Romani refugees from Kosovo drown while crossing the Adriatic; Macedonian officials warn that they will send Kosovo refugees back; police expel Kosovo Roma from two Montenegrin towns
5 September 1999
The Montenegrin daily Vijesti reported on August 26, 1999, that the bodies of thirty-six Roma had been found in the Adriatic Sea by the Montenegrin Coast Guard. The Roma were refugees from Kosovo who were being smuggled into Italy when their ship sank on August 20. Sixty-nine Roma from the same ship were rescued by the crew of a Bar-Bari ferry on August 20, according to the same source. The British Independent of August 27 claimed that "more than forty" corpses had been discovered and that sixty more passengers of the same ship were believed dead. According to The Independent, Italian police detained two men in connection with the drowning, J.N. from the Montenegrin port of Kotor and R.B. from the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica on August 26, while six other suspects from Montenegro and Serbia were still at large.
Kosovo Roma have been arriving in Italy on a daily basis during the last two months, primarily by being smuggled across the Adriatic Sea and left at the shores of Puglia in southeastern Italy. Ships carrying up to two hundred persons and riding dangerously low in the water have been reportedly arriving in Italy regularly since shortly after the entry of KFOR troops and the return of the refugees from Albania and Macedonia. The Italian daily Il Manifesto reported on July 7, 1999, that 700 Roma had arrived in Puglia. On August 3, Il Manifesto reported that 1010 Roma from Kosovo had arrived by ship from Montenegro on July 31. A ship with 300 refugees arrived in the Italian port of Brindisi, according to Reuters on August 18, followed by another large ship with 1120 Roma arriving in Bari on August 19, according to the same source. Sources in
Kosovo and Montenegro told the ERRC that smugglers charge between 1500 to 3000 German marks (approximately 770-1540 euros) per person. The Italian weekly newspaper Panorama wrote on July 22 that the Italian consulate in Bar, Montenegro had refused as many as 3000 Romani applicants. Roma reportedly make the illegal crossing in very poor conditions. Il Manifesto reported on August 12, that a 75-year-old Romani woman had died as a result of a crossing that lasted for more than three days. Another five Roma from the same ship were admitted to hospital in Brindisi.
The war in Kosovo has aggravated a long-standing problem in Italy: the ill-treatment of foreigners, especially Roma from Eastern Europe (See "Advocacy", Roma Rights 1/99; "Snapshots from around Europe", Roma Rights, 2/99). When picked up by the Italian authorities, the Roma are often provided with a residence permit valid for a short period of time. Reportedly, the most common permit issued to Kosovo refugees allows them to stay until December 31, 1999. Refugees are then housed in authorised or improvised camps in the Puglia region, where most of the Romani refugees usually land. These are at present overcrowded and have poor sanitary facilities. In an attempt to respond to the new crisis, authorities have relocated Roma to camps in Crotone, in the Calabria region, as well as to Comiso, the former NATO base in Sicily. In addition, Roma have been allowed to leave the camps, often resulting in their moving north to long-established illegal settlements in northern Italy.
During a fact-finding mission to camps in northern Italy, the ERRC found that there was also an officially sanctioned counter-flow of Roma from camps in the North to camps in the South. For example, at the end of July 1999, the local authorities of Bergamo in northern Italy ordered that eighty Kosovo Roma be moved to the camp in Crotone, southeastern Italy, although the camp in Crotone is notorious for being unsanitary and dangerous. Both Kosovo Roma with temporary residence permits and Roma without any documents were ordered to move to Crotone. Effectively only forty of the eighty persons listed - mostly women and children - arrived in Crotone. The whereabouts of the rest were not known to the ERRC at the time of publication.
On July 20, 1999, the international and domestic press reported that Italian authorities intended to cease regarding persons fleeing Yugoslavia as refugees, but would instead treat them as illegal immigrants. According to reports by the Associated Press from July 20, the Italian Interior Ministry intended to regard the issue as one of human trafficking rather than the flight of persons persecuted on ethnic grounds. Ministry spokesperson Daniela Pugliese reportedly stated that the Ministry did not accept that the lives of Roma are at risk in Kosovo.
On August 4, 1999, the ERRC sent a letter of concern to Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, calling his attention to the issue of Romani refugees from Kosovo in Italy, urging that Roma who have fled Kosovo and arrived in Italy be provided international protection in Italy. The full text of that letter is available on the ERRC internet homepage at: www.errc.org. Copies of the letter were also sent to the Italian Foreign and Interior Ministers. To date, the ERRC has received no reply from Prime Minister D'Alema's office.
Meanwhile, Roma from Kosovo who have fled to Macedonia may soon no longer be welcome in that country. The Skopje daily Nova Makedonija reported on August 17 that after September 30, 1999, refugees from Kosovo would lose their legal status in Macedonia. The paper quoted Mr Pavle Trajanov, the Macedonian Minister of Interior, as saying that those refugees who decide to remain in Macedonia after September 30 would no longer be eligible for humanitarian assistance. The only exceptions, according to Mr Trajanov, would be cases in which persons have no place to return to in Kosovo. These would be assisted in transfer to third countries or would be allowed to remain in Macedonia. Such cases would be identified in co-operation with international humanitarian organisations operating in Macedonia, Mr Trajanov said. The ERRC sent a letter to Minister Trajanov on August 31, appealing to his office to reaffirm its commitment to abiding by international law norms to providing refugees safe haven. The text of that letter is on the ERRC internet homepage at: www.errc.org. As of August 26, Macedonia was providing refuge to around 10,000 Romani refugees from Kosovo, according to various non-governmental sources. On August 25, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that 408 Roma from the Kosovo town of Gnjilane had entered Macedonia during the previous week.
On August 13, 1029 Romani refugees from the Stenkovec 2 refugee camp, just outside the Macedonian capital of Skopje, publicly protested poor living conditions in the camp and demanded that they be transferred to third countries, according to the August 19 edition of the Macedonian daily Dnevnik. The camp is administered by the UNHCR. The refugees protested the fact that there were only ethnic Albanian aid workers employed in the camp, and that some ethnic Albanian medical staff have reportedly mistreated Roma. On August 19, the Dnevnik reported a UNHCR spokesperson as stating that air transport of refugees depended on the willingness of recipient countries. Although ethnic Albanians continue to be airlifted to countries in western Europe and overseas, these countries have to date not shown any willingness to accept Romani refugees, according to the UNHCR.
Romani refugees from Kosovo have not fared any better in the Yugoslav province of Montenegro. On July 12, police in the port town of Bar reportedly expelled more than one thousand Romani refugees from the town, according to the July 13 issue of the Montenegrin daily Vijesti. Mr A.S., a 26-year-old Romani man from Kosovska Mitrovica, told the ERRC on July 19, "We had been in Bar for a week when the police arrived on Monday afternoon. They forced us into city buses and they said they would take us to the refugee camp in Ulcinj, 40 kilometres southeast of Bar. Nobody wanted to go there, because we were afraid of ethnic Albanian refugees in the camp, and also of the local Albanians. I saw police beating Roma to get them on the bus. Many of us said we wanted to go to Podgorica, as we heard there were other Roma there. The police escorted us to the train station. The police got onto the train with us, to make sure no one left the train until we arrived in Podgorica." Police also reportedly forced a group of approximately 250 Roma from Bar to go by bus to the refugee camp in Ulcinj, according to the Montenegrin weekly Monitor of July 16. Bar is the biggest port in Montenegro and has ferry lines to the Italian port of Bari. More than one thousand Kosovo Roma moved into the town's parks and onto the quay of the port at the beginning of July, according to the Monitor on July 16.
Authorities in other Montenegrin towns have also recently expelled Kosovar Romani refugees. When the ERRC visited a makeshift refugee camp in the former tourist camping sites Neptun and Bellevue outside Ulcinj on July 17, there were no Roma in the camps. According to ethnic Albanian refugees who were in the camps at the time, Roma who had been transported from Bar only spent one night in the camps before authorities expelled them to the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. Mr Isen Gaši, president of the Podgorica-based Association of Roma in Montenegro, told the ERRC on July 18 that he had offered to provide the Romani families accommodation, but he would need two days preparation time. According to Mr Gaši, the Mayor of Ulcinj rudely refused the offer. The Mayor also allegedly asked the Association of Roma in Montenegro to pay the cost of transporting the group to Podgorica. According to Mr Gaši, Montenegrin police officers present during the expulsion used anti-Romani epithets. Several Romani families were reportedly afraid and they took taxis and left the camp earlier in the morning, but police stopped them outside the town and made them wait for the buses. The convoy was escorted by police all the way to the makeshift refugee camp for Roma in Vrela Ribnicka, a Romani settlement in Podgorica.
At least ten thousand displaced Roma from Kosovo have fled to Montenegro, according to a statement of the Montenegrin Commissioner for Displaced Persons and Refugees, reported by the Podgorica-based news agency Montena-fax on August 25. The Montenegrin office of the Italian non-governmental organisation Italian Consortium for Solidarity reported on August 19 that 1657 refugees were accommodated in tents in the refugee camp in Vrela Ribnička. An additional 331 persons were accommodated in Vrela Ribnička in barracks constructed for refugees from the Bosnian war, and at least one thousand Romani refugees were staying in private houses in the same settlement. A month earlier, on July 28, the Montenegrin Red Cross reported a total of 7475 Roma in Kosovo in the capital of Podgorica alone. On August 24, four hundred Roma from the Kosovo town of Djakovica arrived in Rožaje, a small town on the Montenegrin side of the border with Kosovo, according to the Montenegrin daily Vijesti of August 25. Half of them reportedly continued towards Podgorica, and the other two hundred stayed in Rožaje. The town's crystal glass factory had previously been turned into a collective refugee centre for Roma from Kosovo and it housed 370 Roma as of August 20, according to Montena-fax (for more information on the situation of Romani refugees in Montenegro, see the "Field report" section in this issue).
Roma from Kosovo have also fled to Serbia proper. Twelve to fifteen thousand Roma from Kosovo are estimated to have come to Belgrade, according to the IPS news agency of August 13. The Committee for the Protection of Roma Rights in Yugoslavia in Kragujevac reported that 6000 Roma from Kosovo had arrived in the municipality of Kragujevac and 3600 in Niš. In Novi Sad, the local non-governmental organisation Novi Sad Humanitarian Center stated on August 26 that at least 1700 Roma from Kosovo had taken refugee there. Reflecting the attitude of Serbian authorities, the local offices of the Yugoslav Red Cross do not keep a record on people fleeing from Kosovo, as they are officially not considered refugees since they are still within the borders of Yugoslavia. Roma from Kosovo have the status of "internally displaced persons" in Serbia, which in practical terms means that they are not entitled to humanitarian aid. In addition, the Serbian Ministry of Education recently recommended that primary and high schools in Serbia do not enrol refugee children from Kosovo, thus limiting their right to education granted by Article 62 of the Yugoslav Constitution. Almost 80,000 Roma from Kosovo have left the province and fled to Serbia proper and Montenegro, according to the statement of Mr Djura Simić, President of the Association of Roma in Yugoslavia, published in the Belgrade-based daily Blic of August 24.
(Anima, Associated Press, Association of Roma in Montenegro, Blic, CNN, Corriere della sera, ČTK, Dnevnik, ERRC, Il Manifesto, Italian Consortium for Solidarity, MFD, Monitor, Montena-fax, MTI, Nova Makedonija, Novi Sad Humanitarian Center, Panorama, Radio Prague, Red Cross of Montenegro, Reuters, Slovenska Republika, Vijesti)