National minorities represent 16.98% of the total population in Serbia. According to the data from the last census, the Roma represent the second largest national minority with a 2.05% share in the total population.

The official number of Roma in Serbia is 147,604 while unofficial data according to the strategy for improving the position of Roma indicate that there are much more, about 500,000.

A state of emergency was declared in Serbia on March 15 2020, and since then, the government has adopted measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Serbia. The most important measure was the restriction and prohibition of movement. The purpose of the measures should be to protect the citizens, but the reality shows something else. What happens to those who do not have equal starting position in the race for a better position in society? When the virus (COVID-19) affect the Roma communities in Europe, we can assume that it will cause great damage because Roma are the most vulnerable in the pandemic crisis. Events in Europe, in recent years, have clearly shown that the Roma are a significantly more vulnerable group when it comes to such events due to limited access to clean water and sewage, hygiene products, the ability to implement self-isolation measures in multigenerational families.

Taking COVID-19 into account, the crisis has contributed to the deterioration of the already existing situation towards an even greater catastrophe. Daily experience was a permanent crisis even without COVID-19, but with COVID-19 it got even worse. The measures taken so far have failed to reflect the circumstances of the difficult situation of the Roma, especially in terms of health and living conditions. Most Roma could not buy medicine, a large number could not perform their daily activities due to their chronic illnesses or disabilities, while some could not even access health insurance due to the intolerance of institutions, housing conditions in which it is impossible to practice preventive measures, lack of sanitation nodes and drinking water, as well as the inability to access sewage networks. During the pandemic, epidemiologists pointed out the importance of prevention and hygiene, which would mean that in this situation everyone must have access to water and access to electricity, because at the time of the pandemic it meant life, a precondition for hygiene and respect for imposed measures. However, according to the OSCE, there are currently 5,000 Roma families in Serbia without access to drinking water.

In short-term, humanitarian aid is not the answer to these questions when the crisis lasts for almost a year. It can help the most vulnerable, only on short time period, but it is not the only answer to this situation.

A research was conducted in 48 municipalities in Serbia with the purpose of understanding the effects of COVID-19 in the Roma community. The sample of research includes members of the Roma community from 48 locations throughout Serbia, a Chat Bot survey via the Facebook page of Opre Roma Serbia (1128 respondents) and reports from the conducted dialogues in 48 locations, as well as phone interviews. Results show that in relation to social measures – many among Roma are without savings and the opportunity to live longer without income, especially given the high unemployment rate (80%, while the majority population is 9%) and the large percentage of Roma working in the informal economy. The aid that was provided to the population was short term in a crisis that lasted almost a year. As far as Education is concerned – Roma children did not have access to technology and the Internet to be able to follow online classes, parents weren’t ready to face the challenges of distance learning and support children in the process. The educational system didn’t cover all the students who don’t have smart devices for online learning. The Roma economy will have the most negative consequences from COVID-19 because most Roma work in the informal economy and most measures taken by the state bypass them, as well as most Roma do jobs that depend on being in public places, which was forbidden during most of the crisis due to isolation. When it comes to Security – COVID-19 also affected the safety of Roma because of the amiss situation in the country, which increased hate speech against Roma because they were forced to disregard certain quarantine measures at their own risk. For Roma who were forced to leave their homes in order to provide for their families, and thus disrupt the process of self-isolation, they would face sanctions from the state and would be called irresponsible citizens. It’s hard to maintain the pandemic outside Roma settlements, in the case of Roma families because Roma have large families in a small living space without the possibility of self-isolation of those with symptoms.

Apart from the humanitarian aid, which was composed of food and hygiene items and one-time financial aid, the measures did not correspond in proportion to the risks faced by the Roma. In a situation where we still have settlements where Roma families do not have drinking water and electricity, the state measures have responded mainly to support health and the formal economy to preserve formal jobs in the private sector, provide liquidity, exchange rate stability, support the most affected sectors such as tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the problems of the Roma community, increased them, but also showed that the previous situation was no better.


Milena Reljic

Opre Roma Serbia