At a glance, the cardboard-roofed shanty town looks like many others dotted around eastern Europe. But a banner by the main road proclaims: “We are Serbian Roma. We want a roof over our heads. Long live Serbia.”
In theory, now should be the moment to demand better conditions. Until July the Balkan country holds the presidency of the Decade of Roma, an organisation of 12 European states promoting social and economic “inclusion” for the continent’s most widespread ethnic minority.
But as Serbian officials have discovered, international advocacy on behalf of the Roma remains far easier than eliminating urban poverty – especially for a group that largely declines to be registered with state institutions.
“Serbia is pushing the Roma agenda to the level of the European Union,” said Bozidar Djelic, deputy prime minister for EU integration. “But the biggest test is the Roma settlements right in the heart of Belgrade.”
Last Friday, however, police moved in with bulldozers to start clearing away the illegal shacks which block the way into the athletes’ village for the Universiade, an international student sporting competition in July. About 30 families lost their makeshift homes, while 360 more families expect to be pushed out within two weeks, protestors told the Financial Times.
Instead of celebrating the International Day of the Roma on Wednesday, the slum dwellers said they would march on parliament to protest.
“We are citizens of this country. And if we’re not, the government should say so, and immediately we would leave,” said a man from the settlement who gave only his first name, Rasim.
Belgrade’s mayor, Dragan Djilas, said a few hundred people on “usurped land” must not prevent urban development or “hold hostage” the whole city of 2m.
The Roma – often called gypsies – squat in more than 60 illegal settlements around the former Yugoslav capital. They always resist moving to new accommodation, while other citizens reject them as neighbours.
When the city last week put pre-fabricated container houses on the outskirts nearly 30 km away, farmers blocked the road and set the containers on fire.
Similar problems arise in most states with a sizable Roma minority. EU officials played down any suggestion of human rights violations.
Belgrade had welcomed the year-long Decade presidency as a good chance to show strong European values, despite the lingering political problems that have kept EU integration plans stalled for years.
“Serbia, thank God, is not a country with violence against Roma except in isolated cases,” Mr Djelic said. “But we do have insufficient care.”
Despite severe budget cuts, the government hoped to boost assistance for the community from the current “meagre” €2m per year to €10m by 2012, counting on support from European development banks, he said.