Strasbourg, 11 March 2009 – The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, published a report on his visit to Serbia.

Extracts on Roma, refugees and IDPs

Serbia does not yet have a general anti-discrimination law covering all forms of discrimination, jeopardizing the effective protection of minorities and vulnerable groups. The situation of the Roma population in Serbia is precarious. They constitute the most discriminated and marginalised minority in the country suffering from social exclusion and often enduring inhumane living conditions. Many Roma, especially refugees and displaced persons, lack personal identity documents which hinders their access to basic human rights, and increases their susceptibility to statelessness.

145. Roma children in Serbia suffer from a combination of poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. Many Roma children are living in difficult or very difficult living conditions without appropriate access to adequate health, safety and security conditions. The rate of infant mortality is also higher among Roma. Many Roma children do not attend school, are placed in special schools or drop out early. An increased focus should be placed on mainstreaming early education for Roma children in order to begin to normalise a routine of regular school attendance.

150. Social, material or administrative obstacles to education exist for many children, especially children suffering from poverty and social exclusion, such as Roma, refugee children and children with disabilities (particularly mental and intellectual disabilities).

151. Only 3.9% of Roma children and 1% of children with disabilities have access to pre-schooling. 84% of IDP children and 98% of Roma IDP children are not included in any form of pre-school education. According to UNICEF, the majority of children with disabilities do not have access to education, with only 1% integrated into mainstream schooling and approximately 15% attending special schools. Very few disabled children have the opportunity to receive a full cycle of primary and secondary education.

152. Segregation of Roma students from others is still practised and must be actively avoided. According to UNICEF, over half of the pupils in special schools are from the Roma population. Attendance and full integration of all Roma students into mainstream schooling should be the goal, and the Commissioner would urge the authorities to take all feasible measures to realise this goal.

153. During the delegation’s visit to the Salvatore Roma Refugee camp in South Serbia, it was noted that the authorities make limited efforts to ensure that Roma are aware of enrolment requirements for school. Furthermore, there was a feeling that at the local level, schools did not actively seek to inform socially excluded Roma.

156. The human rights situation of national minorities is largely dependent on the economic context, and the region, in which the minorities live. Minority rights in the province of Vojvodina, for example, are comparatively better protected than in other parts of the country. The Roma community remain the most disadvantaged minority group in Serbia, and their position is precarious vis-à-vis the rest of the Serbian population in terms of all social indicators – education, health, housing and employment.

165. The South Serbia municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medvedja are inhabited by 90% of the ethnic Albanians in Serbia. The regions are comprised of largely Albanian, Serbian and Roma ethnic groups. Relations between the ethnic groups are largely stable and improving throughout the three municipalities, with the exception of the Roma who continue to be marginalised.

167. The situation of the Roma population in Serbia is very precarious. They are subjected to prejudice, systematic discrimination, marginalization and exclusion. Negative stereotyping by the majority of the population, often due to insufficient knowledge about their history, culture and tradition and a lack of personal contact with Roma, perpetuates a cycle of discrimination.

168. According to the 2002 census, 108 193 persons identify themselves as Roma, or approximately 1.44% of the total population, although the actual number is deemed to be much higher. According to some studies there are 247 591 Roma in Serbia, while Roma leaders claim that there are between 400 000 to 800 000 Roma, or up to 10% of Serbian population. The reason for the lack of clarity may be that in many cases the Roma identify themselves as Serbs rather than Roma.

169. In 2008, Serbia took over the Presidency of the Roma Decade until 30 June 2009. There had been rather limited investment in the Roma cause nationally until then. In discussions with the executive, the Commissioner was encouraged by their openness to accept that the problems facing Roma remain one of the great challenges in Serbian society. The Commissioner was encouraged by the notification from the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Božidar Đelić, in November 2008 that over 1 billion dinars would be allocated for the improvement of the position of Roma in Serbia in 2009. The Commissioner hopes that these funds will be managed and utilised in a targeted manner based on the most pressing concerns.

170. There are approximately 600 Roma settlements in Serbia, with the largest concentration of Roma in southern and central Serbia. Large numbers live in informal or unofficial settlements with intolerable living conditions, which lack basic utilities and services. Access to education and healthcare are severely restricted for most. As a result, women and children are the most vulnerable and at-risk minority sub-group. According to information provided by the Ministry of Health, funds have been made available to the Institutes of Public Health to carry out projects aimed to assess the hygienic and epidemiological status of Roma settlements in eight cities in Serbia. As a result, a set of measures have been proposed to the Ministry of Health and local self-governments for improving the living conditions of Roma settlements. In 2009, the same analysis will be conducted in three new cities and will be continued in two.

171. The Commissioner visited one Roma settlement just minutes away from Belgrade’s newest shopping mall. Apparently, there are 150 such settlements in Belgrade alone. The settlement was located on a plot of land adjacent to a large office-building site. Approximately 200 families lived in makeshift shelters with cardboard roofs. These Roma were internally displaced persons from Kosovo. They had left everything behind and the majority have lost relatives. There was neither electricity nor running water. In the summer, the living conditions are truly appalling, because of the lack of water and terrible heat. In the winter, the inhabitants suffer from the cold and rain, lacking even blankets. The Commissioner was told that the settlement was a breeding ground for infectious diseases. None of the children who live in the settlement went to school and this had been the case for the 8 years during which they had lived there. For the most part, they were all unemployed, except for a few who earned a small amount by collecting cardboard or scraping.

172. The representatives in the settlement told the Commissioner that they could not meet with any local or municipal representative to discuss their living conditions, as no door was open for them. They would like the local authorities at least to supply them with water once a week. Apparently, the Commissioner was the first official person to visit their settlement.

173. Some of the Roma on the settlement had identification papers. Others were without a single document. The majority of the children were unregistered and had not received any vaccinations or immunizations. The conditions in the settlement were truly appalling and were some of the worst that the Commissioner has seen during his various visits to Council of Europe member states.

174. In response to the problem of identification papers, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights has launched an initiative for a new law on Legal Subjectivity. The aim of the law is to resolve the problem of those persons who have not been registered at birth and as a result are not legally recognised. A draft law has been prepared and a number of round tables have been organised to discuss the text, in co-operation with international partners, one NGO, and in the presence of all relevant government representatives. In 2009, the National Council of the Roma Ethnic Minority will conduct a project “Become a citizen” to support the issuance of personal documents, such as health cards.

175. There is strong public opinion against relocating Roma. One specific problem is that when the Serbian authorities propose that the Roma will be re-located to appropriate housing, local populations protest and refuse to agree to a Roma population moving in as their neighbours. The government cite this as a reason for their inactivity. The Commissioner recommends that the Serbian authorities make concerted efforts to sensitive local populations to the needs and rights of the Roma population who live side by side them.

176. Discrimination has become so common for most Roma that they themselves have a lower threshold of defining discrimination, and put up with more intolerant attitudes than other groups in Serbian society. It appears that very few cases of discrimination or intolerance towards Roma are brought to the notice of the authorities. Indeed, at times, high-ranking public officials, including Mayors, have spoken about Roma in a discriminatory way. The authorities must be vigilant towards such unacceptable intolerance, and political leaders must assume responsibility to promote tolerance, inclusion and cultural diversity within the communities they serve.

177. 62% of Roma children have either dropped out or not attended school at all. Many have not enrolled owing to financial limitations and a lack of the necessary documents such as birth certificates and proof of residence. Only 9.6% of Roma have completed post-primary education. Roma children without any learning disabilities are also overrepresented in schools for children with special needs and mental health problems, often because of their insufficient knowledge of the Serbian language. The Commissioner has been made aware that on occasion there have been financial incentives encouraging Roma parents to enrol their children in such schools.

178. Roma education is a priority in the Strategy for Education (2005-2010) and while the Ministry of Education have pushed forward a number of positive projects within the confines of extremely limited funding, much remains to be done. An expansion of pre-school education and active encouragement of Roma to remain in primary and secondary schooling should be enhanced by the authorities. In addition, further training is needed for all teaching and other staff who engages with Roma.

179. Although the National Strategy for Employment (2005-2010) and the National Action Plan for Employment (2006-2008) have programmes specifically for Roma, the unemployment rate in the community is very high and few have full-time jobs. When they do, these jobs are frequently in low-skilled sectors. Roma who live in unregistered settlements find it difficult to register with the National Employment Service in their local area. Societal discrimination further compromises employment perspectives while a lack of formal education is also a predominant barrier to gaining full employment. The Commissioner stresses the need to ensure positive measures are taken to increase the employment of Roma.

180. The Serbian Government has made efforts to address the economic and social situation of Roma in recent years, particularly in terms of access to healthcare. According to the Law on Health Insurance, the right to health care is provided for persons from vulnerable population groups, which include the Roma. Thus, for these persons the State budget covers the contributions for the compulsory health insurance scheme. In 2009, the Ministry of Health will educate health professionals in order to increase their understanding of the needs of the Roma population and to improve communication with vulnerable groups.

181. In January 2005, an action plan for Roma Health was adopted within the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015 and given a budget line for its implementation. Aiming to improve the health and health care of the Roma, the Ministry of Health encouraged project proposals from health institutions in co-operation with Roma NGOs. As a result in 2007 and 2008 113 projects were implemented covering 17 345 Roma. In addition, 31 projects will be conducted in 2009. Furthermore, in 2009, the Ministry of Health will finance four projects with the aim of educating and providing health care for Roma working with waste materials.

182. The Ministry of Health also informed the Commissioner of 15 Roma mediators who have been appointed as the interface between Roma and the Ministry – engaging directly with the Roma community on a local level. These mediators were appointed in line with the Roma Decade and the National Action Plan on healthcare protection, within the Ministry of Health’s Programme for the Health Advancement of Special Population Groups. This initiative is something, which the Ministry has found to be successful and intend to develop further. The Commissioner would recommend that local authorities become more actively involved in this process.

183. On a regional level, some positive developments must be noted. A Roma Inclusion Office with a dedicated budget was set up in Vojvodina in 2005. It carried out three studies on the situation of the Roma in the province, in the areas of housing and the position of teachers from the Roma community. Although understaffed, the office represents a strong commitment to inclusion of Roma in that region. The office was also involved in the framing of the Strategy for improving the situation of Roma and works closely with the regional ombudsman. Also on a local level, international organisations such as the ICRC, the OSCE and the United Nations teams are implementing numerous awareness-raising projects throughout the country. The Commissioner encourages the government and local actors to work together with international and non-governmental organisations in the delivery of these projects.

Rights of Roma (Recommendations)

24. Adopt proactive measures to provide opportunities for Roma, Refugees and disabled children to access mainstream education.

25. Take immediate action to resolve the precarious living conditions of the Roma, particularly displaced Roma, and those living in informal settlements.

26. Implement and expand programmes to ensure that Roma have access to education, healthcare and employment. Capitalise on Serbia’s presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Actively cooperate with Roma civil society organisations.

27. Support and facilitate birth and citizenship registration of both domicile and displaced Roma from Kosovo, in order to minimise the risk of statelessness.

XIII. Concerns of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Asylum Seekers

184. During the periods of conflict in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), Serbia faced a serious refugee crisis, and responded by receiving huge numbers of refugees and displaced persons. The financial cost of responding to these refugees has been huge for the government. During the 1996 Census of Refugees and War Affected Persons, 538 000 refugees and 72 000 war affected persons were registered. The number of refugees decreased to 346 000 in 2001 and 104 246 in 2004/5. In 2008, approximately 210 000 IDPs were registered in Serbia.

185. The UNHCR has identified three major groups of persons who remain vulnerable in Serbia: refugees who came because of the disintegration of the former SFRY, asylum-seekers and mandate refugees from outside of the former SFRY and IDPs from Kosovo.

13.1. Legislative framework

186. Article 57 of the Constitution establishes the right of asylum for anyone outside the country of their nationality with a reasonable fear of persecution based on race, religion, and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. While a Law on Refugees was adopted by Serbia in 1992, the Parliament adopted an Asylum Law44 in November 2007, which marked a turning point in the fulfilment of international obligations in the area of refugee protection. The adoption of national legislation consistent with international norms and standards represents one of the accession commitments the country made to the Council of Europe and the process of association with the EU.

187. The Commissariat for Refugees is the main governmental institution concerned with refugee and IDP issues and there are two national strategies, the National Strategy for resolving issues of Refugees and IDPs of 2002 and the Poverty Reduction Strategy of 2003. In principle, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy is in charge of ensuring the integration of IDPs, refugees and others into Serbian society in appropriate cases.

13.2. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

 188. A large number of persons were displaced from Kosovo during and after the conflict in the late 1990s. More than 75% of the IDPs in Serbia are of Serbian ethnicity, followed by Roma and more than 10 other ethnicities. 55% of the registered IDPs from Kosovo have settled in the southern part of Serbia and have not returned.

189. IDPs have three possible durable solutions to their situation and status in Serbia, namely to return to their homes in their place of origin, to return elsewhere in Kosovo, or to integrate into their place of displacement. There is a need for a renewed effort by all stakeholders to enable those who wish to return to do so as soon as possible, recognising repatriation as the most satisfactory solution, and to facilitate integration for those unable or unwilling to return. According to the Commissariat for Refugees, the most vulnerable IDPs are provided with temporary accommodation in collective centres. They can also access special employment programs of the National Employment Service but the reintegration into the job market is very difficult with a general unemployment rate of some 30%.

190. The most vulnerable of the displaced population are the Roma IDPs, who are in a more precarious position than domestic Roma. Large numbers of Roma IDPs are living in terrible conditions, often in unregistered settlements without appropriate access to the most basic services, and suffering from intolerance and discrimination by the local community. The Commissioner’s delegation visited one such camp – Salvatore – in South Serbia. At the time of visit, the camp – originally designed to host 250 persons – housed more than 700 persons with no more than 222 persons holding identification and civil registration documents.

191. The IDP Living Standard Measurement Study (LSMS) conducted in 2007 has established that almost 30% of Roma IDPs lack identification documents, hindering their access to rights. This has the effect of creating situations of de facto statelessness. According to the authorities, IDPs are able to exercise their right to register because of Article 1 of the Law amending the Law on Registers. A procedure of re-registration of births, marriages or deaths was introduced in 1999 and is still on going. Accordingly, all those who had not been entered in the birth register were entitled to subsequent registration (although the deadline provided by the law has already expired). A draft law on Registers, which provides for the recording of the fact of birth in the birth register, is currently in the parliamentary process.

192. The Commissioner urges the Serbian authorities to simplify administrative procedures to obtain civil registration documents, as well as to adopt measures to provide free legal assistance to IDPs.

193. Although almost a decade has passed since the end of the Kosovo conflict, the situation of IDPs in Serbia continues to deteriorate, as they remain stuck between an uncertain future in Kosovo and considerable obstacles to integrate into Serbian society. Kosovo’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence also appears to have stalled progress on this issue. The Commissioner calls upon the authorities to identify an inter-ministerial coordination body, which will assume responsibility to address IDP issues in a coordinated and effective fashion. The Ministry of Human and Minority Rights would appear to be the most suitable candidate

212. Romani children and children from poor rural communities are most vulnerable for the purpose of coercion into street begging, labour exploitation or to be lured into theft rings.

The full report is available here.