Declaration of the participants in the Balkan Roma conference for peace and security

SOFIA, JUNE 18-19, 1999

On June 18-19, 1999, a Balkan Roma Conference on Peace and Security was held in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was co-organised by the European Roma Rights Center (Budapest) and the Human Rights Project (Sofia). Its purpose was to provide Roma from Kosovo and the Balkans with a forum at which they could voice their protest against the treatment of Roma during the current Kosovo crisis and plan for more effective action in the future. Testimonies from Kosovo Roma were heard. A Declaration was adopted and a Balkan Roma working group was established to initiate and co-ordinate joint action.

The forum convened representatives of the Romani community from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia. They discussed the situation of Roma during the Kosovo crisis; the prospects for the safe return of the Romani refugees to Kosovo; and measures to be undertaken for ensuring the protection of Roma in the face of current discrimination and violence in the Balkan countries. Ms Josephine Verspaget, Chair of the Group of Specialists at the Council of Europe and Mr Nicolae Gheorghe, Advisor on Roma and Sinti Issues to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the OSCE also participated.

The conference in Sofia was the first public occasion at which Roma from the Balkans voiced their position on the Kosovo conflict and testified to gross violations of human rights, mass suffering and humiliation experienced by the Roma people during the war. The international media covering the war turned a blind eye to the thousands of Roma who had been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo. It was noted by the participants that, at this instant as throughout history, the international community has been oblivious to the fate of the Roma.

Participants pointed to the fact that due to their unique situation as a non-territorial minority, Roma from Yugoslavia have been victimised and discriminated against by both sides of the Kosovo conflict on the ground: ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Roma from Kosovo have been used as forced labour by Serbian authorities to support the Serbian army, a fact which triggered anti-Roma feelings among Albanian Kosovars. The presence of Kosovar Roma has in many instances not been officially acknowledged in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia. On the way to the camps many Romani refugees experienced discriminatory and prejudicial treatment. As a result they feared both the camp authorities and their fellow inmates, and as a rule have chosen to hide their identity. The conference expressed concerns about the existing tensions between ethnic Albanians and Roma, resulting in mounting violence against Roma refugees in the camps in Macedonia and Albania. Participants in the conference were convinced that there is a high probability of reprisals on the part of the Albanians against Roma, should the Kosovar Roma return to Kosovo. Subsequent instances of violence by ethnic Albanians against Roma in Kosovo have unfortunately confirmed these fears.

The Conference agreed that the policy of prevention of further ethnic conflicts in the highly precarious ethnic situation in the Balkans cannot be effective without addressing the major problems affecting the Balkan Roma. Major problems include: lack of opportunities for Roma to have a say in formulating national policies pertaining to Roma themselves and to participate in the public life of the Balkan states; discriminatory treatment of Roma at all levels of the state administration and the judiciary; racist violence; and high levels of prejudice and exclusion from the macro-society.

In their discussion of the recommendations to international organisations, the participants recalled the Balkan wars that led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and highlighted the inadequate consideration of the plight of Roma by the international community in the post-war reconstruction period. In its final declaration, the Conference insisted that there should be strong guarantees for the safe return of Romani refugees to Kosovo, while Roma who have well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland should be given the opportunity to seek asylum outside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Roma should be included without discrimination in the action plans for the reconstruction of the democratic institutions and the infrastructure in Yugoslavia; Roma should be recognised as a nationality within the FRY; there should be reconciliation programmes to promote ethnic tolerance in FRY; Romani organisations in Kosovo, Serbia and the rest of the Balkan region should be actively involved in the preparation and implementation by the states of policies and programmes affecting the Romani communities; the Balkan states should provide adequate mechanisms for effective participation of the Roma in the political and social processes in their respective countries and should pursue by all appropriate means policies of prevention of discrimination and racism against Roma and encourage inter-ethnic accord on the Balkans.

The work of the Conference will be taken up by an elected group of six activists of the Roma movement from different Balkan countries, who will continue the work initiated at the Conference.

The Declaration adopted by the Conference follows:

To:
The Secretary General of the United Nations, New York
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva
The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg
The Chair of the European Commission, Brussels
The Chairman in Office of the OSCE, Vienna
The Secretary General of NATO, Brussels

The participants — representatives of the Roma communities from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Slovenia — having discussed extensively the impact of the Kosovo crisis on the Roma communities in Kosovo and the Balkans, state the following:

1. Obstacles to a Roma return to Kosovo

Roma are a non-territorial minority. The fact that they live as minorities in different countries has made them a peace-loving people. Roma have never willfully taken up arms against anybody nor do they wish to do so now or in the future. Roma people on the Balkans have a centuries-long experience of living in multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, multi-linguistic local communities. They could be valuable promoters of peace in Kosovo and the Balkans.

However, due to their situation of a non-territorial minority, Roma from Yugoslavia have been victimised, treated in inhuman and degrading ways and discriminated by both sides of the Kosovo conflict on the ground — ethnic Albanians and Serbs. In some cases Roma were subjected to forced labor by the Serbian authorities to support the Milošević army, a fact which provoked anti-Roma feelings among the Kosovo Albanian population. Tensions between ethnic Albanians and Roma are illustrated by the high incidence of violence against Roma in refugee camps outside of Kosovo as well as in Kosovo itself. The notorious attempted lynching of members of an extended Roma family in the camp of Stenkovec, Macedonia, is just one example. Roma have reasons to feel insecure in the camps; they would feel still more insecure in Kosovo. The probability of anti-Roma pogroms is not to be excluded. In this situation the return of the Roma refugees to Kosovo is highly problematic. But there are also other causes of unease:

  • There has been no formal acknowledgement of the presence of Roma in the refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania and Roma refugees have not been registered in the camps with their ethnic background. On the one hand, Roma have been pressured to register as Albanians apparently to make the number of Albanian refugees look bigger. On the other hand, conscious of the collective guilt imposed upon them, Roma themselves have been reluctant to register as Roma.
  • There are reports of discrimination against Romani refugees by relief organisations, including international relief organisations.
  • The situation of Roma from Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict has been systematically ignored by the international media. This fact is sadly reminiscent of the way in which the genocide of Roma during World War II was "forgotten" by the international community. It also shows that in the Kosovo crisis the international community once again seems to treat Roma no better than the macro-societies of the nation states in which they currently live. That treatment is marked by: lack of opportunities for Roma to make themselves heard in the formulation of national policies affecting them and to participate in the public life of their states; discriminatory treatment of the Roma community members at all levels of the state administration and the judiciary; racist violence; and high levels of negative prejudice and denial on the part of the respective macro-societies.

2. Roma in the post-conflict situation

Recalling the experience of the war in Bosnia and the neglect of the Roma situation in the post-war reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and noting that after the split of former Yugoslavia the international community has not been able to prevent further ethnic conflicts in this region, the Balkan Roma Conference appeals to the international organisations:

  • To guarantee the right of safe return of the Roma refugees to Kosovo;
  • To prevent forced return of Roma refugees to Kosovo and guarantee that Roma who have well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of their ethnicity be given the opportunity to seek asylum outside FRY;
  • To ensure that the highly precarious situation of Roma refugees returning to Kosovo be addressed in any future stabilisation agreement for the Balkans with a view to finding a long-term solution for the security of the Roma persons, families and communities;
  • To ensure that Roma people are recognised as a nationality in the national law of FRY;
  • To ensure that provisions are made in Yugoslav laws for the equal treatment of Roma in all aspects of the post-war reconstruction of FRY;
  • To ensure the implementation of reconciliation programs that will promote ethnic tolerance in FRY and the Balkans;
  • To initiate an international debate on the situation of the Roma refugees and the prospects of their voluntary repatriation;
  • To ensure that, according to their international obligations, all states in the region provide adequate mechanisms for effective participation of the Roma in the political and social processes in their respective countries;
  • To ensure that the Roma organisations are represented and actively involved in the preparation and implementation by the states of policies and programs affecting the Roma communities;
  • To ensure that the Balkan states pursue by all appropriate means policies of prevention of discrimination and racism against Roma and encourage the interethnic accord on the Balkans

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