Discrimination against Roma in the Western Balkans before and after COVID-19

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

Discrimination against Roma is a deeply entrenched phenomenon in the Western Balkans (Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina). In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the share of Roma in the national population is 1,7%, whereas in North Macedonia the share is significantly higher with 9,6% (World Bank, 2019). For Roma, the access to education, health care, housing, and the labour market is very difficult (World Bank, 2019). Due to marginalization, Roma households are unable to accumulate sufficient “human, physical, financial and social capital (…) and to generate income over the life cycle” (World Bank, 2019). During the COVID-19 pandemic the exclusion of Roma has been exacerbated.  This article examines the ways the ethnic minority has been excluded from society at multiple levels before and after the global pandemic.

Especially children suffer from discrimination: A study (Balkan Barometer) showed that “63% of Western Balkan citizens do not want their children to share the classroom with Roma children” (RCC, 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic the shift to distance learning has worsened the situation for Roma children due to the lack of “internet, computer or electricity” (Müller et al., 2020). Home schooling may also pose a problem to Roma families as some parents are illiterate (Central Council of German Sinti & Roma, 2020). Roma children are thus more likely to “lose an entire school year or [to] drop out of education altogether” (Müller et al., 2020).

At the workplace, many citizens from the Western Balkans have a negative attitude towards Roma. The Balkan Barometer showed that “22 per cent were unhappy working together with Roma” (Müller, 2020). Moreover, the study indicated that “40% of the businesses in the Western Balkans are still reluctant to hire Roma even when they meet the criteria” (RCC, 2021). Furthermore, some respondents stated that they “would not be comfortable buying products from Roma” (Müller, 2021). This explains why the ethnic minority has difficulties to generate sufficient income. Due to COVID-19, the risk of extreme poverty rose tremendously due to “lack of income and resources” (Central Council of Sinti & Roma, 2020). Providing for their families was a serious problem and many families faced extreme poverty (Central Council of Sinti & Roma, 2020).

Before the global pandemic, access to health services was already one of the main indicators of social exclusion (Mueller, 2020). COVID-19 demonstrated the dangers of the living situation of Roma as the virus spread easily in the overcrowded Roma neighbourhoods (Central Council of Sinti & Roma, 2020). The access to water and hygienic articles was limited, so that the health status of the ethnic minortiy was very bad in comparison with the ethnic majority (Central Council of Sinti & Roma, 2020).

Women are suffering even more from discrimination. According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, 2021), women faced a “double discrimination: as members of the Roma minority and as women”. The opinion of women is less likely to be heard both in their own community and outside of their community (OSCE, 2021). Especially in politics, Roma women are very unlikely to take part in the decision-making process (OSCE, 2021).

In conclusion, the Human Rights situation in the Western Balkans has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. All generations from children to elderlies are suffering from the precarious conditions. Therefore, it is ever more important to take political action to fight against the discrimination of the ethnic minority.

Picture by Adam Nieścioruk published on Unsplash


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