Why the North Macedonian census is imperative to ensuring Roma count

As part of the current census campaign in North Macedonia, AVAJA, a civic movement comprising the organisations Romalitico, Romaversitas and the Association for Strengthening and Organizing the Roma Community – Romano Avazi, in the framework of the broader Proud Roma Free Europe campaign launched by the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), together with Open Society Roma Initiatives Office (RIO), Roma Education Fund (REF), and the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI), will work with Roma, both locally as well as those living in diaspora, to mobilise them for the census.

The following article was written originally in Macedonian by Suad Skenderi, Program Manager at the Institute for Policy Research and Analysis – Romalitico.

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According to data from the State Statistical Office and other official sources, we can reasonably estimate that at least 5% of the North Macedonian population is Roma.  Data suggest that a further 2% of Macedonian diaspora are Roma, totalling 7% of all North Macedonians worldwide.

This means that there are approximately 100,000 Roma citizens in the country. Combined with the additional 2% living in diaspora, this number totals 145,000. Many argue that these estimates are valid for the current North Macedonian 2021 census. However, given that the last official census was conducted in 2002, 19 years ago, it is challenging to project population data, especially in the case of Roma.

Before addressing these estimates in more detail and arguing for their validity, it is important to note that censuses are intended to objectively reflect demographic data and society’s social and economic characteristics. For Roma, censuses are political in nature due to centuries of discrimination at the hands of authorities. This has resulted in the underreporting of Roma to the benefit of other ethnic communities.

Based on previous censuses, data on Roma has clearly been manipulated. In 1981, 43,125 Roma were enumerated, in 1991 – 52,103, in 1994 – 43,707 and in 2002 – 53,879. According to these figures, between 1991 and 1994, the Roma population in North Macedonia declined by 8,396 in three years, despite Roma having the largest natural population growth. When analysing the data of other communities for the same period, one can see an increase in their population numbers, which amounts to almost the same as the decline in the Roma population.

In fact, verified sources and maps of several North Macedonian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations suggest the Roma population stands at double the official numbers registered in 2002. According to the Council of Europe, in 2012, there were approximately 197,000 Roma in the country, with a maximum of 260,000 and a minimum of 134,000. This discrepancy between estimated and official numbers confirms the gravity of census data manipulation on Roma populations and that there are many more Roma than assumed by official sources.

This is further confirmed by the events surrounding the failed 2011 census. Roma enumerators involved in the census reported an abuse of power, with Roma choosing to participate in the Romani language going uncounted. Due to pressure from NGOs and activists, the 2011 census was cancelled.

Accordingly, many Roma understand census taking to be a politically charged process associated with the enjoyment of rights, equitable representation in state and public administration, balanced regional development, and many other policies that impact their communities.

In favour of the estimates provided at the start of this article, it is essential to note that over the last 19 years, Roma have seen the highest natural population increase compared to other ethnic communities, barring Albanians. In fact, between 2002 and 2020, over 32,000 Roma were born, and approximately 8,500 died. This shows that the natural increase of Roma during this period was around 24,000 people. Yet, the Turkish community, which decreases with each subsequent census, is still considered a larger community than the Roma. Roma, who speak Turkish, are often counted in the Turkish as opposed to the Roma population. This situation is encouraged due to pressure on Roma to assimilate as well as economic benefits. Furthermore, unlike Roma, all other minority ethnic communities also have a ‘home country’, which plays an influential role in the census, ensuring their nation’s influence and protection in the Republic of North Macedonia.

Moreover, according to the Institute for Policy Research and Analysis – Romalitico, data obtained through education-related public information requests show that the total number of Roma entering the education system is 15,000 annually, on average[1]. In addition, research shows that a further 5,000 Roma are not part of the education system for various reasons. Considering that there are approximately 20,000 school-age Roma children and that each Roma family has an average of five members (as claimed by the State Statistical Office), the total number of Roma in North Macedonia can be estimated to be around 100,000.

Further statistical evidence of the validity of this figure can be drawn from the national unemployment rate of Roma. According to the country’s Employment Service Agency, there were 14,401 active Roma job seekers in 2020, while 3,410 were passive Roma job seekers[2]. Additional research from Romalitico shows that there are 10,000 unregistered unemployed Roma. Based on the total of these numbers (27,811) and the average number of people in a family (four), we can reasonably estimate that there are about 100,000 Roma in the country.

Further research by Romalitico suggests that 30,000 to 40,000 Macedonian Roma live in diaspora across European Union (EU) countries[3] with valid Macedonian identification documents. As part of their census campaign, AVAJA and Proud Roma Free Europe are working with diaspora, civil society organisations, media, and individuals working at the grassroots level across Europe to mobilise the Roma diaspora for the current census.

Unfortunately, to collecting census data and the accurate counting of Roma, particularly in the North Macedonian municipalities of Ohrid, Struga, Resen, Strumica, Radovish, and others. According to local leaders and the work of AVAJA, assimilation of Roma into other ethnic communities, whether due to economic benefits or pressure from other communities, is a particular threat to the process. Romalitico has already received anonymous reports from Roma in these municipalities that certain ethnic communities are threatening and manipulating Roma to register as non-Roma, namely Turkish, Albanian and Egyptian, especially if they speak another non-Roma language or reside in non-Roma settlements.

State institutions, and particularly the State Statistical Office, must be aware of such manipulation. At Romalitico, we know from previous censuses that Roma have suffered from demographic engineering by the state. If the North Macedonian state wishes to conduct an authoritative statistical operation, it should commit to a census in line with European standards and prevent the manipulation of census data, particularly at the grassroots level.

This census, the Roma community refuses to be manipulated.

[1] Data from Ministry of Education and Science with Request for Information from Public Character 2021

[2] Data from Employment Service Agency in Republic of North Macedonia with Request for Information from Public Character 2021

[3] Internal mapping research commissioned by the Institute for Research and Policy Analysis – Romalitico