For a few years, I have been monitoring the rights of Roma communities living in Belgrade, paying particular attention to the resettlements taking place in order to accommodate EIB and EBRD funded projects such as the Gazela Bridge, Sava Bridge and adjacent roads.
Belgrade authorities usually resettle Roma families without proper prior notice and consultation, separating families, relocating people to far away places and in improper conditions. Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned the manner in which such resettlements are done, claiming that Serbia is breaking its international human rights obligations.
Knowing this, I was seriously taken aback by a blog entry on the EBRD website in which the bank congratulates itself for its involvement in a recycling initiative offering Roma people employment in Belgrade. While the recycling initiative is certainly laudable, what is really striking in this bit of news is the EBRD claim that the project allowed Belgrade to “become a role model for Roma social inclusion”. Really now?
I wish it were true, but unfortunately I know it’s not. The recycling center is supposed to help the reintegration of Roma, including those that have been resettled because of the construction of Gazela Bridge, planned to be financed by the EIB with the resettlement technical assistance carried out by the EBRD. The Gazela resettlements were a huge human rights scandal and a recycling center – as welcome as it is – can only be the start towards providing proper solutions for the forcefully displaced people.
And if that’s not enough, here’s what else has been happening lately in Belgrade, this “role model for social inclusion of the Roma community”:
- On 26 April this year, 100 out of more than 240 families forcibly evicted from Belgrade’s Belvil settlement (a community resettled because of constructions related to Sava Bridge) who were not Belgrade residents were bussed out of the capital and taken to towns and cities across the country. Five families that were returned to the southern Serbian city of Nis – 18 people in all, including children and a new-born baby – have had a particularly hard time. They’ve been living for a three months in an abandoned warehouse, with no proper sanitation or electricity and only a few days ago getting access to running water. For this, Amnesty International has accused the Belgrade authorities of breaking their international human rights obligations .
- As a part of resettlement processes related with both Gazela and Sava, Roma people have been resettled in metal accommodation containers on the Belgrade periphery far from their income source of recycling activities. Furthermore they are not permitted to collect or store waste items they can recycle or sell at the sites.
According to Amnesty International: “there is no work available near the container sites, which are far from the city centre, where many of the Roma collect and re-sell scrap or recyclable materials. Further, under the Gazela Resettlement Action Plan, Roma were prohibited from taking any of the scrap materials they had collected with them. In order to continue to collect and re-sell or recycle such materials, they now have to find somewhere in the centre of Belgrade to store materials. Many women who had worked as cleaners are now unable to find employment locally. Some adults have reportedly been offered work by the city authorities, but most still work collecting waste materials.“
- In the case of the Gazela Bridge, 61 families were bussed to southern Serbia from Gazela Bridge in spite of already having emigrated from there due to the lack of income opportunities. Around 114 families from Gazela Bridge were bussed to the outskirts of Belgrade and given accommodation in metal containers.
- Importantly, Serbia still lacks a national legal framework for resettlement, showing an appalling lack of political will to solve the problems of Roma and other vulnerable groups in Serbia. Belgrade still does not have an action plan for the inclusion of Roma, instead taking a piecemeal case-by-case approach, with standards depending on whether international financial institutions are involved or not (in cases where they are not, resettlement simply consists of eviction, with no alternative accommodation provided).
- Finally, according to the Serbian government, “there are some 600 Roma settlements in Serbia and over 100 in Belgrade alone”. In Belgrade alone there are around 30 000 Roma who are continue to live in substandard unhygienic settlements without adequate, or in many cases, any services.
Against this background, the recycling centre highlighted by the EBRD near the Orlovsko Naselje container settlement in the Zvezdara district started operation in 2011, with about 30 informal waste collectors – mainly Roma – organised in a co-operative, able to make some earnings through the centre. In 2012 the number of collectors is predicted to rise to between 50 and 100. This is a good start and the initiative is praiseworthy.
But inflating this small ray of light into the idea that Belgrade has in general become „a role model for social inclusion of Roma” is not only dishonest but could also make it much harder to promote Roma rights in the city. And this is because the EBRD’s clumsy publicity has already resulted in a plethora of self-congratulatory articles in the Serbian media.
In the past, whenever challenged about its lack of respect for Roma rights, Belgrade’s authorities have been quick to point to abuses in Italy, France or Hungary in order to „prove” that Belgrade is not doing that bad after all. Now, due to the EBRD’s poorly thought out headline, they will have walls of newspaper cuttings helping them to justify their kicking Roma out of their homes and even less interest than ever in listening to human rights defenders.
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