Prospects darken for Kosovo’s Roma refugees

Thousands of Kosovo Roma are still living as refugees in neighbouring Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, where they face the prospect of permanent statelessness, poverty and social exclusion.

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Whilst the 1999 war in Kosovo is ancient history for many people, this is not the case for thousands of Kosovo’s displaced Roma. Unable to return to Kosovo, or scared to do so, and mostly refused asylum status in neighbouring Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, where they have sought refuge, they live in dire poverty and face the risk of permanent statelessness. Estimates put the number of Roma, Askhali and Egyptian refugees from Kosovo in Serbia at 22,000 to 40,000; whilst there are some 3,000 in Montenegro and 1,200 in Macedonia. Life in refugee camps, illegal settlements or in rented accommodation is difficult, jobs and money are scarce, and the help they get from state governments and humanitarian organizations is scant.

Redza Pajazitaj, 41, a former resident of the Kosovo municipality of Istok, has lived in the Konik refugee camp near Podgorica, Montenegro, for 13 years; a camp he shares with some 1,500 of his compatriots. “We manage somehow here. Even if there is no job, if you go to the dumpsters you will find some piece of bread,” he said. “People here do not throw old food in the dumpsters but leave it beside them, because they know that our Roma use this bread to feed their children,” Pajazitaj remarked. Life may be grim in the camps, but many are too scared to return to Kosovo.

During the Kosovo conflict, Roma were seen as allies of the former Serbian regime by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. After the Serbian authorities withdrew from Kosovo, many Roma fled, and they fear reprisals if they return. “My son was three months old when we fled from Kosovo. Now he is 13. If I took him back to Kosovo, he wouldn’t know where he was, and all my other children were born here,” Pajazitaj explained. He says he is better off in Montenegro, where he takes pride in watching his seven children go to school, thanks to the Red Cross. He provides for his family by unloading trucks when needed – a paid, unsteady job, he says. “But at least there is some work here. In Kosovo there is nothing for me,” he added.

Although the authorities in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia would like the Roma to return to Kosovo, they are bound by the Geneva Convention on refugees and cannot expel them. In the meantime, they remain without proper papers, regulating their status in the countries where they have taken refuge. They also lack access to education and healthcare services as well as proper accommodation. Redza is one of them. Left to the mercy of local humanitarian organizations and some state help, he is trying to obtain asylum status in Montenegro so that he can continue building a new life there.

Mohammad Arif, from the UN Agency for Refugees, UNHCR, in Macedonia, explains that after 13 years, either the return home of these people – or their integration into the countries where they now live – is complicated.
“Their problems are not easy to solve. Some serious security issues need to be solved first, so these remaining cases are always tough,” he says.

Least bad in Montenegro

“Konik camp presents apoor image of Montenegro, and representatives of the international institutions are well aware of that,” says Zeljko Sofranac, director of the Montenegrin Bureau for the Care of Refugees. At a donor conference held in April in Sarajevo, Bosnia, international donors pledged to find €300m for a programme to provide homes for some 74,000 people displaced during the wars in the Balkans. “All their activities, which are conducted with our cooperation, primarily focus on this area.”

Montenegro’s plan is to attract some of that money to its own proposed national housing programme for Roma refugees. The idea is to build more than 1,000 housing units, either by providing prefabricated houses or by providing construction materials to those who have bought land. The total cost of the project is estimated at over €27m, to which Montenegro would contribute approximately €4m.

Sofranac says that the proposed voluntary return of around 500 refugees to Kosovo remains highly problematic, so most of them will probably have to be integrated into Montenegro. “Voluntary return is the best way of solving refugees’ problems. But the only cooperation we receive in Kosovo on this is with local authorities,” he says. “Kosovo’s government, probably with the support of some powerful higher echelons, doesn’t want to fulfill its international obligations in this regard.

Musa Demiri, from Kosovo’s Labour Ministry, says his country is ready to help returnees. “When it engages in the accession process with the EU, it will have to meet those obligations, but that’s not satisfactory for us because we have to act now.” But Demiri admits that with a very high unemployment rate in Kosovo, they cannot guarantee that returnees will find any work or a sustainable livelihood there. “All Kosovo citizens have to be treated equally, and as a ministry we have no special programmes for refugees and returnees,” Demiri says.

Segregated in Serbia

While some Roma refugees in Montenegro at least feel hopeful, NGOs and Serbia’s own Commissariat for Refugees admit that many Roma refugees in Serbia are in a worse position. Serbia treats Roma from Kosovo as internally displaced persons (IDPs), but a problem is that many Roma cannot prove that they are from Kosovo and hence cannot access welfare services. “Since most of the Roma who fled from Kosovo did not have IDs while they were in Kosovo, when they came to Serbia they could not gain the documents that other internally displaced people from Kosovo have got,” Jadranka Jelincic, head of the Open Society Foundation – Serbia, explains.

Regular IDPs from Kosovo receive different levels of state aid, including monthly allowances of around €80. However, this kind of help is blocked to these Roma because of lack of proof that they actually come from Kosovo. Although there are no official statistics, the Commissariat for Refugees estimates that about 22,500 Roma from Kosovo have taken refuge in Serbia. NGOs say the real number is much higher, at about 40,000. Most are situated in and around Belgrade. Usually having no documents and living in informal settlements, they are frequent victims of forced evictions and have to move to other informal settlements, collective centres, or return to Kosovo. They are also often hindered from obtaining legal counsel.

One such eviction recently took place in Belgrade, when the city authorities decided to bulldoze ‘Belville’, an informal Roma settlement located in the heart of the city. Nenad Djurdjevic, head of the Directorate for Human and Minority Rights, maintains that the eviction was “an example of good practice.” Djurdjevic and other Serbian officials insist that some Roma are “abusing” the fact that the city provides accommodation to Roma who possess documents proving that they have resided in the capital for more than five years. “We’ve helped many of them to find accommodation, and those who refused what we offered left their settlements voluntarily,” he maintains. The Commissariat for Refugees also believes it would be “unfair” to local Serbian Roma, who also face housing problems, if those from Kosovo obtained permanent housing in the capital.

Facing statelessness in Macedonia

According to the Macedonian Ministry of Labour, Macedonia has some 1,200 Kosovo Roma on its territory.
Human rights activists say that only some of the refugees receive proper treatment in Macedonia, as laid down in the 1951 Geneva Convention. A recent report by the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International says that Macedonia’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has “failed to provide them with the financial assistance and housing required under the 2010 local integration agreement”. That year, Macedonia took over responsibility for the Kosovo Roma from the UNHCR, promising to provide a path to local integration for those who wished to stay.

Davor Politov, spokesperson for the ministry, admits that they are helping only a portion of those people, who have obtained refugee or asylum status. “We are providing social welfare, paying health and social insurance contributions and paying [housing] rent for some 780 people from Kosovo who wish to stay here,” Politov says, adding that the country is also trying to find them jobs. Macedonia gives 2,150 denar, (some €35) a month in welfare to each Kosovan refugee, he adds.

The Luxembourg-based non-profit organization, Chachipe, which tackles the human rights situation of Kosovo Roma across the Balkans, says that the situation of some 260 Roma refugees in Macedonia remains a concern. “The situation of refugees in Macedonia has deteriorated considerably following the transfer of responsibility from the UNHCR to the Ministry of Labour,” says Karin Waringo, from Chachipe. After being rejected for asylum, they are now left without any status, stateless, and in dire need of assistance. “Based on our calculations, more than 20% of the refugees have left Macedonia under financial pressures. Some went to Western Europe, where their chances of getting asylum on the basis of the persecution they experienced in Kosovo are slim,” Karin asserted.

The local branch of UNHCR says it has limited resources to help this group of people, but they insist they at least provide them with legal help. UNHCR financial aid for these people stopped in 2010 due to a lack of funds, they say. “Some of them wish to return to Kosovo and we are considering ways to provide them with housing there,” explains Tihomir Nikolovski, Legal Officer at UNHCR Macedonia. “We are also helping some to get Macedonian citizenship, as they have meanwhile established ties with the local population through marriages and are thus eligible,” he adds.

This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Balkan Transitional Justice initiative, a regional initiative funded by the European Commission and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland that aims to improve the general public’s understanding of transitional justice issues in former Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

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