Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
North Macedonia’s Roma population is still the most vulnerable minority in the country, being a community that faces both institutional discrimination and social prejudice. According to the 2002 census, 53,879 (2.7 per cent) people identified themselves as Roma, although the actual number is likely to be significantly higher: for instance, the Council of Europe has estimated that there are between 134,000 and 260,000 Roma in the country.
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 the country’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 North Macedonia, Roma cannot participate effectively in public life, which is dominated by ethnic Macedonian-Albanian relations.
Despite official recognition – Roma are explicitly mentioned as an ethnic community in the Preamble of the Constitution amended by the Ohrid Framework Agreement in 2001 – Roma remain excluded from mainstream society. Despite the legal and institutional protections already in place, discrimination remains an everyday reality for Roma. From a very early age they experience prejudice and rejection from mainstream society. Indeed, many Roma struggle to secure the full enjoyment of their economic and social rights, including the right to education, employment, adequate housing and health.
Roma children still suffer from social stigma, discrimination and segregation, and face several barriers in their access to regular and quality education and training. Pre-school enrolment of Roma children is still very low: a survey of selected Roma settlements found that only 14 per cent of Roma children aged 3-6 receives pre-school education, compared to 29 per cent of the non-Roma population living in close vicinity to them. There is also low attendance and high drop-out rates among Roma pupils. Of all the ethnic groups in North Macedonia, illiteracy levels are highest among Roma: however, there have been some signs of improvement in educational enrolment and completion among Roma students in primary and secondary schools.
Poverty is a further barrier to education: many Roma parents do not have enough money to buy clothes, shoes or school material for their children. As some of the poorest Roma households lack access to running water, making hygiene difficult, parents may choose to not send their children to school to protect them from bullying. Many Roma families also leave on seasonal work with their children, who then miss school during that period. In some traditional families, girls are encouraged to stay at home to help around the household and take care of their siblings, rather than go to school. Some children also lack the necessary documentation to be able to attend school or to receive the certificate of completion. Roma are sometimes barred from enrolment or not fully aware of the rights guaranteed them by law. In addition, Roma children and their parents are often subjected to discrimination, bullying, harassment or other forms of ill treatment at school.
Roma who do not have any personal documentation find themselves on the margins of society, at risk of statelessness, with even more limited access to basic services. Due to incomplete statistical data it is difficult to estimate the number of stateless Roma. According to estimates by the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, there are 664 persons at risk of statelessness, with around 70 per cent of them being Roma.
Discrimination against Roma in health care is still widespread and goes largely unreported. The negative experiences many go through when attempting to access health care can discourage them from engaging these services in future. While health care coverage for Roma is comparable to that of non-Roma, the services Roma receive are typically of a lower quality than the services offered for the general population. Furthermore, Roma have higher morbidity and mortality rates than the general population: this is reflected in the significantly lower average life expectancy among Roma (68 years) compared to the average of the national population (73.5 years). Discrimination by medical personnel against Roma plays a key role in their reluctance to see a doctor.
Roma women are particularly vulnerable as they face both physical and financial barriers in their access to primary gynaecological health care. They often live in remote settlements without any public transport, or the gynaecologist charges them even for services which otherwise would be free. Many Roma women do not receive any type of health education and are therefore not aware of their rights.
Roma face some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Around 28 per cent of Roma live in poor neighbourhoods, in badly constructed housing that often lacks formal registration. Overcrowding is also widespread: many Roma families live in houses with less than 5 square metres per person. This situation is made worse by the precariousness of these arrangements, with some 80,000 Roma households lacking long-term housing solutions. The frequent absence of adequate drinking water, electricity, heating or sanitation also contributes to widespread ill health.
Updated October 2020