Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Roma are a diverse and dispersed group, estimated by some independent organizations such as the OSCE to comprise some 20,000 people. Most speak Romani and some Serbian or Albanian as their first language. Many Roma and Ashkali people fled to Montenegro as a result of the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict, after which many were targeted by Albanians for their perceived co-operation with Serbia. Ashkali are Albanian speaking and often considered to be Roma, with whom they in any case share many cultural traditions; their exact origins are disputed.
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. Although during Tito’s rule they still faced prejudice and discrimination, Roma were in a relatively better position than before or since, both economically and in terms of support for some cultural activities.
Roma face discrimination and exclusion in all spheres of life. Unemployment is more than 40 per cent among the Roma, and those employed are usually in low-paid positions. According to the World Bank (PRSP), more than half of Montenegro’s Roma live below the poverty line, including some in extreme poverty in which they lack access to basic necessities as electricity and clean water.
Conditions are particularly appalling in informal settlements, populated mainly by Roma and Ashkali displaced from Kosovo and those who have been forcibly returned from abroad. Roma have problems with access to basic services, such as health care social assistance; these problems are exacerbated by the fact that many Roma lack personal identifications documents.
Fewer than ten per cent of Roma children attend school, and those who do are usually segregated from other children; the situation is particularly bad for Roma from Kosovo who do not speak Serbian/Montenegrin. Roma are almost unrepresented in local and national governments, and are severely underrepresented in employment in state institutions. Indirect discrimination is widespread, including by public officials. Negative stereotypes from the majority and other minorities prevail, and there are reported cases of police ill-treatment. A national strategy for integration of the Roma has been adopted, but has yet to be implemented.
Roma living in informal settlements, particularly those displaced from Kosovo, continue to face forcible eviction by the authorities, and have nowhere to turn. In the July 2006 parliamentary elections there were no Roma candidates, and in all levels of Montenegrin government, there remains only one elected Roma office-holder.
The Decade of Roma Inclusion launched by nine Central and Eastern European governments with support from the World Bank and Open Society Institute in 2005, committed signatories to ‘work toward eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society’. 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. Montenegro scored the lowest, with the report finding that it ‘has yet to embrace responsibility for developing integrated programmes or policies backed up with budget financing’.
Updated June 2015