Displaced Kosovo Roma in the region: an update
07 November 2001
The plight of the Roma forcibly displaced from the Kosovo province continues. An update on their situation in the neighbouring regions follows:
Some 19,551 Roma from Kosovo were registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Serbia excluding Kosovo in the end of 2000, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This is 10.5 percent of the total IDP population registered in Serbia.
Numerous local and international organisations are united in their judgement that the Kosovo Romani community lives in the most precarious conditions in Serbia. Under the status of internally displaced persons, Kosovo Roma in theory have all the rights of other citizens of Serbia, including the right to education and health care. However, in practice, many of the displaced Kosovo Roma do not have personal documents, which makes the realisation of these rights very difficult in practice. According to the non-governmental organisation Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre, there have been cases of Kosovo Roma asking for assistance in local medical centres, but being told that their health cards have not been stamped (approved) recently. The stamping is normally done in the social work centres in the municipality of their origin - in this case, municipalities in Kosovo, where Roma cannot go, as it would be extremely dangerous for them. Displaced Kosovo Roma are thus precluded from state medical care entitlements. Also, prescriptions issued in medical centres provide for free medicine in state pharmacies and displaced Kosovo Roma lacking proper documents are reportedly frequently unable to have access to these as well. Similar impediments apply to education. Kosovo Romani children have the right to education, but local schools are overcrowded, and in some cases unwilling to accept Roma. They very often request that Romani parents provide birth certificates or other documents, which many families did not bring with them when they fled Kosovo and that they now cannot obtain due to the highly unsafe situation for Roma in Kosovo. Also, most displaced Kosovo Roma live without basic facilities, such as water supply and electricity, and many children are reportedly ashamed to go to school due to the effect of poor sanitary conditions on their personal hygiene. An additional obstacle is their lack of knowledge of Serbian, as in Kosovo many attended schools in Albanian and were raised in non-Serbian-speaking environments.
A vast majority of Kosovo Romani IDPs in Serbia are accommodated with their friends and relatives. According to UNHCR, only 7 percent of all IDPs in Serbia and Montenegro live in collective centres. Some Romani activists state that this is a result of racial discrimination, as most displaced Serbs from Kosovo are accommodated in IDP centres, hotels and military barracks, while most Roma live "in the streets", and take care of their own housing. The few collective centres that accommodate Roma are reportedly overcrowded, and have highly inadequate hygienic facilities and water supply.
Displaced Kosovo Roma encounter numerous difficulties in Serbia: Some speak only Albanian, and many are Muslims in a Christian environment. They suffer attacks from non-Romani refugees and law enforcement officials. They have found support within the local Romani community, yet many Serbian Roma are themselves impoverished, unemployed and widely discriminated against on racial grounds. Local Roma are very much in need of assistance themselves.
In Montenegro, according to the latest available data of the UNHCR, there were 5,840 displaced Roma from Kosovo in June 2000, which is 19.3 percent of the total IDP population in the republic. As in Serbia, their legal status is one of internally displaced persons (IDPs) - which technically entitles them to all privileges available to the local population, yet this is not the reality of their situation.
An unspecified majority of Kosovo Roma are hosted by relatives who are Montenegrin residents. As a result, high numbers of people now share rooms in highly substandard housing. As for Kosovo Roma accommodated in official camps, the living conditions there are also for the most part inadequate: The camps are overcrowded and unsafe, and fire accidents are common. According to the Montenegrin press, a fire broke out in the Konik I camp on the outskirts of Podgorica on June 19, 2001, and completely destroyed three prefabricated houses and rendered homeless as many as one hundred Roma. This was the fourth fire in the camp in the last two years. On July 23, 2001, the Podgorica-based daily Pobjeda reported that the entry to the Konik I camp was fully covered with garbage, disposed of at overfilled garbage containers, as the municipal waste disposal services had not taken away the waste for several days. The daily also noted that the dump, located only a few metres from the closest shacks, constituted a constant threat of disease for the Romani children who play in its immediate vicinity. Additionally, the official camps are outnumbered by unofficial camps, self-made temporary shelters that no agency is providing with any form of assistance. According to the Montenegrin non-governmental organisation MARGO (Association for Help and Support to Marginal Society Groups), several unofficial Kosovo Romani settlements are under threat of having the electricity and water supply cut off, as the communities cannot pay for the bills. The UNHCR office covers only the utilities of the official camps, which are only large enough to accommodate only a very small portion of Kosovo Roma in Montenegro.
The current humanitarian situation of Kosovo Roma in Montenegro is worsening, due to the fact that very high numbers of international non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian assistance in Montenegro have closed down their programmes, or are in the final stages of their operation. According to information provided by MARGO, as of November 8, 2001, four such organisations have completely closed their offices and four more have drastically reduced their programmes. Local financial resources are reportedly inadequate, due to poor economic conditions in Montenegro, and recently the government has drastically reduced social assistance to its own citizens as well. State subsidies for bread and milk have also been cut recently, which hit the poorest citizens the hardest. Promised financial assistance of the United States government came with a significant delay, which caused huge difficulties for the most vulnerable residents dependent on government support, such as pension recipients, refugees and IDPs. One good indicator of the extent of the current hardship of Kosovo Roma in Montenegro is the fact that, in the first three weeks of September, 2001, there were four episodes of attempted illegal crossings by Kosovo Roma over the Skadar Lake into Albania, apparently with the aim of continuing the trip further to Italy. Such crossings of the Adriatic Sea generally take place under extremely dangerous conditions and in summer 1999, over a hundred Kosovo Roma drowned when the boat in which they were fleeing sank off the Montenegrin coast.
The educational situation of Kosovo Romani children in Montenegro is dire for a number of reasons. Most of the settlements are away from schools, and children do not have any adequate transport; most schools offer education only in the Serbian language, while the mother tongue of the majority of Kosovo Romani children in Montenegro is Albanian. Many local schools also claim that they are already overcrowded and that they cannot accept more pupils. Economic deprivation stands as an obstacle to many Romani children too. Many members of the local non-Romani population object to the inclusion of Kosovo Romani children into Montenegrin schools. The Belgrade-based non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) reported on September 13, 2001, a case in which ten displaced Romani children from Kosovo who were not allowed enrolment in a primary school in Niksic, despite the fact that the children had successfully completed preparatory classes organised by a local non-governmental organisation. The HLC investigation pointed to racial discrimination on the part of school authorities. As of September 24, 2001, the children were enrolled, but only after the Humanitarian Law Centre and the Open Society Institute, Montenegro publicised the case and appealed with the Montenegrin Ministry of Education. Difficulties with enrolment of Kosovo Romani children into primary schools have also been reported in Podgorica.
Connections between local Roma and those displaced from Kosovo are strong due to the existence of numerous family ties, as most Montenegrin Roma have in fact arrived from other regions - mostly Kosovo - in the last several decades. However, despite good will, the local Roma are financially powerless, as their community is also plagued by high unemployment and poverty. For this reason, the presence of thousands of displaced Roma in their environment presents an additional, and very heavy, burden on the local community.
In Macedonia, at the end of the year 2000, there were 3,934 registered Romani refugees from Kosovo, according to the United States Committee for Refugees. Local Romani organisations, however, claim that there could be over 7,000 Kosovo Roma in Macedonia, many unregistered and simply living with relatives or in the open. All refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia, including Roma, are temporarily protected and have the status of "humanitarian assisted persons" (HAPs). On September 26, four days prior to its scheduled expiry on September 30, the Macedonian government announced that HAP status would be extended until March 28, 2002. The policy of providing Romani refugees from Kosovo with only temporary protection, in effect since 1999, leaves Kosovo Roma in Macedonia under constant threat of expulsion to Kosovo at the end of each term. Business Week of May 21, 2001, quoted an official of the Macedonian Foreign Affairs Ministry as saying that Kosovo Roma are not real refugees, but instead are "just a bit too afraid to go back to their homes," ignoring numerous reports of continued racially motivated violence against Roma in Kosovo, including episodes as recent as November 2000, in which Roma have been killed only hours after returning to their homes (for more on the case, see www.errc.org.
Of the registered Kosovo Roma in Macedonia, 1,710 live in the collective centres Suto Orizari and Katlanovo, while most others are accommodated by host families. The camps are reportedly overcrowded, with poor hygienic conditions. Unsatisfactory conditions in the camps give rise to a real risk of outbreaks of infectious disease. There have been reports of police abuse of Kosovo Roma in collective camps. All categories of HAPs, regardless of their accommodation, are heavily dependent on international humanitarian aid, as the HAPs do not enjoy the right to employment in Macedonia. The Macedonian health care system is supposed to offer services to HAPs free of charge, but Kosovo Roma report that Macedonian hospitals have asked them to pay high fees for treatment. Most children do not attend schools, and parents blame aid agencies for not adequately securing the access of displaced Romani children to proper schooling.
According to reports, Romani refugees from Kosovo suffer racial discrimination from both ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian communities in Macedonia. Ethnic Macedonians insult Kosovo Roma on account of their Muslim names and call them "terrorists", while ethnic Albanians see Kosovo Roma as collaborators of the Serbs in Kosovo. The camp at Katlanovo is physically isolated, which increases the sense of insecurity of its Romani inhabitants. According to Business Week of May 21, 2001, on at least one occasion, ethnic Albanians shouted insults and hurled stones at the Roma in the camp in Suto Orizari.
Additionally, because of recent armed conflicts, the local Macedonian population is also affected by displacement. As of August 28, 2001, the Macedonian Red Cross registered 70,728 internally displaced persons within Macedonia, an unspecified number of which were Roma. Macedonian Roma have also fallen victim to fighting in the country: According to the non-governmental Association for Human Rights Protection of Roma based in Stip, central Macedonia, on July 26, 2001, Mr Dzavit Bajrami, a 68-year-old Romani man from the Drenovac 2 settlement in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, was killed in the shelling of the settlement on July 24, 2001. Four Romani houses were reportedly set on fire in the fighting in and around Tetovo.
(Association for Human Rights Protection of Roma, Business Week, Civil Society Resource Centre, ERRC, Humanitarian Law Centre, Macedonian Red Cross, MARGO, Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre, Pobjeda, UNHCR, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Open Society Institute Montenegro, United States Committee for Refugees)