The Roma Council in Montenegro is these days primarily focused on how to help the Roma-Egyptian (RE) population during the coronavirus pandemic, which poses a major challenge to this otherwise vulnerable population group due to their inadequate socio-economic situation. Our conversation with the President of the Roma Council, Isen Gasi, was mostly focused on this topic, but we also talked about the status of Roma people in Montenegro in general, as well as their needs and involvement in Montenegrin society.
Gasi points out that particular attention should be paid to the difficult position of the domicile Roma population, whose living conditions are described as particularly difficult, and he also announced political engagement through the first Roma party in Montenegro which will, as they believe in the Roma Council, guarantee a better opportuniy to fight for the rights of the Roma.
The interview iz part of project Civil society in action promoting and protecting Roma and Egyptian rights in Montenegro. The project is funded by EU and implement Help with the Roma youth organization Walk with us Phiren Amenca.
Help: Mr. Gasi, we are welcoming April 8th (International Roma Day) in a state of a worldwide emergency due to coronavirus, so we cannot omit this topic. I suppose the situation, when it comes to the Roma-Egyptian community, has been made even more difficult by the aggravating circumstances in which they otherwise live in?
Gaši: This has really surprised us, but I hope that everything will be okay. This traditional Roma holiday April 8 – International Roma Day will not be celebrated due to these difficult circumstances, because it is now a priority to protect people and provide them with security. We hope that, if the crisis is to continue during May, it might be nice to celebrate Đurđevdan and International Roma Day at the same time.
Help: Can you tell us, for this occasion, what are the main problems of your community in Montenegrin society, except for the coronavirus which has hit everyone?
Gaši: Before that I would say that, given the situation we are now in, we should provide and distribute as many aid packages as possible for the Roma community, which is the most vulnerable group in Montenegrin society, especially in these circumstances. Many of you from Help and the Red Cross have already intervened, but the situation is especially difficult now in Podgorica, as you yourself know. This is where the municipality promised us that it would help. These days, Mayor Ivan Vukovic was visiting the local community.
We had a small and expeditious meeting with him, about ten minutes in total, where we presented him with the situation, after which he announced on tv that the RE population would be satisfied with the distribution of food and hygiene products, and that 65 000 euros have already been allocated for this purpose. Assistance is also being organized in other municipalities, such as Niksic, where the municipality also participated in providing assistance for RE. However, the largest RE population is in Podgorica, and they are particularly affected due to coronavirus infection.
Help: What information do you have regarding the number of people who require immediate help?
Gaši: To tell you the truth, everyone does! Urgent help is needed for about 500 to 1000 families, so 1000 packages would satisfy some basic needs in these conditions. Nowaways, because of quarantine, citizens can not go to public kitchen in Konik, but food is being delivered to those who need it at their home addresses.
Help: You mentioned the municipalities of Podgorica and Niksic, what about the other municipalities in Montenegro where Roma people live?
Gaši: Good, no one has complained, everyone got something, whether from the municipality, the Red Cross or from Help. This is a good sign because they usually call us if something is wrong. But that’s for starters. In each municipality we have our activists with whom we now hold regular meetings to know what the urgent needs are. We have already distributed over a thousand masks and gloves so far, and we expect a new delivery of disinfectants, gloves and masks.
In the meantime, we provided water for one settlement with 40 members of the Roma community, because they did not have running water. Due to these circumstances, we organized this with several companies, in order to quickly dig and connect them to the water supply. It was an emergency, there were 500 meters of canal to be dug out but we managed, it was especially critical near the Dekar pump. And we also made one connection at Vrela Ribnicka.
We also organized the delivery of aid to the elderly and the disabled; there are not many of them.
You know that this situation is very difficult, especially on Konik which is quarantined. All these people are mostly without financial resources, without food, the only way for them to acquire it is to get it on a daily basis, either to get out of the house to collect secondary raw materials, or to work on a flea market. Now that they are blocked and unable to make money, they need much more than there was before. We are in constant coordination with the municipality, the ministries of labor and social welfare and health. Everyone on social assistance has already received 50 euros, as well as those members of our community who are employed in the city sanitation.
We are fully aware that this situation is difficult everywhere and that there are many who need help in different ways. We are watching on the TV what is happening everywhere, and luckily we reacted quite early here so we hope that there will be less consequences.
Help: Apart from this situation, how would you assess the position of Roma in Montenegrin society?
Gaši: Let me tell you, most of our problems escalated in 1998-99. when Montenegro received a large number of displaced persons, including a large number of Roma and Egyptians. The situation was difficult to maintain, and at that moment all of the resources which were intended to improve the material status of the domicile Roma, were allocated toward those who are displaced, which was good, but on the other hand as a result of that 80% of the domicile Roma population were left to live in difficult, not to say horrible conditions. Many of these people still live in barracks.
Everyone simply put focus on the displaced persons, I had the opportunity to visit Kosovo and saw that many displaced persons were allowed to return and were offered assistance to return, but many of them decided to stay in Montenegro, and there were programs for them providing permanent housing, while the domicile Roma, citizens of Montenegro – about 7000 and 8000 of them, are the ones who need to be given attention and they need help to get out of the extremely difficult conditions in which they live. According to our estimates, much less has been invested and done for their integration into Montenegrin society.
Help: Do you present this information in contacts with state institutions, ministries of minority rights and labor and social welfare…?
Gaši: We do, we also had a decade of Roma event and the Strategy, but the resources intended for the improvement of the status of the RE community mostly went towards the displaced and, to a lesser extent, to the domicile Roma. The right balance should really be made.
As for the Strategy itself, everything is beautifully written and even more beautifully planned, but unfortunately it is a dead letter on paper, which is obsolete and not being implemented. We stand for concrete things – so the key in these strategies is to provide quality education for Roma children, which is the main way for Roma population to escape from poverty, and for their quality inclusion in Montenegrin society on an equal basis.
Help: Political engagement has also been announced, through the Roma political party.
Gaši: Yes, I helped in order to make that happen. There are more members of the Roma population in Montenegro than there are Croats. They were allowed to reduce the census required to enter parliament from 0.7 percent to 0.35 percent. For years, we have been asking for this cencus to be reduced, since with our 0.35 percent we could have a representative in parliament and get a guaranteed representative, as the Croatian minority has. However, no one did that for us.
And if you do not have your own representative in parliament to fight for you, you will never accomplish anything, everyone looks at their own interest, the interest of their community, and we have always stood by the side. We are not even listed in the Constitution as a minority, but rather listed as we belong to the rest. And we got the impression that it was the time we had to start fighting for ourselves, which is why a political party was formed. It is not too late, we are still on time, because something concrete can be realized only in this way.
We expect to be involved in the next elections in the fall if everything goes well and things return to normal.
Help: What is the interest in the community, for the Roma political party?
Gaši: We will work on this and I think it will be significant, I believe that we will be supported by others, not only the Roma population, but also by Egyptians and Albanians, Bosniaks, Muslims… You see, when our voice starts being heard in the Parliament, the situation will be different and it will not be possible anymore to make promisses and not do anything about it.