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investigation 10 Nov 11

Croats Hold Roma and Muslims at Arm’s Length

At least 40 per cent of Croats wouldn’t want to share a home with a Muslim or a Roma, our survey reveals, highlighting the extent to which racial and religious prejudice remain alive in Croatia

Barbara Matejcic

Mersiha stands in front of a modernist apartment block in the centre of downtown Zagreb in Varsavska street and nervously rings the bell at the entrance for the umpteenth time while calling the same mobile number over and over.

She sees the light on the fourth flour where her potential home should be. The curtains on the windows seem to be moving, and someone up there is looking down, but no one opens the door or answers the phone.

It’s 9.30pm and half an hour has passed since the arranged time to view the apartment for rent. Mersiha finally gives up. “He must have seen me, which is why he does not want to open up,” she tells me angrily later, meaning her headscarf, not her personally.

When Mersiha gets hold of the owner the next day, he apologises that the apartment has unfortunately already gone. But when I call him several minutes after the apartment is still free. I can come and see it now. “Excellent”, I tell him in a resigned voice.

That mild-mannered, middle-aged man from old part of Zagreb is one of many who during a two-month undercover investigation refused to rent an apartment or office, accept a roommate, or hire for work, people on account of their racial or religious background.

Mersiha, a Muslim, and Dilfa, a Roma, posed on my behalf as would-be tenants, roommates and co-workers in order for me to be able to monitor the kind of discrimination that minorities experience routinely in Croatia and see how it manifests itself.

I chose Muslim and Roma “testers” as their differences from the mainstream community are instantly visible and because discrimination based on ethnicity and religious background are the most widespread forms of prejudice in Croatia. The number of Roma and Muslims in Croatia is also quite similar.

The two women did not know each other before and neither had taken part in such an investigation. Dilfa was born in Zagreb while Mersiha has been living in Croatian capital for the last 17 years.  

The plan was for three of us to answer a number of adverts placed mainly in the largest newspaper for printed advertisements, Plavi oglasnik. We were looking mostly for offers to rent rooms and apartments but applied also for jobs.

Our goal was to check levels of discrimination in arenas where private life and business intersect, such as looking for a roommate and renting real estate.

Previous surveys have shown that discrimination in Croatia is most common in the area of labour and employment, followed by the judiciary system, the police and healthcare.

But how ready are mainstream Croats citizens to interact with members of other groups, in this case Muslims and Roma? To find it out, we answered one hundred ads.

Dilfa Orsus’s name was a pseudonym, as was Mersiha Alihodza’s. I worked under my own name. All three of us answered the same adverts and introduced ourselves in the same manner: as unmarried, working women in our late twenties with secondary school diplomas.

As Roma names are not necessarily recognizable as such in Croatia, we ensured that Dilfa always mentioned having worked for an association called Roma For Roma, which she had done in the past.

Mersiha’s name was clearly Muslim and she also wore a headscarf for interviews. Both women told prospective landlords, roommates or employers that if there was a problem, they wanted to be told what it was. I called and went to interviews last, to avoid being chosen for the room or job first.

Worst for Roma:

Most people we contacted seemed more prejudiced towards Dilfa than Mersiha, probably because Muslims are not as stigmatised in Croatia as Roma.

But Mersiha still received more direct rejections than Dilfa, although most of those who rejected one rejected the other, too. In many cases they were rejected point blank over the phone after saying their names. 

Croatia is a fairly homogeneous country. Of its 4.4 million citizens, about 89 per cent are both Croat and Catholic, according to the 2001 census.

Roma officially number only 9,463 but many do not declare their real ethnicity. It is widely believed that a more accurate number would resemble that of Bosniaks or Muslims, who numbered 43,469 in 2001.

Bosniaks and Muslims are generally well integrated into society and do not differ significantly from other citizens of Zagreb in terms of social characteristics, according to a survey published this year by the Council of the Bosniak National Minority of Zagreb. Few Muslim women in Croatia wear religious insignia such as headscarves.

The office of Ombudsman, an umbrella body set up to combat discrimination, says most of the complaints it received last year for discrimination concerned race or ethnic background.

An EU-wide survey of discrimination and victimisation in everyday life confirms that the main grounds for discrimination in the EU are ethnic and immigrant origin (93 per cent) and religion or belief (64 per cent), according to the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, EU-MIDIS, from 2010.

Although Croatia adopted an Anti-Discrimination Law in 2008, research carried out last year by the government’s Human rights office, the Ombudsman’s office and the Centre for Peace Studies showed that around half of all Croats do not know that discrimination in Croatia is illegal.

One in five respondents couldn’t describe what discrimination was and one in four would not want their child to marry someone of another religion, nationality or skin colour.

The passage of the Anti-Discrimination Law was a result of the pre-accession negotiations with EU.

40 per cent said, ‘No’


The sharpest discrimination in our survey appeared among those seeking roommates. Around 40 per cent of our respondents rejected either a Muslim and Roma woman as a potential roommate. They all accepted me.

One young woman seeking a flatmate in Zagreb’s Vukovarska street rejected both Mersiha and Dilfa on the grounds that she had someone else in mind already.

But when I called again some weeks later she told me she was moving on after five years because she could not find a new roommate. “It’s a shame you did not call earlier, as you sound normal,” she told me.

She, like many of the others, appeared keen to hide what seemed to be the real but unspoken reason for rejecting the “wrong” candidate.

Common answers were that apartment was already rented, that the landlord would not want a Roma or Muslim tenant or that they were seeking students or men.

But when I called, those same “occupied” rooms were still free and they had no objections or additional questions for me. The only thing that interested them was when I could come and see the apartment.

There was an obvious shortage of interested people seeking to rent, but that did not make them want to rent out to just “anyone”.

Women behind the story

Dilfa Orsus’s real name is Brigita Bajric (29). She was born in Zagreb where she finished trade school and hairdressing school. She used to work for Croatian NGO “Roma for Roma” but she is currently unemployed.

Although she says she personally didn’t face discrimination, she wasn’t surprised with negative attitudes towards her in this investigation. “I have heard many similar stories from Roma people I know. So I was aware of the fact that Croatian society is not very tolerant. But what did surprise me was some people’s readiness to express discrimination so openly,” says Brigita.

Mersiha Alihodza is Djurdjica Cilic Skeljo (36), a professor of Polish literature at Faculty of  humanities and social sciences in Zagreb. Djurdjica is not a Muslim actually but she identify herself strongly with her role from the moment she was for the first time refused while looking for a flat to rent.

“It’s hard to accept that people can be so nice to you on the phone and then not even wanting to talk to you when you meet in person. Headscarf, that tiny piece of textile on my head, changed their perception completely.”         

Of those renting apartments, 30 per cent rejected both Mersiha and Dilfa and none rejected me. On no occasion was one of them accepted while I was not.

One middle-aged lady offering a two-room apartment for 400 euros a month to “one or two females”, as she specified in Plavi oglasnik, offered me cookies after a short interview.

“All kinds of people have been calling these days but I can’t rent it to anyone, which is why I’d like you to accept - someone from around here, ours,” she said.

When I asked what kind of people had called, she answered: “You won’t believe it but on the same day a Roma woman called and then a Muslim. I thought, ‘I’m out of luck’, and then you called the next day. I have nothing against them but I don’t know them and I certainly don’t want any trouble,” she added.

When I pointed out that she didn’t know me either, she continued: “You are something else, I see you are decent, we’ll get along fine.”

Formerly it was easy to rent out rooms and flats in the upmarket west side of the city, but demand is dropping because of the economic crisis and falling incomes.

Even so, people are still selective about who they want to take on. This woman didn’t know that I knew that Dilfa’s interview with her had gone well until she found out that she worked for Roma For Roma. Then she insisted she was seeking a student.

She told Mersiha that the apartment was already rented as soon as she heard her name. She did not set any conditions for me, was not interested in additional details and the apartment was, naturally, free. She tried to persuade me to take it.

Another woman, an older woman renting rooms in Bukovacka road, with a special annotation, “Urgent, pets allowed”, went silent when Dilfa told her she worked for the Roma association, adding that she had already made other arrangements. Six weeks later the apartment was still empty.

When Dilfa tried to rent an office space in Berislaviceva street for the Roma For Roma association, she was told it wasn’t suitable for associations, “only for companies.”

But when I called and said I needed the space for the association for fight against discrimination, I was told we could move in immediately.

While most people who rejected Dilfa and Mersiha and accepted me concealed their reasons for rejecting them, a smaller number openly admitted they had a problem with Roma and Muslim tenants.

Some students seeking roommates told Dilfa, who was born and raised in Zagreb, that they wanted “someone from Croatia.”

One young women in the Siget area, looking for an “employed, quiet roommate of 25 to 35”, said she had no problem with Mersiha being a Muslim but objected to the headscarf, saying she wanted “someone more like herself”.

Some of those who claimed they did not care about nationality or religion asked Dilfa leading questions, such as how many people she intended to share the apartment with, although she had already emphasised that she would live there alone.

Others repeatedly tried to check whether she had a job and a steady salary, emphasising that she had to pay on time. Some made comments such as, “I don’t want any whorehouse in there”, “You must be tidy”, “You don’t sound like a Roma”, or “Are you too dark?”

Staff at a café near Selska road, seeking a waitress,asked Dilfa to come over so they could see how dark her skin was.

The most positive reactions came from people who had had some experience with Roma and Muslims.

“I am interested in what you wear in your heart and not on your head,” the owner of an apartment in Tresnjevka said, seeing Mersiha’s headscarf.

She said she too was a “believer and respected everyone who cared about their religion”. She liked Muslims especially “because her sister was married to a Muslim.”

No work for you:

Discrimination in the jobs sector on the grounds of race and faith was harder to quantify in the investigation because the economic crisis had cut the number of vacancies.

We applied for jobs that did not require special qualifications such as sales posts in boutiques, bakeries, babysitters and cleaning positions.

Many jobs were already taken. Thus, “only” 15 per cent of employers we contacted could be said to have rejected a Muslim and Roma on those grounds.

But, not surprisingly, discrimination in employment is the most frequent complaint voiced by members of minorities.

I talked to several educated Roma women who have been vainly seeking jobs for years.

Usnia Garip, aged 30, lives in Zagreb, where she finished secondary school in agriculture with good grades. Garip is proud to be a Roma but says potential employers invariably lose interest when they realise “who she is” in ethnic terms. “They don’t see a potential worker in me, only a Roma,” she said.

In ten years of seeking work she had worked for only two months, as a cleaner. Her husband had qualified as a waiter but after being told that he would never get a job because he is a Roma, he gave up.

Instead, they recycle waste, while in the meantime Garip attends a course at the Employment Bureau as a part of the project to stimulate Roma employment.

“They teach us how to behave, dress and talk, as if I don’t know!” she said. “Despite all the requests I sent, I did not get a single job interview.”

Croatia’s state Employment Bureau registered a total of 4,553 Roma as unemployed in late 2010, which is almost half all the Roma in Croatia numbered in the 2001 census.

Surprisingly, the Employment Bureau said they had received no complaints from unemployed Roma about any form of discrimination.

In spite of the 2008 law outlawing discrimination in Croatia on the grounds of faith or ethnicity, many people either appear unaware of it or ignore it.

This became clear when I contacted five real estate agencies, asking them to advertise renting an office space on condition that they sent me ethnic Croats clients alone, not just “citizens of Croatia”.

Four agencies agreed to select candidates according to these criteria without expressing surprise or protest. I had the right to choose who I wanted to lease my office space to, they said.

Only one of the five contacted agencies, Rost, rejected my request, saying the law forbade discrimination in that way.

Dating your own people:

Because of the large percentage of people who have told other surveys that they would not want a non-Croat in the family, I tried testing attitudes towards the idea of having a Muslim or Roma partner on a well-known dating site.

Iskrica has 371,021 members and the number is rapidly growing. Thousands of messages are exchanged on the site daily.

I opened profiles for three women, named Dilfa, Mersiha and Barbara. For Dilfa and Mersiha I entered that they were Roma and Muslim. Both of them, especially Mersiha, received far fewer requests from interested parties than did Barbara, although the three profiles were similar, except for that one aspect.

While men mostly did not contact Mersiha at all, Dilfa received sexually explicit messages that reflected a stereotypical view of Roma women as generically wild and passionate.

“Roma women are hot fire”, “Pleasure with Roma woman would surely be something special”, “Isn’t a relationship between Roma women and men less conditioned by civilisation’s chains and more natural?” were three responses.

“Call me, I like Roma women, and you won’t find that too often,” was another patronising message.

Missing culture of dialogue:

Anti-Roma or anti-Muslim prejudice is not unique to Croatia. Indeed, hostility to Roma may be relatively mild in Croatia compared to the forms it takes in some EU member states like the Czech Republic, which has witnessed ugly scenes of anti-Roma violence.

Attitudes in Croatia appears more comparable to those in Poland and Hungary, where over 40 per cent of Roma respondents have also reported experiencing discrimination in relation to private services.

But according to an EU-MIDIS 2009 Report, Roma experienced significantly less discrimination in those countries, compared to Croatia, when looking for an apartment to rent or buy.

In Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic 10 to 13 percent of Roma reported discrimination while looking for a place to live in, the survey reported.

The highest levels of discrimination against Muslims in EU countries occurred in employment, according to the same report. The figures were 18 per cent when looking for work; 13 per cent at work and 14 per cent in private services - at a bar, restaurant, shop or bank and by a landlord.

Goran Selanec a legal expert on discrimination in Croatia, says, discrimination against minorities remains widespread in Croatia, “regardless of us wanting to convince ourselves of the opposite”.

Selanec says he is no doubt that many of the people referred to in this article broke the law. For example, real estate agencies that agreed to select clients on the basis of ethnic background were guilty of “classic direct discrimination based on ethnicity”, he noted.

“These agents would claim they did not discriminate because they had to respect their client’s wishes [but] such a defence is based on a very narrow understanding of discrimination,” he added.

Croatia’s legal system, as well as the EU system from which Croatia inherited these guarantees, protects persons from discrimination within a much wider scope.

“What is important is the result of unfavourable treatment, not whether there is intent, or prejudice, and whether the person is aware of it or not,” he explained.

Turning to the question of awareness, Zagreb psychologist Dinka Corkalo Biruski notes that in Croatia, “People are less prepared to rent an apartment or share with a person of other religion or nationality when that difference is clearly pronounced, as in this research.

“Tolerance develops in relations to others, and [Croatia’s] national and religious homogeneity certainly contributes to the closeness of society,” she added.

Corkalo Biruski believes that only some of this “closeness”, and rejection of otherness, is down to the country’s recent traumatic war. She also believes that it reflects deeper and more historic cultural values.

“We do not cherish a culture of dialogue which is necessary in communication with differences,” she says. “After that dialogue, differences wouldn’t be perceived as differences that much any more”.

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence . Both are initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

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