. Despite all the challenges, the amount of energy and enthusiasm invested by all these volunteers has been unmatched and commanded a terrific result in census.

A similar approach to self-organizing was deployed in neighboring Montenegro. Although Montenegro is the least populous country in the region and the Roma and Egyptian population is 1.3 percent of the total, the complexity of the challenge remains the same: fear of ethnic declaration, grave conditions of refugees from Kosovo, lack of personal documents and citizenship, and a pervasive lack of trust. Prior to the campaign, many observers suggested that the official number of those registering as Roma would actually decrease. 

But it did not. On the contrary, it went up. In April 2011, after twenty days of grassroots campaigning, 6,251 Roma and 2,054 Egyptians registered in the Montenegrin census. Only 2,501 Roma had registered in the previous census.

As in Serbia, the number of Roma registered in the census has direct implications on the spending of public funds. According to Montenegrin regulations, the portion of public funds for the Decade of Roma Inclusion is proportionate to the official number of Roma registered. After the census, Roma in Montenegro can legitimately demand an increase in public funds available to improve their life conditions.

The 2011 campaigns in Serbia and Montenegro are the latest actions in our long-term undertaking to improve Roma self-organizing, representation, and integration in Serbia and the region. In 2010, the Roma Initiatives Office was the major contributor and leader of a campaign on voters’ registration for the elections for the National Council of Roma Minority, an official representative body of Roma. The four month campaign resulted in more than 45,000 Roma in Serbia registering to vote. This number of registered voters was a legal requirement for change in the way Roma representatives are elected—from an indirect delegation system to direct elections. The indirect system allowed for manipulation and did not properly represent Roma. The direct approach means One Man One Vote for Roma in Serbia. This was a huge success in changing how Roma participate in the public and political affairs of Serbia.

We are going to press on. In Serbia and Macedonia, young Roma are claiming equal representation in public administration based on the census data, as promised by the Ohrid Agreement eleven years ago. In Montenegro, Kosovo Roma in Konik, the recently burned refugee camp, are demanding to get homes after thirteen years of unmet promises and many projects done on their behalf, without their involvement or consultation. In the Czech Republic, Roma parents in Ostrava are demanding schools there to end the illegal segregation of their children as ruled by the European Court of Human Rights five years ago. In these campaigns, we demand no special rights and no more justice than what other people enjoy, but no less either.

Roma self-organizing, as people and citizens, is going to be a game changer. The stand taken by Roma in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and the Czech Republic raises our hopes. Contrary to sometimes popular opinion, Roma can demonstrate hard work, determination, and solidarity in tough times. Even more importantly, in the census campaigns Roma people have demonstrated values-driven leadership—these days in Europe, a virtue in deficit.

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