Racism Persists In Croatia

Roma and Muslim Croats have found deep bias cripples their chances

Top Stories | Barbara Matejcic | June 2012

Roma settlements near Zagreb, many have no choice but to stay outsiders (Photo: Barbara Matejčić)

Mersiha stood in front of a modernist apartment block  on Varsavska street in the centre of downtown Zagreb and nervously rang the bell at the entrance for the umpteenth time. She called the same mobile number over and over.

She looked up at the light in the fourth floor window, in what might be her next home. The curtains on the windows seemed to be moving, and someone up there was looking down. No one opened the door or answered the phone.

It’s 9:30 p.m., half an hour since the arranged time to view the rental flat. Mersiha finally gave. "He must have seen me, which is why he does not want to open up," she told me angrily later. He hadn't seen her, but just her headscarf.

When Mersiha got hold of the owner the next day, he apologised, saying the apartment had unfortunately already been taken. But when I called him several minutes later, the apartment was still available. In fact, I could come and see it then.

"Excellent," I told him in a resigned voice.

That mild-mannered, middle-aged man from the old section of Zagreb was one of many who during a two-month undercover investigation, refused to accept a roommate, or rent a flat or office to someone on account of their racial or religious background.

Mersiha, a Muslim, and Dilfa, a Roma, posed on my behalf as would-be tenants and roommates in order to monitor the kind of discrimination that minorities experience routinely in Croatia, and see what it looks like in action. To find out, we responded to one hundred ads.

Croatia's marginalised minorities

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 that figure is probably low, as many do not declare their true ethnicity. It is widely believed that a more accurate firgure would resemble that of Muslims living in Croatia, numbering 56,777 in 2001, 20,755 of which were Bosniaks.

I chose Muslim and Roma subjects as their differences from the mainstream community are instantly visible, and because ethnic and religious discrimination are the most widespread forms of prejudice in Croatia. By contrast, Bosniaks and Muslims are generally well integrated and do not differ visually or socially from other citizens of Zagreb. For example, few Muslim women in Croatia wear headscarves.

Of the people contacted, more were prejudiced towards Dilfa than Mersiha, as in Croatia, Roma in general carry the greater stigma. But Mersiha (the Muslim) still received more direct rejections than Dilfa; with a Roma, people chose evasions that veiled the issue. In many cases, both were rejected point blank over the phone after saying their names. In all, some 40 per cent rejected either a Muslim and Roma woman as a potential roommate. They all accepted me.

One middle-aged lady offering a two-room apartment for €400 a month to "one or two females," offered me cookies after our 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.

I asked what kind of people had called.

"You won’t believe it, but on the same day a Roma woman called and then a Muslim," she replied. "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."

I pointed out that she didn’t know me either "You are something else, I see you are decent, we’ll get along fine." Other common excuses included: "The apartment is already rented", or "The landlord does not want a Roma or Muslim tenant", or "They are seeking students or men".

Again, when I called, those same "occupied" rooms were still free and they had no objections or additional questions for me. Their only question was, "When can you come see the apartment?"

Some of those who claimed they did not care about nationality or religion asked Dilfa presumptive questions, such as how many people she intended to share the apartment with, although she had already emphasised that she would live there alone. Comments ranged from "I don’t want any whorehouse", to "You must be tidy", or even "Aren't you too dark-skinned?"

Of those renting full apartments, 30 per cent rejected both Mersiha and Dilfa and none rejected me. On no occasion was one of them accepted, while I was never refused.

In the past, it was easy to rent flats in Zagreb, but demand is dropping because of the economic crisis and falling incomes. In spite of this, ethnic minorities still face discrimination.

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

While most people who rejected Dilfa and Mersiha and accepted me concealed their reasons, a smaller number admitted they had a problem with Roma and Muslim tenants. Some students told Dilfa, born and raised in Zagreb, that they wanted "someone from Croatia".

In all, I contacted five real estate agencies, asking them to advertise renting an office space on condition that they sent me ethnic Croats clients alone. Four agencies agreed to select candidates according to these criteria without expressing surprise or protest. I had the right to choose whom I wanted to lease to, they said.


Missing culture of dialogue

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

According to an EU-MIDIS 2009 Report, Roma experienced significantly less discrimination when looking for an apartment to rent or buy in other CEE countries than in Croatia. In Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, 10 to 13 per cent of Roma reported discrimination while looking for a place to live, the survey reported.

Goran Selanec, a legal expert on discrimination in Croatia, says he has no doubt that many of the people referred to in this article broke the law. For example, real estate agencies that would select clients on the basis of racial profiling were guilty of what he called the "classic direct discrimination based on ethnicity."

Zagreb psychologist Dinka Corkalo Biruski notes that "tolerance develops through relations with others, and [Croatia’s] national and religious homogeneity certainly contributes to the closed nature of society." Thus, positive reactions were rare, and came from people who had experiences of 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, looking at Mersiha’s headscarf.

Only some of the rejection of different cultures can be explained by the country’s recent traumatic war, Biruski said. Rather it reflects deeper and more historical cultural values.

"We do not value a culture of dialogue, which you need to settle differences", she said. "After that dialogue, differences won’t be perceived as such anymore."

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