EU funds are expected to improve life for many Roma in the region.
By Bojana Milovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 20/09/12
Many Roma continue to live in poverty, such as in this slum in Belgrade. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]
The Serbian government has initiated numerous projects to improve life for the estimated 500,000 Roma in Serbia, but critics said the results are far from satisfactory as many Roma continue to live in poverty and be disproportionately affected by unemployment.
"In the past few years, the state secured between 50 and 70 million euros for improving the position of the Roma, but the effects are not as noticeable as they should be," Srdjan Sajn, a Roma MP in the Serbian parliament, told SETimes.
While the deepening economic crisis and budget deficit have narrowed the government's maneuvering room, officials said the EU pre-accession funds will provide much needed relief.
"In 2012, Serbia has 5 million euros from the EU's pre-accession funds at its disposal to enhance the position of the Roma, which will, in a way, secure funds for everything the state cannot provide due to the difficult economic situation," Stefana Lukic, representative of Serbia's European Integration Office, told SETimes.
Lukic said the key problems to be addressed are developing local services, improving education and housing and registering Roma in the birth, death and marriage registries.
"We will provide 4,000 scholarships for high school education, since preschool and higher level education are already included in this type of aid," Lukic said.
Elsewhere in the region, austerity measures continue to hit the poorest populations hardest, especially the Roma.
The Roma in Bulgaria are nearly 10 percent of the population, but constitute almost half of the country's poorest citizens. Similarly, half of the Roma in Montenegro live in poverty. In Romania, the Roma are 2.5 percent of the population but account for 12.5 percent of the extremely poor.
Experts said the situation in Serbia is compounded by the fact most of the 30,000 citizens without personal documents are Roma, which prevents them from exercising their rights and claiming benefits.
Sajn, however, argued the new amendments to the laws regulating issuance of personal IDs should enable those without personal documents to obtain them quickly and easily.
He added that any funds earmarked for Roma integration should be monitored so that it is ensured they are properly assigned and spent.
Dragan Jovanovic, a Roma who works at the Belgrade Sanitation company, said his family lives a decent life, but many of his compatriots face a hard struggle.
"It is not easy, there is no work and therefore not enough money. Before I got a job at Belgrade Sanitation, I would spend a long time looking for employment and there were some who did not want to hire me because I am Roma," Jovanovic told SETimes.