After an intensive 20-day census campaign coordinated by Open Society Roma Initiatives Fellow Mensur Haliti, the number of Roma officially registered in Montenegro more than doubled. Prior to the campaign, in the run up to the 2011 census, the total registered was less than 3,000. The numbers now stand at 6,251 Roma and 2,054 Egyptians (read more about Balkan Egyptians [pdf]). In this interview, Haliti explains why census mobilization matters, and what drives his personal commitment to Roma emancipation.
Montenegro is a tiny country, and within it Roma are a small minority. What’s important about the success of this census campaign?
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 situation and the challenges we faced were the same as elsewhere. Many Roma live in desperate poverty, and the conditions of refugees and internally displaced Roma from Kosovo are appalling. Their fear of declaring their ethnicity was further fueled by worsening anti-Roma attitudes, and the fact that so many are without citizenship or personal documents meant that community distrust in state institutions was deep and wide. All these factors inhibited Roma from freely registering their ethnic affiliation in the previous census. As a consequence, prior to the campaign, many observers supposed that the official number of those registering as Roma would actually decrease.
In very practical terms numbers matter because the allocation of public funds for implementation of Decade of Roma Inclusion National Action Plans is directly proportionate to the official number of Roma registered in the census.
And what about the forthcoming census in Serbia?
In Serbia, the Decade represents the most developed affirmative-action policy framework for Roma integration. For it to succeed we need reliable ethnically disaggregated data. An accurate census count is a vital national imperative, a first step for our communities to ensure adequate funding for public services, stronger political representation, and enforcement of civil and minority rights necessary to underpin democracy in Serbia.
We are hard at work campaigning; the problems are similar to Montenegro, the scale much larger. The 2002 census recorded 108,193 Roma (1.44 percent of the total population), but unofficial estimates vary from 450,000 to half a million. Despite the fact that according to official records, more than 23,000 Roma who fled Kosovo found refuge in Serbia (UN estimates suggest double that figure) census results from 2002 showed an actual decline in the number of Roma in Serbia.
The violent nationalism and wars that destroyed Yugoslavia had a definite impact on the willingness of Roma to declare their identity. The challenge for us today is to overcome the reluctance of Roma to register due to a lack of confidence and trust in the state and its institutions.
On top of all this, there has been a spike in public hostility towards Roma following worries that the EU could revoke visa liberalization because of the increase in the number of asylum seekers from Serbia. Interior Minister Ivaca Dacic urged Roma not to seek asylum because this can "endanger the state and national interests of Serbia." Now that Serbia has handed over its "most wanted" war criminals, the risk is that Roma will come to be identified in the public mind as the biggest threat to Serbia’s EU integration.
You were involved in the OSCE "Roma Use Your Ballot Wisely" campaign and, more recently, in a voter registration campaign in Serbia, which saw more than 40,000 Roma register in the minority national council elections. What makes political mobilization so important for Roma now?
Political mobilization is vital if we are to challenge the distribution of power and resources. The most important lesson we learned from the voter empowerment drive in Serbia is that with good organization, ordinary Roma can articulate their concerns and aspirations much better than self-appointed leaders, NGO activists, and indeed Roma political candidates.
Could you say a little about your background? What led to your involvement in Roma issues?
I grew up in Kosovo, where my family lived for generations. As a 10-year-old on the way with my father to attend the April 8 International Roma Day celebrations, I witnessed a massive Albanian demonstration against the Serbian regime. I could make little sense of the turmoil, or of our place as Roma in this quarrel. We had an important choice to make: Do we run away, or do we make our way through the thousands rallies in front of the building to get to our celebration?
My father asked me for my opinion. I told him I was afraid and unsure what to do. He told me he knew about the protests, but decided to take me with him to help me understand that to prevail in life we must be brave and affirm our identity in the face of challenges. We made our way through the crowds; it was easier than I’d feared. After that, I remember the Roma celebration as an emotional expression of our identity, and everything my father had told me about our people suddenly made sense.
I grew up in a family where the most important issue, discussed day and night, was what needed to be done to improve the situation of Roma. My father spent 30 years of his life challenging and changing attitudes, values, and behavior. There were times I couldn’t sleep because of the endless late-night discussions in our home about ways to improve the lives of Roma. Growing up in such an environment had a deep influence on me, and it was no surprise that I became involved in the emancipation process. And it has shaped my professional development to this day.
I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from the Open Society Foundations back in 1999. Since then the Foundations have been the only organization that supported my professional development: Roma Initiatives provided funding for the Forum of Roma IDPs [internally displaced persons] which I founded, and covered the costs of a year-long internship with the European Roma Rights Centre. As part of my ongoing fellowship with Roma Initiatives, I have received intensive English-language study tuition and participated in the Harvard Kennedy School leadership program.
In your report Blindspot, you draw attention to the plight of Kosovo Roma across the Western Balkans, a population neglected by the Decade governments. How would you describe their predicament?
In that report I wrote of the twin traumas endured by Kosovo Roma forced to flee: the immediate trauma of escaping with their bare lives from conflict, worsened by the lesser but debilitating trauma of non-acceptance in their new host countries. In Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is the Roma from Kosovo who are in the most difficult predicament. Not only do they belong to the most marginalized minority group in Europe, but they are further marginalized as IDPs and refugees, forced to flee their homes in time of war, and now the forgotten victims of conflict with no place in the world they can call home.
Decade Action Plans and programs do not include Roma from Kosovo. Between now and 2015, governments should revise their plans to remedy this oversight and cooperate across the region to resolve one of the legacies of war. There is a need for targeted actions in health, housing, education, and employment for Roma from Kosovo, because their living conditions are beneath human dignity and unacceptable for Europe in the 21st century.