Tensions rise over Roma resettlements in Serbia

13/04/2012

Protests against the arrival of Roma families in the Belgrade suburb of Resnik turned violent this week, highlighting the ongoing controversy over the resettlement of Roma in Serbia.

By Lily Lynch for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 13/04/12

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Residents of the Belgrade suburb of Resnik are opposed to the government's plan to relocate Roma families there. [Lily Lynch/SETimes]

The resettlement of 20 Roma families in the Belgrade suburb of Resnik is continuing to spark protests there, as the city proceeds with plans to demolish several informal, illegal Roma settlements in New Belgrade and rehouse residents throughout several suburbs.

Twelve police officers were injured in Resnik during a protest on April 8th, International Roma Day. Police officers were attacked with bottles and rocks. Two residents of Resnik were also reportedly injured. On Thursday (April 12th), the public prosecutor's office announced it would investigate the actions of 14 people suspected of spreading racial intolerance that allegedly led to the attacks.

Serbia's practice of Roma resettlement has drawn significant criticism from international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International. Much attention has focused on the forced nature of the evictions, as well as the inadequacy of the metal containers used in resettlements.

Local human rights organisations have also criticised the practice. As Jovana Vukovic, co-ordinator at the Regional Centre for Minorities explained to SETimes, "Creating new Roma-exclusive settlements results in total segregation. We should be placing Roma in housing with the rest of the community."

While in previous years, residents of municipalities slated to receive Roma have also staged protests, the events in Resnik represent the most recent -- and some of the most violent -- resistance to the ongoing resettlement of Roma to date.

Jelena Ristic, 37, a hairdresser from Resnik, told SETimes "It's the number of Roma coming here that concerns me. If it were one or two families, that would be fine."

In a public statement, Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas described the events in Resnik as "racially motivated" but said he understood that residents feared that "people who stole water, electricity and other things will move there."

Local NGOs have criticised the mayor's response. "He is constantly sending mixed messages," Vukovic said. "On the one hand, he is the only person condemning the protests as racist, which they clearly are, but he is also criminalising an entire ethnic group." Ivan Nikolic, the mayor's spokesperson, told SETimes that the mayor plans to speak with residents of Resnik once he returns to Belgrade on Friday.

Jovan Markovic, 67, a retired truck driver from Resnik, told SETimes "We are not racists. Our own Roma aren't a problem. But these new Roma are criminals."

Local Roma say their problems are not confined to Serbia. Dragan Ristic, 39, a popular Roma musician, told SETimes "With regard to Roma issues, Serbia is no better and no worse than other countries in the region."

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On March 29th, Amnesty International criticised comments made by Croatia's Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic that "explicitly linked the Roma community with crime and social problems."

An April 5th report by Amnesty International said that about 70 Roma families in Cluj-Napoca, Romania had been forcibly removed from their homes in the city centre and relocated to substandard housing on the outskirts of the city.

It has also been well documented that following the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, many Roma were forcibly resettled in camps contaminated with lead.

While Ristic says anti-Roma sentiment is nothing new, he also believes attitudes can change with time. "This is a country in transition, not only in economy and law, but also in mind," he said.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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