Poverty, unemployment and discrimination. These are just some of the hardships faced by the Roma in Serbia, sometimes called ‘Cigani,’ of whom there are approximately 500,000. They came to the Balkans in the 13th century and have stayed there ever since. The prejudice associated with Roma identity means that actual data on the population is sparse and irregularly collected, but what is available clearly demonstrates the somewhat woeful outcome of a life excluded from opportunities presented by mainstream society.
Although difficult economic circumstances are not uncommon amongst the entire population, the Roma’s burden is disproportionately large. Over 50% of Roma people are uneducated, compared to 20% of the non-Roma Serbian population. This statistic stems from problems with the first stage of education; of all the Roma children who enrol in primary school, between 70% and 90% drop out, typically due to family financial issues, social discrimination, or lack of academic support. As a result, less than 1% manage to attain university degrees. Women are the most vulnerable of all the Roma: almost all are unemployed and 80% are illiterate. The Serbian government has cited lack of education as a primary factor for the failure of Roma integration into functional society, but few real solutions have been provided. Many children are sent to the streets to beg and are occasionally even mutilated to earn more sympathy from passers-by. Their economic situation has remained resolutely disappointing.
Economic deprivation within the Roma population has not helped them evade the stigma carried by their identity. According to Serb sociologist Dario Hajric, ‘most people don’t want Roma neighbours, friends, colleagues or family members,’ which has occasionally led to attacks on the Roma or their makeshift communities. ‘Gypsy’ is a derogatory term commonly used to describe the population, a word loaded with negative connotations of ignorance, filth and deceitful behaviour. Although the Roma originally migrated from the Indian subcontinent, this word falsely attributes them to Egypt. The term ‘Gypsy’ is actually an exonym, a word imposed on the Roma by non-Roma. Despite the efforts of Roma rights advocates, the exonym is still widely used, thus serving to reinforce these belittling stereotypes. Social discrimination against the Roma is essentially ignored by the state; the population are not properly documented in the National Census, so they simply remain invisible.
Health care is insufficient for the needs of the Roma in Serbia. They are not entitled to full primary health care in health centres and the availability of secondary and tertiary health care facilities is scarce. Consequently, the mortality rate amongst Roma citizens is significantly higher than the non-Roma population, and their life expectancy is 10 years below the national average. Even though the health care system has made attempts to provide wider access to facilities, numerous challenges are present. Access is constrained due to a multiplicity of factors, including lack of documentation, language barriers and cultural insensitivity amongst healthcare professionals. Although the Law on Health Protection and the Law on Health Insurance states that Roma have the right to free or reduced medical costs, they have difficulties exercising this right. Health professionals are simply ignorant of this legislation and usually do not carry out the required medical procedures.
In conclusion, the Serbian government cannot decide on who should be responsible for organising the proper integration of the Roma into local communities. Prolonged social prejudice has made societal acceptance seem almost impossible, and the Roma are not willing to claim their identity in writing for fear of discrimination, so they are simply not counted. For now, they remain largely economically disadvantaged, sometimes illiterate and unable to fight for their rights.