On 11 December 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Team and the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, with support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), presented the study Impact of the COVID-19 on Vulnerable Groups and Groups at Risk – Causes, Outcomes and Recommendations.
The study is a comprehensive mechanism for addressing the causes of social exclusion of certain groups in the Republic of Serbia. It focuses on the negative consequences of the current epidemic on vulnerable groups and groups at risk and identifies immediate, underlying and structural causes, whose intensification (during the state of emergency) resulted in amplified or new forms of inequalities. T The analysis considers outcomes and causes of the social inclusion of the Roma, persons with disabilities, LGBTI people, homeless people, people living with HIV/AIDS, persons deprived of liberty, youth, human rights defenders and journalists.
Ms Gordana Čomić, Serbian Minister of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue said that the current pandemic, which locked the entire planned down, had the strongest impact on the people on the margins, even in prosperous societies. “When a catastrophe hits, the most affected are those who are the least able to defend themselves. Therefore, our objective is to show and prove that we see all vulnerable groups and, then, to discuss in a dialogue that includes all of us what actions we can take, based on the confidential information about the catastrophic burden of the epidemic borne by the vulnerable groups”, stated Minister Čomić. She noted that this was not the first time our society was facing calamities, but it was the first time that they were global. “Calamities are a chance for us to discover humanity within ourselves and meet the next calamity with greater human rights for those who are often under our radar, hoping that we can jointly design measures that will remedy the injustices that marginalized and vulnerable groups in Serbia are exposed to”, concluded Ms Čomić.
According to Ms Françoise Jacob, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in the Republic of Serbia, the focus of the United Nations in Serbia is on achieving the fundamental values for all people, which primarily refers to ensuring the conditions for a safe, healthy and free life of all people. “The Agenda 2030’s leave no one behind principle indicates the existence of vulnerability within and around us, as well as the need for urgent measures, empathy and solidarity among all of us – peoples, generations and states”, stated Ms Jacob and explained that this exact principle was the cornerstone of the conducted study, including of the recommendations that derived from it. “Inequalities should not be in the focus of just one ministry. Instead, various sectors should integrate social elements and rights into all strategies they are developing, and the knowledge obtained from studies like this one enable the root of poverty and inequality to be successfully addressed”, concluded Ms Jacob.
Mr Milan Marković, Head of the United Nations Human Rights Team in Serbia, said: “A valuable contribution to this study were the responses of 54 civil society organizations, which have provided support and assistance to the people during the pandemic through direct interaction, but also played a very important role of a corrective factor with respect to the measures adopted during the state of emergency and lager in 2020”. As he explained, the goal of this study illustrates the hope that any future actions would not take into account only the final consequences, but rather the whole set of factors that had contributed to the long-term system-wide marginalization and vulnerability of the considered groups, and then highlighted the status of marginalization in the context of the current crisis. “The points that have proven to be the structural, systemic cause of marginalization and vulnerability of all groups are the long-term absence of political will to carry out a system-wide transformation, the systemic neglect and exclusion of certain groups, the negative attitudes, i.e. prejudices and stereotypes about specific groups, as well as the systemic exclusion from the policymaking process”, said Mr Marković. He noted that the lack of communication about the groups in focus was the key immediate cause of the problems related to the epidemic, while the identified root cause was the absence of interdepartmental and intersectoral cooperation.
Ms Dragana Jovanović Arijas, Manager of the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, stated that a specific value of this analysis, apart from the gradation of causes, was in that it focused on the perspective of the civil society, which was in the best position to identify the impact of the crisis on the position of vulnerable groups and groups at risk, besides the people who were directly affected. “As far as the impact of the pandemic on poverty is concerned, experts primarily indicate the economic activity of a country and the population’s closeness to the absolute or relative poverty line as key determinants. Despite slight improvement, the risk of poverty and material deprivation and the low economic activity trends have been rather stable. According to SILC 2019, 23.3% of Serbia’s population lives at risk of poverty, close to a million people are facing severe material deprivation (14.6%), while 12% of the population lives in households with low work intensity”, said Ms Jovanović Arijas. “The ability of vulnerable groups to generate income has been very limited in the recent months and has greatly contributed to their sinking into even deeper poverty, whereas we are now in the stage of the epidemic when we already have plenty of lessons learned and the possibility to plan in a longer term, on a quarterly or semi-annual basis”, concluded Ms Jovanović Arijas.
The participants of the discussion on the urgent and medium-term recommendations included Ms Aleksandra Petrović, Programme Associate with the UN Human Rights Team in Serbia, Ms Aleksandar Bogdanović, European Affairs and International Cooperation Coordinator of the Government’s Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit, Ms Kosana Beker, Pregramme Director of the FemPlatz Female Civic Association, Ms Nataša Vučković, Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy Foundation, Ms Katarina Golubović, President of Lawyers’ Committe for Human Rights (YUCOM), and Mr Danilo Ćurčić, Programme Coordinator of the A11 Initiative for Economic and Social Rights.
The findings and recommendations of this study provide solid basis for further investment by all stakeholders towards the achievement of greater equality and access to rights, services and support, as well as of higher resilience of society as a whole.
The Serbian and English versions of the study are available here.