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Virtual Advice Centers: A tool to safeguard Roma rights in Macedonia

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This blog is written by Mila Georgievska, who at the time of writing was the Legal Intern on the project “From Action to Equal Rights for Roma”. Currently, she is interning at the Right to Development section at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The 8th of April marked the International Day of the Roma and offered the opportunity to reflect on the work and progress of MRG’s EU-funded project “From Action to Equal Rights for Roma”. Partnering with the Roma Democratic Development Association –  SONCE, we have aimed to increase the participation of Roma in decisions that affect their life. The Roma in North Macedonia continue to face several social and economic barriers including poverty, social exclusion, statelessness, and discrimination among others. The consequential effects extend to education, employment, health, housing conditions and an overall decrease in life expectancy.

Considering these barriers that hinder the Roma’s fundamental rights and progress within North Macedonia, MRG initiated the From Action to Equal Rights for Roma project that aims to empower community members in exercising their basic rights. An integral part of the project, now in its final year, has been the establishment of weekly Virtual Advice Centers (VACs) on Skype. These centers combine external expertise from partners and law firms, and interact with Roma individuals who have experienced discrimination and other infringements of their rights.

MRG-trained mediators on the project undertake monthly field visits in six target municipalities: Tetovo, Kichevo, Debar, Shtip, Vinica and Berovo whereby they document instances of discrimination and grievances against Roma individuals. Following this, the legal officer from MRG selects specific cases that have displayed possible infringements of their respective rights and offers the individuals the opportunity to participate in the VACs. The purpose of the VAC is to provide the individuals with legal advice on appropriate responses and measures to the grievances they have experienced.

The cases in the VACs have been varied and have provided new insights into the political and social situation of the Roma within North Macedonia. In addition to being challenging, the cases have demonstrated a recurring theme of discrimination and a continued infringement of basic rights. For instance, cases have concerned land disputes, statelessness, interactions with law enforcement and harassment in the workplace. One case in particular concerned an elderly Roma man from Kichevo who was experiencing chest and lung pains and requested an ambulance to come to his home. The ambulance failed to show up, despite the man phoning for help numerous times. Instead, his son had to rush him to the cardiology ward in Skopje. Another case dealt with abuse at the workplace – namely, how a man was injured at work, then was laid off, and finally attacked, both physically and verbally, by the father of the owner of the company. Other cases cast a light on the poor conditions in which the Roma live – i.e. having no connection to water, electricity and garbage collection or residing in houses with substandard infrastructure. Thus, these cases demonstrate the increasing need for advocacy in order to influence national politics.

The legal advice during the VACs is provided by external counsel who seeks to address these issues, offering to report them to relevant human rights bodies and commissions. Moreover, the external counsel provides the individuals with the necessary steps for redress or appeal of state decisions that impact the Roma. For example, the attorney offered the man with the ambulance case the opportunity to report his case, anonymously, to the Doctor’s Chambers. In addition, Roma individuals often encounter difficulties when interacting with state bodies (given the complex state procedure), so the VACs seek to provide clarity on various state procedures and list the necessary steps that the individual must take to initiate an administrative process. With this work, the VACs serve as a filter for cases that have potential to be reported to the Anti-Discrimination Commission and to the Ombudsman’s office. For example, a case was recently reported for review to the Ombudsman which revealed an instance of abuse of a Roma man in a psychiatric hospital, so the VACs would allow the partners of the project to gather further information from the man and his family, which may be necessary as the case further develops.

Throughout this project several lessons have been learned, one of which is the urgent need for reform. Although positive measures have been taken, such as the National Strategy for the Inclusion of the Roma enacted in 2014, there need to be increased efforts to improve the socio-economic standing of Roma into Macedonian society and combat all forms of discrimination and anti-Gypsyism. These reforms must be enacted on a state level and be widely implemented throughout. In 2019, there has been a development as the newly reformed and amended Anti-Discrimination Law came into force. The law provides for the prevention and protection against discrimination in the enjoyment of rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia. The biggest benefit is that the law allows for associations, foundations and other civil society organisations that have a legitimate interest in protecting the interests of a particular group, to file a lawsuit if they establish that the defendant has discriminated against a number of persons.

It’s great to see how the From Action to Equal Rights for Roma project and the incredible commitment of our partners at SONCE has considerably improved the livelihood and well-being of many Roma individuals. My time on this project has provided a deeper informational and educational insight into the continued challenges the Roma face in North Macedonia, which I hope will see improvements in the coming years.

 

This project is funded by the European Union. This content is the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

 

Photo: Romina Kajtazova, a Roma paralegal with the Humanitarian and Charitable Association of Roma, talks with Ljutvia Demyrova, a mother of eight children at her home in Vinica, Macedonia during the European Immunization Week.

Photo credit: © Bjorn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations

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