Roma people between security and insecurity in Serbia

Miroslav Brkic, PhD
Department of Social Work and Social Policies
Faculty of Political Sciences
University of Belgrade

Andrijana Djuric
Social worker
Department of Social Welfare
President Peoples Office



According to estimations the Roma population constitutes the largest national minority in Serbia. However, the population size of the Roma is not in correlation with their power. From a legal perspective they are accepted as national minority; they are equal to the other citizens in their rights and obligations, though many indicators also show that the Roma population is the largest marginal group in Serbia. Unsatisfactory socio-economic conditions, unsatisfactory educational and employment status, lack of health education, and lack of national identity, on the one hand, and lack of proactive outgoing actions on the other hand have resulted in the Roma falling between security and insecurity in Serbia.



Some indicators of marginalization

Roma people have never featured in official statistical analyses, which is one of the indicators of their marginal position. According to statistical analyses, we only have estimations about their numbers, structures, and socio-economic and educational status. According to estimations by Matica Romska (a cultural and literate association of the Roma) there are about 550,000–650,000 Roma people in Serbia. By contrast, the European Roma Rights Centre (EERC), the Minority Rights Group International, and the Federal Ministry for the National and Ethnics Community have estimated that there are about 380,000–430,000 Roma people in Serbia. According to official statistics there are 108,193 Roma people in Serbia. However, it is reasonable to presume that there are about 300,000 Roma in Serbia.


There is a high proportion of young people in the Roma population, which is another indicator of marginalization, and the result of the high high birth rate (due to low levels of health and sexual education) and high mortality (due to extreme poverty).



The United Nations Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has estimated that about 80% of the Roma population are living together under conditions of poverty in colonies in Belgrade; 65% of these live in unsanitary shacks. Further, two-thirds of Roma people have neither water nor toilets in their houses (United Nations Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs, 2002).


Health status

Compared with the domicile population, the Roma’s health status is characterized by higher mortality rates among children, and the presence of ‘social illnesses’: malnutrition, pneumonia, intestinal infections, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and venereal diseases (Oxfam, 2003).



According to estimates only 20% of the working population of Roma are employed. About 3% of men and 1.5% of women work in the public sector. Oxfam has estimated that the salary of an employed Roma man is about one-third that of the average income in Serbia. The percentage of those receiving financially support among the Roma is 60%, in contrast to the Serbian average of 37% (Oxfam, 2003).



Estimations indicate that over 50% of Roma people have not received primary education. About 10% of Roma continue with schooling beyond primary level education, 0.8 % of total number of those who are going to school, continue with higher education and 78% of total number of those who are going to schoo,l drop out, (Jaksic & Basic, 2002).



Marginalization etiology

The marginal status of the Roma is primarily caused by the structural factors – disharmony between cultural aims and the means for their realization. Roma have been living in Serbia as a national minority for a long time and they have accepted the basic society aims (for instance, to be rich, successful and respected). In this regard, Roma people are integrated into the community. The problem lies in the inaccessibility of legal measures, which could help in achieving the desired aims. Mechanisms which can provide social promotion (horizontal and vertical mobility) and equal possibilities in education and employment are not equally accessible to the domicile and the Roma. Disharmony between emphasized aims and legal measures for their realization contribute to the marginal status of the Roma. According to Merton’s theory of Anomie, people can react to the disharmony between cultural aims and legal measures in five typical ways (Merton, 1968). One of these is ‘innovation’. An innovator accepts cultural aims but rejects legal measures. Rejecting is not usually a matter of freedom but a result of the facts – inaccessibility of legal measures. In the case of the Roma, innovation can be regarded as the ‘capability of surviving’. This position has contributed to the Roma continuing to fall into a grey category, between legal – illegal (e.g. green economy, providing different kinds of unproductive services, fortunetelling). Innovation as a process, which has historical genesis, partly explains some of the ethnical characteristics of the Roma, which are established on the basis of stereotypes such as ‘shrewdness’, ‘mobility’, etc.


Innovation is a mechanism for survival, not for integration. Inaccessibility to legal means for the realization of cultural aims relates to the ineffective social protective system, and contributes to the fact that most of the Roma live in extreme poverty



Obstacles to the Roma’s integration

There are many objective and subjective obstacles to the integration of the Roma. The main ones are identified as follows.


Lack of consciousness and group-identification

The majority of Roma are not aware of their position, hence their fatalistic acceptance as a product of the fact that they are Roma. Their position is determined by virtue of their birth.


Generally, they are not conscious of the fact that they belong to their own separate community. They are further subdivided into different religious and ethnic Roma subgroups: Orthodox, Muslim, Serbian, Egyptian, Romanian, and Hungarian, and their respective different interests are a cause of the high degree of their disunity.


Many successful Roma people have broken their former relationship with their origin and their community. They commonly say:”I’m not interested in Roma’s problems”or “ These are gypsies’ jobs”.Returning to Merton’s theory, it can be concluded that in many situations when the Roma realize their cultural aims, they no longer want to be members of their original groups, and instead want to be members of the domicile groups.



Many Serbian people think that they do not have stereotypes. They usually say: ‘I know many Roma, some of them want to work and they have money, but most of them do not want to work. We are tolerant; we accept national minorities better than some democratic societies. The problem is not ours, it is theirs,and they are used to being helped. They usually say: give me, give me.


The fact is that many Serbian people do not recognize that they are stereotyping. If their children do not respect them or obey them, they say: ‘If you do not obey the rules, Roma people will take you’. Also, if their children are dirty, they will say: ‘You are as dirty as a Roma child. Serbs are not aware that they raise their children in such a way that they create stereotypes of the Roma people. They frighten their children though their references to Roma people; they teach their children that Roma people are dirty, lazy, and that they should not be on friendly terms with them. If one asks people in Serbia what the first thing is that they think of when somebody mentions Roma, then probably the same responses will be given: namely, that Roma are musicians, dirty, fortunetelling, etc. The answers are almost always the same. Thus, it is possible to surmise that only a few responses will be given by, for example, colleagues at work, neighbours, close friends, teachers, etc.


In the first place, these responses inform us that most people in Serbia do not see Roma’s as a part of their society, i.e. with whom they are sharing something else besides being resident in Serbia. Secondly, the first information that we can expect to learn about the Roma is customarily in the form of prejudice or stereotyping.


A particular problem is that a great number of professionals (social workers, etc.) hold prejudices. In 2003, as a part of a final examination, a survey was conducted in Serbia, and this confirmed the prejudices of social workers.The general conclusion is that the majority of social workers lack sufficient information concerning the Roma’s problems, their way of life, traditions, value systems, etc. Further, in response to the question ‘Do you think that you have enough information about the Roma, their way of life and traditions in a way that you can successfully work with them?’, 70% said ‘Yes’, and 30% said ‘No’. However, further analysis has showed that there is no difference between most of social workers questioned and most of the common people when they consider what they know about the Roma. Both groups qualify their prejudices as knowledge. They share the same prejudices about the Roma, for example that the Roma are lazy, that they do not like to work, and that they are used to being helped; the only positive view held is that the Roma are the best musicians.


When social workers were questioned about codes of profession and the other matters closely related to their work their answerstended to be similar. For example, in reply to the question ‘Are you familiar with the New Minority Law?’, 80% said ‘Yes’ and 20% said ‘No’. 80% is the same number, 80% of social workers said Yes, I am familiar with concept of affirmative action or positive discrimination. However, when requested to give an explanation of this concept their answers revealed the opposite. The purpose of the concept of the Law is to minimize differences in start positions. The main aim is rejection of circumstances that locate Roma people on the margins of society. This means enacting standards that define ways of treating discriminated persons, in this case, the Roma people. The forms of treatment will cease when the average economic and social conditions of Roma people become equal with average conditions of other citizens in Serbia.

Further, returning to the research results, the number of 80% of those who are familiar with concept of affirmative action can be questioned, since their explanations of meaning of this concept were:

a) Affirmation in education (30%)

b) Upgrading of Roma’s life (20%)

c) Affirmation of something, or somebody (20%)

d) Action in local community with purpose of promoting equal conditions (10%)

e) Cannot explain (20%)

Analysis of the results showed that the social workers interviewed hold prejudices about the Roma, which in turn informed about their private life. For example, most of them do not have Roma as their friends, and they gave very negative comments about having family relations with the Roma, etc. Possible explanations for their responses are related to their private opinions being negative, and to their profession. The majority of them held the attitude: ‘my job is work with people, I have experience and I knowthat kind of people’. Thus, if they have prejudices about the Roma, they will use their professional position to express their private opinions, for example, the helping the Roma is mostly a pointless mission:

Claim: Giving financial help to the Roma is a bottomless pit.

AC – absolutely correct (20%), PC – partially correct (80%), AI – absolutely incorrect (0%)


Claim: The Roma are manipulators of others.

AC (40%), PC (40%), AI (20%)


Claim: The Roma are bearing children, but they do not think about who will take care of them.

AC (10%), PC (70%), AI (20%)


Claim: Being Roma means being discriminated against.

AC (0%), PC (20%), AI 80%

Although these were the results of a student survey (and thus may reflect lack of experience), these results should nevertheless be taken as basis for future research and action. Entity and matter of profession imply that the roles of social workers are empowering: advocacy of marginalized groups. The question is whether this can be achieved this if social workers are loaded with stereotypes and prejudices. As average citizens, professionals are not aware of their prejudices. They do not have enough knowledge about the Roma’s history, traditions, language, andvalue orientation. However, the basic question remains one of whether they can successfully work with Roma people.


Social protection system

Unlike most of the former socialist states, the professionalisation of social workers in Serbia commenced immediately after World War II. In 1957 the College for Social Work was founded in Belgrade and soon after similar institutions began appearing in the rest of the ex-Yugoslav urban centres (Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo). This led to the formation of Centres for Social Work in the early 1960s, as basic units for social protection organized on the territorial principle. Subsequently, these Centres took on a wide range of responsibilities in the domain of social work and family law and protection. At the same time, centres for social work took on a guardianship role which was characterized by zastiti licnosti, namely, ownership and other rights, care, education, i.e. enablement for independent existence for children without parental care and for individuals who do not have the ability to work.


With the integration of professional, government and legal affairs, the Centre for Social Work in time developed into an institution that primarily dealt with the recognition of rights in the domain of social and family legal protection. A multidisciplinary team of professionals (social workers, psychologists, educators, lawyers) organized within a set of categories (for example, teams for children without parental care, children in conflict with law, individuals without material sustenance) determined the needs of the client and the available social and family legal body of resources. In practice, this meant that the work of the professional did not result in an assessment of the type and content of the client’s needs, but the determination of whether and what law-given right is applicable to their case, i.e. in respect to the category they belong to. This factor rendered the institution and the system inadequate. The client was not assessed in terms of his/her needs but in terms of categorization which determined in advance the available means and activities. At the same time, the client was not offered one individual professional to work with in solving his/her problem but rather had to work with a team or a whole organization. This resulted in collective and not individual professional responsibility. In total, this allowed for both the clients and the professionals to be in a passive position, the first accepting available and/or passive forms of family legal protection, and the latter applying them in accordance with the law.


In addition to this essentially inefficient and, in terms of the client, distant approach, there are also the characteristics of the political system in Serbia. High level of centralization in fact means that the municipality and local community as a whole are out of tune with the needs of the citizen. Formally, the legal founder of the Centre is the municipality, which is obliged to provide for the material operability of the Centre. In fact, the Centre is in a vacuum between two spheres of power, being highly dependent upon central Government (in terms of funds, electing of directors, monitoring of work). This inefficiency and inflexibility has furthered increased the Centres’ distancing from the citizens. Similar situations can be found in other government departments (health, education, etc.), which find themselves to a high degree dependent upon central Government. As a result, the systems run partially uncoordinated and without an adequate set of services at the local level that are directed towards a holistic answering to the needs of the citizens.


Simultaneous with the democratic changes in Serbia, also commenced the reform of the social protection system. The decentralization of the system, development of professional standards in the domain, establishment of a coordinated inter-institutional cooperation, the development of a set of services that are to be made available to the citizen from both the government and non-government sector (profit and non-profit), are the basic aims of the reform. The strategy and action plans are currently being drawn up, to define precisely the ways in which the priorities are to be achieved by 2010. Further to this essentially inefficient, and – in terms of the client – distant approach, are also the characteristics of the political system in Serbia.


Because of their poverty, many of the Roma people make use of the social protection system. They frequently fall into the categories of poor people, children without parental care, and children in a conflict with the law. The Roma very rarely fall under the category of elderly people because they have short lives. The latter are further indicators of marginalization.


All users of the social protection system are passive, without any possibility to actively participate in their protection. Many generations of Roma have taken advantage of the right to financial help. In Serbia, this is labelled as a ‘dynasty right’. Financial help is very small and insufficient for extensial needs; it cannot change the life of the poor groups. The Roma are used to receiving financial help and they usually accept it as one of their main rights. They are helpless, passive and oppressive, without any power to change their lives. If we want to change not only the Roma’s position but also the position of all other users of social protection we must change the system; it must become more effective.


Although the social protection system is moving towards being more effective, currently the main characteristics of the system in Serbia are:

  • centralization; dependence on local government (local services) of central administration
  • administrative work has priority over professional work
  • paternal character of services, which produces passive and irresponsible users
  • focus on consequences rather than on causes
  • absence of adequate cross-sector cooperation
  • absence of social network.


New National Minority Law

Two years ago, the Federal Government adopted a new National Minority Law. For the first time in Serbian history, the Roma became a national minority. In conforming to this status minorities have new rights:

  • A right to use their native language.
  • If national minorities constitute 15% of the total population in the territory of the local community, the local government will provide a bilingual service.
  • National minorities have a right to establish cultural, artistic and scientific institutions as associations, which aim is to store and develop national and ethnic characteristics.
  • National minorities have a right to have secondary education in a native language.
  • National minorities have a right to higher education in a native language.
  • National minorities have a right to establish private education institutions, schools or universities in the language of the national minority.
  • National minorities have a right to set up newspapers, and radio and television companies.
  • National minorities have a right to establish a National Council, the task of which is to realize the rights of autonomy in the use of a native language and alphabet, education, information, and culture.
  • The Federal Government can pass particular regulations in accordance with a constitution and a law, the aim of which is to provide full and effective equality between national minorities and the rest of the nation. TheFederal Government will pass regulations and measures which aim to improve the position of the Roma population.

The fact that the State recognizes the Roma as a national minority is very important for the latter in terms of to improving the Roma’s position. It is a matter of the utmost importance that the Government accepts the unequal status of the Roma populations and promises to pass new regulations and measures which will improve the Roma’s status.


The first results are clear. The National Council has been founded at both national and local level. There are some current problems in its work, such as a division between the Roma and Roma associations, unclear operative aims, absence of strategic approaches, etc., but the National Council has made a start and its first step is to take on responsibility for the Roma’s lives. In big centres (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad) they have established Roma TV, radio stations, and newspapers.


According to Roma’s NGOs, which have been founded during the last five years, the majority of Roma children have been included in pre-school training. However, the Roma characteristically lack organisation, have an absence of networking, and there is division among individual interests and group interests.


While progress has been made, on the whole it is only a drop in the ocean. The majority of the Roma do not have any knowledge about the New Minority Law. They live in extreme poverty, without education, jobs, money, or adequate accommodation. Consequently, the Law has little practical significance for them.



What can we do?

In general, the Roma are not fully aware of national affiliation. This is the basic reason why they do not take advantage of some of the rights available to them, such as the right to bilingualism. According to estimations in some municipalities (Surdulica, Vladicin Han), more than 15% of the populations are Roma. Officially, they are not registered as Roma, rather they are usually registered as Serbs. Although the Roma are politically organized and there are some political parties, 1 they do not have a significant impact on the political life in Serbia. Further, as mentioned previously, some Roma who have become successful in their jobs break off relationships with their communities. This means that generally the Roma do not have educated members who can advocate the interests of their national minority. Hence, these are the reasons for the main roles of social workers to empower, to advocate and to make the Roma more conscious of their situation.


Roma people should become more aware of their origin, their national affiliation, and their power. They must abandon their fatalistic approach and realize that their position is caused by structural factors and also by absence of personal and collective responsibility for their own lives. They have to become more active in order to meet their own needs. These are the facts, but the basic question is how to achieve this and to identify what the mechanisms are.


First, with regard to education, some research has shown that about 78% of Roma children drop out of schools. 2 Systematic pre-school training is necessary. Estimations have shown that only 7–10% of Roma children attend pre-school training, 37% do not speak Serbian, and 46% of total number do not have the basic knowledge necessary for attending the first class. These reasons contribute to the fact that the Roma’s children attend special schools more often than Serbian children. 3 Increasing parents’ awareness of the importance of education is a long-term process. Only when their children get good jobs, decent salaries, and advocate the interests of their national minority will they become aware of the benefits of education. We have to create Roma leaders, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and social workers who will support their interests, fight against prejudices and represent a positive model of the Roma identity.


In accordance with the anti-discriminative and anti-oppression perspectives, social workers should initiate Roma self-organizations and establish Roma coalitions which should include political influence. The Roma have to become empowered but they cannot achieve this alone. Helpless people cannot make significant changes in their lives without powerful support. Social workers have to participate actively in improving the Roma’s lives, and they must take professional and human responsibility. They must be partners, who will abandon a neutral position. Realization of these roles is currently prevented by the stereotyping and prejudices held by social workers. A probable prerequisite for this is increasing their levels of awareness and education. To do so, they must learn about the Roma’s history, tradition, culture, values, and the Roma’s power. This is the reason why The Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of Social Work and Social Policies, University of Belgradeare planning to establish a faculty course on ‘Social work with the Roma’, and simultaneously organize training for social workers’ education.


The Roma will continue to make use of social protection systems for a long time. Therefore, we should develop social work with the Roma as a part of the principle of affirmative action (‘positive discriminations’). The most important task is to motivate and educate the Roma for undertaking social work. Roma people need Roma social workers, though there are only a few Roma social workers at present. Only Roma social workers can completely understand their own nation, their fears, the stereotyping and prejudices they face, and their power.


Social protection systems cannot improve the Roma’s life situation without multi-sector cooperation and support. Local communities should play a more active role. According to the model of community organization, which is the basic model of social work community, the Department of Social Services should realize functions of ‘coordination and synchronization among different sectors which aim to reduce double activities and spend limited resources’ (Popple, 2000: 59). This means developing a system of management in the Department of Social Services which understands the need to:

  • assess Roma’s community needs
  • identify current services, gaps in services, doubling-up of activities
  • undertake systematic, multi-sector planning to meet Roma’s needs.

In this regard, the project ‘Development of social protection functions of local community to meet Roma’s needs’ has tried to establish basic conditions for continuing a multi-sector approach in meeting Roma’s needs, based on the responsibility of both the local community and the Roma population. The main aims of the project are:

  • establishing cooperation between public and non-profit sectors
  • development of social work with Roma people
  • development of Roma population resources to meet their own needs
  • foundation of Roma community centres as organizational entities in which the Roma population will identify and satisfy their own needs
  • make a strategic plan for meeting Roma’s needs at local community level.

The project has been realized in three municipalities where a significant number of the Roma live. In each of these municipalities a council has been founded to meet Roma’s needs. The members of the council are from different sectors: two Roma leaders, two professionals from Department of Social Services, and members of the local government, public health institution, schools, and employment bureau. The three councils have planned and implemented actions to meet Roma’s needs. The fields of action are: identification of health needs of Roma children and providing obligatory vaccinations, organizing pre-school training for Roma children, organizing additional help for Roma pupils (this help should include drop-out children), informing Roma people about their rights, helping the Roma to find employment, organizing programs for their retraining, promoting Roma culture and traditions, providing different kinds of material aid, etc. All of these actions have been realized in cooperation with the local government, the Department of Social Services, Roma non-governmental organizations, and other services (health, education, labour). Ideally, Roma councils should develop a strategic plan to satisfy Roma needs in local communities. Such plans would be accepted by the local government, which would also take partial responsibility for their implementation.


Centres of Roma communities have been founded in each of the municipalities. The local government has provided offices and computers. Two of the Roma’s leaders haveadministered the activities of the Roma centres. The centres are open for four hours a day. Professionals from different sectors (social services, local government, the health service, education, labour market), plan activities, provide counselling, give support, and offer help (humanitarian aid). Roma and non-Roma volunteers have been included in all activities of the Roma centres. If the Roma Community Centres were to become organizational entities, this would bring together Roma people, support their interests, and provide systematic actions in order to improve their status.


There are some professionals in each municipality who have been developing social work with Roma people.The former have been trained in anti-discriminative and anti-oppressive perspectives, strategic and action planning, advocacy, negotiation, and fund-raising. Their job includes: advocating the Roma’s interests; mobilizing other professionals and to include them in their work with Roma people; mobilizing Roma youths to study social work and to undertake other similar studies; initiating the establishing of Roma NGOs and coalitions, to fight against prejudices and stereotypes; and planning and implementing programs to improve the Roma’s position.


Improving the Roma’s position is a long-term process. Taking this into consideration, we have formed a Strategy Team which has the task of making a draft strategy plan proposing the administrative and legislative reforms and promoting integration of Roma populations into the social and economic framework of the country (Strategy Team 2004). The Strategy Team takes responsibility for issues related to: education, housing, access to public services (education, health and social welfare), economic improvement and employment. It also takes responsibility for personal documentation, the specific situation of Roma IDPs (Internally Displaced Peoples), and women’s and children’s welfare. Four additional issues have subsequently been added: political participation, media, culture, and the situation of Roma asylum-seekers who have returned from Western Europe. The draft strategy plan focuses primarily upon the protection and promotion of the human rights of the Roma, and, in particular, upon freedom from discrimination. Nine Expert Groups, whose members are exclusively Roma people, have set up the following sectors of the draft strategy plan: Education, Economic Improvement, Social and Health Welfare, Women, IDPs, Media and Information, Political Participation, Anti-Discrimination and Housing. The number of Roma experts participating in the Expert Groups had increased to nearly 70 by the third meeting in 2004. Roma community experts have raised several issues and their recommendations have been integrated in the strategy draft. The recommendationsof European Union and the Council of Europe regarding Roma’s participation have been included in the draft strategy plan. The Roma National Council has adopted the strategy plan. The Ministry of National and Ethnic Communities is expected to accept the strategy plan for 2005 It will be the first step in meeting Roma’s needs in Serbia.




Different obstacles, prejudices and stereotypes that have existed for centuries cannot be removed in five, ten or fifteen years. If we want to achieve satisfactory results, much effort, patience and energy needs to be expended, and many changes made at different levels (state, localcommunity, services, professionals, Roma, citizens). The Serbian state has an obligation to ensure equal possibilities for all citizens. Under the new National Minority Law, the State has accepted that the Roma people have had an unequal position in the past. This recognition is very important. With the aid of the strategic plan we can start resolving Roma’s problems. Accordingly, we have to develop both a national and a local strategy for the Roma people, and take steps and measures to implement it gradually into practice. This is the only option, and unless we do this, all we have done to date will have little value.


Djuric, A. (2003), Prejudices of social workers as an obstacles in work with Roma, student work, Fakultet politickih nauka, Beograd.


Djuric, A. (2003), Prejudices of social workers


Jaksic, B. & Baši? G. (2002), Roma colony, living conditions and possibility for integration Roma people in Serbiai, Centar za istra?ivanje etniciteta, Beograd.


Jaksic,Basic 2002


Merton, R. (1968), Anomie, and social interaction, Free Press, New York.


Popple, K. (2000). Analysing Community Work: Its Theory and Practice, Buckingham-Philadelphia, Open University Press.


Strategy Team, 2004 Strategy for the Integration and Empowerment of the Roma, Belgrade.


New Minority Low, Savezno Ministarstvo nacionalnih i etni?kih zajednica, Beograd, 2002.


Oxfgam 2003 Roma’s Health, Final Report, Beograd.

United Nations Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs, 2002





1. Roma’s Democratic Party, Roma’s Congress Party, Democratic League of Roma.


2. A project proposal of the Ministry of Education for the donators to support ‘Supplements for Roma’ children in elementary schools’.


3. The percentage of Roma out of the total number of children in special schools is 50–80%.


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