Roma are “protected like polar bears”, a phrase that is becoming increasingly common from people in Serbia when the Romani community is mentioned. This is how they react to things like affirmative measures to enrol Romani students in schools and colleges, to the mention of the high unemployment rate amongst Roma, or to any social protection of this minority.

Polar bears are protected because their lives are threatened by others, as well as their species from extinction. Roma receive not even the minimum protection afforded to others in society. In order for Roma to reach the same access to their rights that the majority of Serbians enjoy, there needs to be affirmative action. There needs to be special scholarships for Roma to go to university. There needs to be diversity hiring for Roma in the workplace. There needs to be provision of social housing for Roma currently forced to live in slums without basic services. This is the difference between equality and equity and is the minimum that the state can do in order to make amends for centuries of persecution and racism.

The structure of discriminatory policies towards Roma is very complex, but it can be seen in a relatively simple way. There is virtually no sphere of society in Serbia where Roma are on an equal footing, not only with the majority population, but also with other national minorities.

Since at least 2005, a generation of Romani men and women have graduated from schools and colleges with diplomas but due to discrimination in employment, very few of them are able to work. More than a thousand Romani people have graduated from universities in this time. More than 11, 500 have completed high school. Yet still we find Roma who hold master’s degrees working in low-skilled jobs in public utility companies. In order to preserve racism, the great potential of the Romani community is wasted in Serbia, to the cost of billions of euros annually.

When Roma are employed in public institutions, it is in public utility companies and in other low-skilled jobs that are often not in line with their professional qualifications. There are between 8,000 (officially) and 40,000 (unofficially) waste collectors in Serbia. It is well known that the majority of these people are Roma. Every day, thousands of Romani men, women, and children collect raw materials (metals, plastics, paper etc.) to ensure the survival of their families. Their work is not recognized by the state, they are not considered workers, they do not have working hours or any type of insurance. Their work is not even recognized by the recycling industry in which they are based and to which they provide profit. It is these people who are labelled as state parasites and idlers from whom society has no use, even though they are the people who keep Serbia clean and provide it with profit.