Forced migration of Roma from eastern Slavonia, Croatia
03 April 1999
Anti-Romani violence in Eastern Slavonia following the reintegration of that region into the Republic of Croatia (see "Snapshots from around Europe", Roma Rights Summer 1998) resulted in the forced migration of local Roma who fled in large numbers to the neighbouring areas of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Romani displacement began in 1997, when previously displaced Croats began returning to their pre-war homes in the region. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that in late 1991, with the beginning of the war in Croatia, 77,000 Croats were expelled from this mostly Serb-populated area. In January 1996, United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) took control of the area from the self-declared ethnic Serb entity of "Republika Srpska Krajina", and began facilitating the return of displaced Croats. In January 1998, authority over the protectorate was turned over to the Croatian government; according to UNHCR, by June 1998, 9000 displaced Croats had returned to the region.
A wave of anti-Romani incidents followed the return of ethnic Croats. Reportedly, Croat returnees blamed Roma for taking the side of Serbs in the war and for looting which had taken place during the war. Anti-Romani sentiment reportedly became particularly intense in the village of Popovac, approximately 15 km from the town of Beli Manastir in north-eastern Croatia. Local monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described the situation for Roma in that village as more difficult than that of the local Serbs, who are also under pressure to leave from a group of extremist Croat returnees. Roma from Popovac told the ERRC that in the spring of 1998, the situation in the village reached such a critical point that they were afraid to leave their homes. Many reported being verbally harassed, insulted on a racial basis and urged to leave the village by some local Croats. In early April 1998, a uniformed Romani policeman, one of three Romani members of the multi-ethnic police force, was physically attacked by an ethnic Croat neighbour while on duty. He did not report the incident because he was afraid. During the spring of 1998 there were reportedly bars and shops in the village with signs saying "Serbs and Gypsies not allowed". A Romani man named Darko Bošković told the ERRC that every night in that period he could hear shouts such as "Gypsies go away" under the window of his family home. One night in early June, around 11:30 pm, someone fired a round of shots at the windows of their new house. Mr Bošković and his elderly parents were all at home, and the shots startled them from sleep - no one was wounded, although the incident made them very afraid. All of their windows were broken, and the family later counted thirty bullets in their furniture. That night, several other shooting incidents reportedly took place in Popovac. The next morning, the Bošković family reported the incident to the Croatian police and the United Nations Police Support Group (UNPSG). Both authorities opened an investigation, but the perpetrators were never found. Other Roma from Popovac testified that following all the incidents they reported, police forces and international monitors would always arrive immediately at the spot and document the event, but that they never arrested suspects, provided further protection or appeared to take action of any kind. This left the Roma with an impression that no one would offer them protection. The Bošković family decided to leave the village immediately after the shooting, and other Roma from the village also left it shortly thereafter. Out of thirty Romani families from before the war, only three remain in Popovac now. Very few of the Roma managed to sell their houses. Those who did have been forced to accept extremely low prices from a state-run real estate agency. Several families left for Norway, as that country did not have a visa regime for Croat citizens at that time. The rest found refuge in the Vojvodina region of northern Yugoslavia. Some have been given refugee status by Yugoslav authorities, but this does not entitle them to any social benefits. Some displaced Roma have had to hide their ethnicity in order to rent accomodation - it was reported to the ERRC that some locals refused to take Romani tenants although they had houses to let. Most of the Roma are unemployed, and their only source of income is occasional seasonal work in agriculture.
Many of the displaced Roma from Slavonia with whom the ERRC spoke complained that the "silent exodus" of non-Croats from the region is not discussed publicly and when it is, the debate addresses the plight of displaced Serbs alone. The UNHCR claims that since the beginning of 1997 at least 50,000 people have left the area. Although many of the Roma would like to go back to their homes, it does not seem likely that they will be able to do so soon - in late February 1999 the OSCE monitors in Slavonia described the local situation as "unstable".
(ERRC, OSCE, UNHCR)