Back “home” – not welcomed at a foreign place

“Of course, Germany during the Nazi-regime was also a country of safe origin – for Germans […]. For Jews it was slightly more complicated.”

Rudko Kawczynski, panel discussion Berlin, April 7, 2016 (own translation)

The majority of Roma who made it to Germany is sooner or later forced to return to Serbia. Since the chances to be accepted are extremely low, authorities recommend them to return ‘voluntarily’.[1] If they don’t agree, they will be deported and won’t be allowed to enter Germany again for several years.

Yet despite various attempts to support the inclusion of ‘voluntarily’ returning or deported Roma, their unemployment rate in Serbia is still around 70 percent. [2]

97.9 percent of returnees claim, that their income does not cover their need for daily food supply, health and hygiene products, the public transportation or school related fees. Almost 60 percent are planning to again live abroad.

For many returnees, the circumstances are worse than before they left, as they sold all they had to pay for their journey to Germany or their homes were destroyed while they were gone, so they even lost the little they earlier owned.

In Serbia, where 20 percent of citizens are living below the poverty line, Roma are the poorest of the poor. [3] While statistics talk about 147,000 Roma, official estimations mention numbers between 400,000 and 800,000 Roma in Serbia. All of them are faced with social marginalisation, discrimination and even hostility. [4]


The diverse and complex problems which Roma face in the Western Balkans often start with missing documents. Around 7 percent of Roma in Serbia are not registered and therefore legally invisible. [5] Since many of the parents don’t posses an identity card, their children also can’t be registered.[6] Without a birth certificate and personal documents it is furthermore impossible to register a residence. Without a residence certificate they are not eligible for social support or health insurance and can’t apply for an identity card or be registered as unemployed. More than 13,000 Roma can’t proof their residence, [7] as many of them moreover live in illegal settlements, which can’t be registered for living.

“In most settlements there are a few buildings, which are legal. So people go and register for these buildings – in some of these buildings 2,000 people are registered!”

Roma Student Organisation Novi Sad


There are several reasons for a low educational level of Roma in Serbia. For one fifth of the settlements schools not accessible.[8] As kids are discriminated against by other pupils, parents and teachers because of their origin there is also a lack of motivation to go to school. In general, there are many families who not only can’t afford all the necessary materials their kids need in school, but also don’t have running water at home so it is very difficult for them to have clean clothes or wash themselves, which creates an additional obstacle to go to school as they’re afraid of further exclusion and discrimination.[9] Only 4 to 7 percent of Roma children attend preschools. Around one quarter of the children finishes elementary school. Around 10 percent attend high school and less then 1 percent makes it to college or university.[10]

A severe problem of the education system is the segregation of Roma children. On the one hand, there are separate classes for Roma children at regular schools, but on the other hand, many Roma are simply sent to attend special classes for children with learning disabilities or even separate schools for physically or mentally handicapped children.[11] 30 percent of Roma children attend special schools, in which they sometimes make up 80 percent of the class.[12]

A consequence of only few children attending school and a high quota of children dropping out of school is that estimated 80 percent of Serbian Roma are not able to read or write.[13]

Another obstacle for returnee’s children is that because of not being able to speak Serbian, they are not able to attend schools because of the language barrier.[14]


The low level of education, the lack of educational attainments and documents and social prejudices are the main reasons for extraordinarily high unemployment rates among Roma in Serbia.[15] 70 to 80 percent are working in the informal sector or have timely limited jobs and hence are unsecured in the case of illness, when loosing their job or retiring. [16] 20 to 40 percent live from collecting and selling recyclable materials such as metal or cardboard. [17] One ton of cardboard, collected by two persons within at least two weeks, can be sold for 1,500 Dinar (approx. 12 Euro). A new law passed in 2010 to adjust the waste system to EU-norms led to the introduction of underground containers, which often makes it impossible for Roma to collect the materials and make a living.

The unemployment rate in Serbia during the past ten years was on average 20 percent.[18] Therefore, even qualified Roma are struggling to find a job, since open positions are more preferably given to non-Roma. There are seven Roma doctors in Serbia, none of them is able to work in his profession. [19]

“ Maybe Serbia is a safe country, but the Roma are marginalised. The few resources that are available are not for them. They do the worst jobs. They are not lazy, they just don’t have a chance. And their kids don’t go to school, because they work. All they need is a chance.”

Roma Student Organisation, Novi Sad

Roma with a regular job earn on average 48 percent less than non-Roma.[20]

Life & Health

The majority of Roma in Serbia lives in provisional settlements. There are estimated 850 settlements, around 140 in Belgrade alone. 70 percent of the settlements are illegal. One third is without connections to drinking water, in 60 to 70 percent there is no sewage system and 35 percent are lacking electricity.[21] Furthermore, the settlements are not connected to infrastructure, which often results in a missing access to education or health care.

Due to bad hygienic and sanitary conditions the chance of a Roma child surviving the first year is one third less than the Serbian average. The child mortality rate is four times the average. Often the necessary documents to receive medial treatments are missing. Moreover, 70 percent of Roma is even in case of seeing a doctor not able to pay for the prescribed medication.

Only rarely Roma have access to social housing. The protest within the population is strong when hearing that Roma will move to their neighbourhood.

Especially in winter life in the settlements is a struggle to survive. Therefore, many Roma try each year to look for shelter in Western Europe. [22] Even though they know that they won’t be accepted as refugees, they hope to be able to spend the winter in a refugee camp.

EU-initiated programmes usually show just little impacts and only improve the situation for a few people.[23]


In the course of infrastructure projects and city development and renewal, particularly in Belgrade many evictions of Roma settlements took place within the recent years.[24] Around 2,500 Roma from 17 settlements have been faced by evictions since 2009; without sustainable relocation plans or compensation. Some of the families still live in container settlements, which were only meant to be a temporary solution, other families were sent back to their home communities, which they left because there aren’t any working opportunities.

Often the people didn’t have enough time to take their belongings and did not receive any compensation payments and lost their work, as e.g. the container settlements are far outside the city, which makes even the garbage collection impossible.

Discrimination and Hostility

Discrimination due to ethnicity is very common in Serbia. In 2009, an antidiscrimination law has been passed, but the implementation is unsatisfactory. [25] Often Roma are denied access to public spaces like clubs, swimming pools, shopping centres or even McDonalds.

Frequently skinheads or football hooligans attack Roma settlements with Molotov cocktails or arson, or directly attack people – even children. The aggressors are usually very young.

The Serbian police does no respond efficiently to racist motivated violence. Often they arrive very late, treating the Roma not as victims but perpetrators.[26] The penalties for racist motivated violence are generally rather low and therefore don’t encourage people to complain.

The abuse of power is a general problem concerning the police: More than 200 of 300 prisoners stated to have been experiencing violence or torture by the police.[27]

The resentments against Roma are deeply rooted in the Serbian society – more and more often showing itself through violent actions. [28] Especially in the course of the warning from the German government to withdraw the visa liberation in case the number of asylum applications won’t decrease there was an increase in racist motivated violence against Roma.

In the end, the problems of Roma in Serbia are a vicious cycle of missing documents, discrimination, poverty and social marginalisation. Therefore, strong efforts and financial means are needed to improve the socioeconomic circumstances of the most marginalised and weakest minority in Serbia, for who access to education and work are crucial.[29]


[1] Domazet, I., Maurer, M. (2014). Mosaik der Diskriminierung, p.29. In Abgeschobene Roma in Serbien, Journalistische, Juristische und Medizinische Recherchen. Hamburg: alle bleiben!

[2] Domazet, I., Maurer, M., 2014, p.103

[3] Antonovic, Danja (2014). Eine Reportage aus Serbien: Die Ärmsten der Armen sind die Roma. Retrieved 20.05.2016 from

[4] Waringo, Karin (2013). Serbien – ein sicherer Herkunftsstaat von Asylsuchenden in Deutschland? Eine Auswertung von Quellen zur Menschenrechtssituation, p.28. Frankfurt/Main: ProAsyl

[5] Waringo, 2013, p. 31f

[6] Antonovic, 2014

[7] Domazet, I., Maurer, M., 2014, p.75

[8] Waringo, 2013, p. 29

[9] Flüchtlingsrat Niedersachsen (2010). Situation der Roma in Serbien. Retrieved 20.05.2016 from

[10] Antonovic, 2014, Waringo, 2013, p. 29, Domazet, I., Maurer, M., 2014, p.55

[11] Heuss, Herbert (2011). Roma und Minderheitenrechte in der EU. Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, p.24. In Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Sinti und Roma (S. 21-27). Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung

[12] Waringo, 2013, p. 30

[13] Ibid., p. 30, Antonovic, 2014

[14] Flüchtlingsrat Niedersachsen, 2010

[15] Waringo, 2013, p.27

[16] Domazet, I., Maurer, M., 2014, p.54

[17] Antonovic, 2014

[18] Statista 2016, retrieved 15.06.2016 from

[19] Roma Student Organisation Novi Sad, Personal Interview 08.06.2016

[20] Waringo, 2013, p. 29

[21] Ibid. p. 27, 30-34, Domazet, I., Maurer, M., 2014, p. 51, Antonovic, 2014

[22] Martens, Michael (2012). Flucht vor der Kälte. Retrieved 20.05.2016 from

[23] Antonovic, 2014

[24] Waringo, 2013, S. 27,34, Antonovic, 2014

[25] Waringo, 2013, p. 9, 10, 15, 32

[26] Ibid. p. 15f

[27] Ibid. p. 19

[28] Ibid. p. 19f, 39

[29] Ibid. p. 28