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How EBRD support enabled Belgrade to become role model for social inclusion of Roma community

A recycling centre that earned Serbia’s capital Belgrade a top award from the Council of Europe for promoting social inclusion of Roma people was brought into the limelight by the visit of a high-profile international delegation.

The group, headed by the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and including the EBRD’s Acting Director for Serbia, Ian Brown, visited the centre that transformed Belgrade into a distinguished role model for addressing the challenges that face the Roma community.

The EBRD has played a key role in placing the issue of Roma people high up on the city’s agenda, when it agreed to finance the roads surrounding Belgrade’s Gazela Bridge, alongside the European Investment Bank, which financed the reconstruction of the crumbling bridge. The project included an important social component aimed at resettling and restoring the livelihoods of 175 Roma families that used to live under the bridge.

SWIFT initiative and Roma inclusion

To make a living, many Roma people collect waste for recycling. To address the health risks associated with such an activity and to help improve their lives, the international community joined forces and launched the Sustainable Waste Management Initiative for a Healthier Tomorrow – SWIFT.

The SWIFT initiative began in 2011 with the support of the World Health Organization and was implemented by the UN’s agencies in collaboration with local authorities, and it is now helping to transform the informal collection of recycling materials into a safe, sustainable and productive employment.

As recognised by the award from the Council of Europe, the SWIFT initiative contributed to improving considerably the situation of the Roma community in Belgrade. Following the success of this first SWIFT recycling centre, the cooperative is now working to open two new centres in Serbia that will generate more employment opportunities.

Hildegard Gacek, EBRD Director for Serbia at that time (now Managing Director for the southern and eastern Mediterranean region), played an active role in securing the funding for the SWIFT centre.

“The road modernisation entailed the EBRD’s first major resettlement project in our countries of operations,” says Michaela Bergman, Chief Counsellor for Social Issues. “In total, around 1,000 people who lived by the bridge were affected by the project and needed to be resettled.”

“Improving Belgrade’s road infrastructure was a key project for the city’s economy and we could only support it if the works went hand in hand with finding a sustainable and decent solution for rebuilding the lives of the Roma community affected by the project,” says Hildegard.

In addition to offering temporary alternative accommodation to Roma families, the international community and Belgrade authorities worked together to provide them with personal identification documents that many Roma people did not possess. These ensured that their basic civil rights were protected and that they had access to social services, such as education and health care. Over 90 per cent of the children are now attending school in Belgrade.

More effort needed

Although the results achieved so far are impressive, more effort is needed to help Roma families relocated from the Gazela area. About 140 families are still living in temporary containers.

“Finding permanent housing for these families is something that we are working on together with the Belgrade authorities and the EIB. It is not an easy task, particularly in the current environment that affects not only Roma people but also many other vulnerable families that are awaiting social housing,” says the EBRD’s Ian Brown.

The international community and NGOs are keen to continue the successful cooperation with the Belgrade authorities in order to address the issues of the Roma  community, through income generation initiatives and social inclusion.