Roma are better represented politically in Macedonia than in many countries, but poor housing and joblessness are still their usual fate, say activists marking April 8, International Roma Day.
overty, low educational levels and negative stereotyping are just some of the obstacles faced by Roma in Macedonia, as in so many other countries in Eastern Europe.
The last 2002 census revealed 54,000 Roma, 2.5 per cent of the population, but many observers maintain that their true number is far greater.
Researchers and rights activists who work with Roma in Macedonia say they encounter less open racism and racist violence in Macedonia than in many other countries. And, unlike the situation in many countries, they are politically represented in Macedonia, with one cabinet minister, a legislator in parliament and one municipal mayor. They also have their own media.
In spite of that, “Roma people are at the bottom of society”, says Mibera Demirovska, head of the Humanitarian Association of Roma Women, from the town of Kumanovo.
Her organization depends on foreign donors to improve the life of Roma in Kumanovo, “but we have to learn how to be self-sustainable or our efforts will be in vain”, she says.
At just few kilometers from the centre of Skopje is the settlement of Shuto Orizari. Housing some 30,000 Roma this place is widely seen as the only municipality in the world with a Roma majority, and the only municipality where Roma is an official language, alongside Macedonian.
But unlike most of the rest of the capital, sewers and running water are not available for many inhabitants who live in substandard conditions. For some, even electricity is a luxury.
“Having a Roma mayor is good but it doesn't make my job or life any easier,” says Ramadan Sejfulovski, a middle-aged Shuto Orizari resident who for a living gathers scrap metal and plastic from dumpsters.
In the country that already has a high unemployment rate of 30 per cent, some data suggest that over 60 per cent of Roma people are unemployed.
Jovan Ananiev, an analyst from Skopje's Institute for Sociological, Political and Law Studies, offers one explanation for this.
“In our research, half the Roma we talked to said they had been turned down for jobs purely on the basis of their ethnicity,” Ananiev says.
A recent study by the Roma Business Information Center in Skopje showed that only a fifth of Roma businessmen had ever joined a business association and over 90 percent do not rely on any state help at all.
Last week at a regional Roma business forum in Skopje, Macedonia's Vice Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Vladimir Pesevski, urged Roma entrepreneurs to make more use of state funds to improve their businesses.
He said the government was also backing Roma youth by providing 1,700 scholarships for them, hoping the number will grow to 2,500 by the end of this year.
“The fact that more and more Roma students are enrolling in elementary schools and especially in high schools is encouraging,” Pesevski said.