Ensuring Protection for Roma in Serbia

Vuk RaicevicVuk Raičević works as Legal Field Assistant with Praxis, who together with the Equal Rights Trust provides legal support to protect vulnerable groups in Serbia. Here he describes his work helping Roma, a minority subject to a disproportionate amount of discrimination. 

My Role 
A large part of my work involves providing legal aid to Roma, especially internally displaced Roma from Kosovo who sought refuge in Serbia following the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Having suddenly fled Kosovo, they arrived here without any documentation so I help them to get the correct documents they need to access social welfare, healthcare, education and other basic services. Another part of my role is focused on empowering vulnerable individuals to articulate and defend their rights.
Obstacles Faced by Roma People
Roma people are discriminated against across a number of areas of life, particularly by public institutions. In schools, Roma children will often be segregated from their peers in the classroom. Teachers underestimate their abilities, having little confidence they will get past elementary school level. In worst cases, children are actually excluded from certain schools, which is contrary to what is stipulated in our legal system - that vulnerable children (even those who lack official documentation) must be allowed into any school. 
The authorities often make demands of Roma people they wouldn’t from other groups. For example, when you move residence, you are required by law to register the new residency with the police to obtain an official document certifying your address. Although everyone is required to have this document, the police only really check whether Roma people have it. Even myself, I moved three years ago but no one came to check whether my address was the same as the one I registered.
Living in a State of Fear 
Roma people often live in a state of fear. They are fed false information and empty threats by the authorities. Roma women are told that they need to get married in order to claim social security, which is not true. I frequently hear women say, ‘I need to get my birth certificate because I need to get married otherwise the social security people will take my children’.  
This fear has had consequences on our legal battles too. One case I was involved in recently looked at suing an electricity company for false accusation against a Roma family. The family had their electricity cut off for four months and the company’s bill to the family read, “Roma settlement - Red Star”. The company had classed the family’s home and other homes in the settlement as illegal because not all the buildings in the settlement were certified. Without electricity the family couldn’t carry out their everyday lives, they couldn’t bathe their children, go to school, etc. We tried to encourage the families to take action against the company, but they were too scared to testify in court for fear they would get into trouble. All we could do was get their electricity temporarily restored. 
Challenges in Changing Minds 
I have seen some positive changes, but these are not enough. Discrimination against Roma in Serbia is still seen as the norm, people don’t actually consider it discrimination when they treat Roma people differently.  There is still a long way to go in changing public opinion and to ensure Roma have a better position in our society. 
A lot of people in Serbia think that Roma people get more funding than they should, but the reality is that they are in most need of it. When you start working with them you realise how bad the situation is. Now I try to tell my friends, family and everyone around what the situation is really like for Roma people. 
Through the Equal Rights Trust and Praxis we are trying to bring together both litigation and advocacy to show the public that the Roma are in the biggest need of help, and that we are not exaggerating their case. We are fighting to change minds, attitudes and prejudices.  
In 2014 Vuk attended a training workshop convened by the Equal Rights Trust and Praxis, click here to read more about his experience on the workshop. 
  • Read about Equal Rights Trust’s work in Serbia