Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
In the 2002 census, 53,879 people self-identified as Roma. This figure is almost certainly well below the real figure, with other sources, including the Roma community, European Roma Rights Centre and the World Bank, estimating the Roma population between 80,000 and 135,000.
Most Roma speak Romani as their first language and practice Islam. Some Roma speak Albanian. Roma are dispersed, with a large concentration in Shuto Orizari in Skopje.
Roma came to the Balkans in the 13th century and have lived there ever since. Roma have always been viewed by others as second class and faced discrimination and prejudice. Although still facing discrimination and prejudice, during Tito's rule Roma were in a better position than either before or after, both economically and in terms of some state support for cultural activities.
Roma face discrimination in all spheres of life, and are the most excluded minority group. Many live in poverty. Roma were particularly badly affected by Macedonia's post-1991 transition to a market economy, with a marked increase in poverty and unemployment. Widespread discrimination, a lack of social capital, geographic position, and a generally low level of education among Roma made them more vulnerable to the new system. As with other smaller minorities in Macedonia, Roma cannot participate effectively in public life, which is dominated by ethnic Macedonian-Albanian relations.
Roma continue to face discrimination and exclusion in all spheres of life, including access to basic services such as education, electricity and health care. The community suffers extreme poverty, and Roma are excluded from the labour market for a range of reasons including discrimination. Many Roma children do not complete primary education. Roma are discriminated against by officials within a range of state institutions and many have problems obtaining personal documents and citizenship. Police abuse of Roma is common, and the government has been lax in investigating reports of abuse. Roma women face multiple discrimination and particular problems; for example, there are high rates of domestic violence and the police often fail to respond when incidents are reported. Politics are dominated by ethnic Albanian-Macedonian relations, and Roma barely participate; with two representatives in the 120-seat national parliament, they are vastly under-represented there. They are likewise almost unrepresented in employment in state institutions. A National Strategy for the Roma was adopted in 2005, but has not been implemented. The Decade of Roma Inclusion provides a framework for a range of activities to try to improve their situation.
In June 2007, a coalition of European Roma rights organizations issued the first Decade Watch report on each country’s progress toward fulfilment of its Decade Action Plan. Consolidated scoring for various aspects of the initiative showed that Hungary was making the most progress in implementing its plan across the priority areas of education, employment, housing, health and anti-discrimination. Of the nine countries assessed Macedonia was one of the poorest scorers.