Livelihoods – Serbia

With livelihoods devastated by the pandemic, Roma struggle to make a living

Boris Sijerkovic, Praxis

At the entrance to an informal Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade, there is a water tank. The settlement has no communal infrastructure and entire families live in small improvised houses of just a few square metres, made of various materials such as wood panels and pieces of plastic sheeting. Only occasionally some walls are made out of solid construction materials. Nylon, wrapped as makeshift insulation over the low roofs, flaps in the wind. A pack of dogs follow people down the muddy path through the settlement to the place where two brothers, Kristijan and Dusan, repair the trailers they use to collect recyclable materials.

Their vehicles often break down and are not suitable for going to areas far away from their settlement. At best, they can earn €5 a day – which, minus the cost of petrol, leaves very little to live on. Their income has become more constrained since the pandemic, when the purchase price of the materials they collect fell sharply. During the first weeks of the crisis, when a curfew was in place, they had only a limited time to collect the few materials that were available: those caught outside by police during the curfew were reportedly heavily fined.

As Kristijan and Dusan do not have permanent residence registered they do not possess identity documents – and without these they are excluded from social services. Registration of permanent residence at the address of a social welfare centre does not work in practice due to earlier situations when various bills arrived at the address of the centre in this Belgrade municipality and no one collected them. Roma in this settlement do not have any other legal basis to register permanent residence and obtain documents, so they are left unable to access their rights.

Furthermore, in settlements such as this, without electricity, water and sewerage, it is difficult to live hygienically and adhere to recommendations related to the prevention of infectious diseases. The situation during the pandemic was further aggravated when 120 Roma health mediators across Serbia stopped working. And even though there is an ongoing vaccination campaign, the brothers cannot get vaccinated themselves due to their lack of documentation, since the state does not have mechanisms to keep vaccination records for undocumented people.

The pandemic was accompanied by an economic crisis that left Roma in the settlement especially affected. ‘We were literally starving,’ says Dusan, summing up the difficulties he and other waste collectors faced during the year. Not only did they not receive any form of public assistance during the state of emergency declared at the beginning of the crisis, but they were also left without the €100 of financial support given by the authorities to adult Serbian citizens in 2020, as applying for this type of assistance required possession of a citizen’s unique personal number (JMBG) and an ID card. Similar financial assistance announced for this year, amounting to €60 in total, given in two instalments, will not be accessible to them either because of the same documentation requirements.

The pandemic has also greatly affected Roma musicians living in settlements near Vladičin Han, a poor municipality in southern Serbia. The music industry as a whole was seriously disrupted and popular festivals cancelled, including the famous Guča Trumpet Festival. According to some estimates, around 7,000 musicians in Serbia were left without work, while the limited financial relief allocated from the budget was given to a few registered performers. After the end of the state of emergency, various measures were put in place to prevent the spread of the virus, leaving musicians with limited opportunities to make an income. Although cafés, bars and restaurants are currently allowed to operate if they have outdoor seating, live music in their facilities is not allowed. Roma musicians from Vladičin Han, who make a living through performances at celebrations, have not been able to do so for over a year now. As a result of the pandemic, around 600 of them, mainly unregistered trumpet players, have been deprived of their only source of income.

In the village of Prekodolce, famous for its trumpet players, the musicians proudly state that world hits such as ‘Mesecina’ and ‘Kalasnjikov’ were created in this very village. However, everything else they have to say refers to the problems that have multiplied and become even more visible in the past year. Twenty orchestras from this village have not performed since the outbreak of the epidemic. The work has stopped, but not the bills, which continue to arrive at their addresses.

‘I was wearing one mask for months, and it gives you protection for two hours, but I did not have the money to buy a new one,’ says Ahmed. ‘Many people were infected here, many of them died. The only assistance we received was from a local Roma organization: hygienic items, food, firewood. Before the elections, the Red Cross distributed some help, oil and flour.’

There has been little improvement for these musicians since the end of the state of emergency. Residents have tried to apply for support at the social welfare centre, but they were not recognized as persons in need and most requests were rejected out of hand without being reviewed in writing. Members of their orchestra have applied for numerous jobs since the outbreak of the pandemic, with local businesses and building companies, and seasonal work, but none of them were invited for interview, let alone employed. In the meantime music, their main source of livelihood before the pandemic, remains out of bounds.

Aleksandar brings out a dusty case which has not been opened for a year. A tenor horn is inside, an instrument he was given as a part of the readmission assistance provided to returnees when he came back from Germany. This instrument fed his family. Valves have tarnished as they have not been used, refusing to move when Aleksandar touches them. ‘It should be soaked in warm water for at least two or three days,’ Ahmed advises, ‘not now, but when necessary. If we could play, we wouldn’t request social assistance. Public enforcement officers came, they record your possessions even if you are not there. They recorded someone else’s concrete mixer which they found in my yard.’

‘We are loud, that is why we don’t work,’ concludes Dragan, one of the trumpet players. ‘Someone would report us to the police for violating the prescribed measures. Owners of the restaurant won’t have us either: “You are noisy”, they say. There are nine people in our orchestra – it is too many. We cannot play quietly and earn a living if we play somewhere for a few guests. We need celebrations where 200 people gather.’

The situation in Lepenica is even worse: more than 150 musicians here have been without work for over a year. They have been trying to find some engagements online, but without success. As no one contacted them, they went to Niš, Kraljevo and other regional centres on their own, hoping to be able to play and make some money. They were rejected everywhere, and even tried their luck in small towns where they faced warnings that they would be reported to the police if someone heard them play. ‘We only spent the money we don’t have on petrol,’ says Stefan, adding that he has been trying to find work, but only physically strong and skilled workers could be employed in the construction industry. ‘They wouldn’t even hire me to do scaffolding work.’

As they are not recognized to be in a state of need, unregistered musicians mainly do not exercise the right to access social assistance. State welfare centres have discretionary powers in determining who is eligible for support. Even when they do approve assistance, they can reduce it to account for so-called ‘missed earnings’, which is the amount the beneficiary could have earned if they so wished. However, the centres are not obliged to prove that work opportunities were available. This means that arbitrary decision-making largely goes unchecked.

Of all the families in Lepenica who earned their living through music, only one or two are still able to pay their bills. Electricity and water connections have been switched off for most households. When they were left without water, they did not even have use of the municipal sewerage system. As a result of these inhumane conditions, the residents of this settlement were forced to connect illegally to water and power supply systems on their own. The employees of utility companies would then come again and take the water meters and switch off the electricity meters. Enforcement officers came to their settlement as well but there were no items of value to record or take away with them. Without electricity and internet access, most children from this settlement were not able to engage in online learning. Knowing their hardships, shopkeepers in Lepenica let many residents purchase groceries on credit, trusting that they would pay once they are able.

Trumpet players face an added stigma due to the risk associated with their instrument and its apparent ability to spread aerosols several metres. Their only hope is that eventually, once infections reduce and restrictions begin to relax, a negative PCR test or a vaccination certificate may allow them to resume work. Until then, there is an urgent need for comprehensive social assistance and additional targeted support for those worst hit by the pandemic, regardless of their registration status, to reduce the suffering brought on by the crisis and prevent further worsening inequality for the country’s most marginalized communities.


Photo: A Roma music band composed of trumpet players perform in the streets of Belgrade, Serbia. Credit: Jerome Cid/Alamy.