Kosovo Romani Refugees Denied the Right to Leave Macedonia

29 October 2003

On May 19, 2003, approximately 700 Roma left a UNHCR-administered camp for Romani, Ashkaelia and Egyptian refugees from Kosovo in the Šuto Orizari municipality of Skopje and went as a group to the Medžitlija border crossing with Greece. They were unable to cross the border and seek asylum in the European Union because Macedonian officials would not let them cross the border and because the Greek government made clear that it will not let them in.

The Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians at issue are from Kosovo. The homes of many have been burnt to the ground or otherwise destroyed. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo continue to threaten Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians with violence. Kosovo remains dangerous for Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians, a fact broadly acknowledged by competent international bodies. Until May 19, 2003, the group lived in a camp administered by the UNHCR in the Romani municipality of Ĺ uto Orizari in Skopje, Macedonia. The Roma had repeatedly complained that conditions in the camp were bad. There were no doors on the entrances to some of the barracks and there were holes in the walls. Trash was not collected often enough. Conditions in the camp were such that many of the Roma - including young children - were frequently ill. Many of the refugees have had no regular work or even irregular work for four years. Children have received some lessons but no formal schooling and they are now many years behind in their education. Moreover, inhabitants of the camp were not allowed to move freely. On several occasions, police in the camp physically abused Roma living there.

Beginning in early 2003, the UNHCR began putting pressure on the Roma in the Šuto Orizari camp to go into private accommodation in homes in Macedonia, or to move to the Katlanovo Collective Centre on the outskirts of Skopje. Some of them - reportedly 55 individuals - took up this offer to go into private accommodation. However, it is widely known among the refugees that the private accommodation available to Romani refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia is frequently in poor conditions such as in windowless basements, where refugees live up to ten to a room. There are also widely circulating stories about persons who have been evicted from such housing with no notice.

As to their legal status in Macedonia, in the direct wake of the NATO bombing in 1999 and the ethnic cleansing of Roma from Kosovo by ethnic Albanians following the cessation of the NATO action have been, until mid-Spring 2003, sheltered under a collective status, generally renewed every six months (although the government has generally waited until days before its expiry to renew the status). Persons arriving subsequently have not received the collective status, but have applied for refugee status in Macedonia on an individual basis. The Roma at the Medžitlija border for the most part used to be under collective status, but failed to re-register at the end of April 2003 when this expired. Others have applied for refugee status but been rejected. The overwhelming majority have no status in Macedonia now and most are reportedly also without passports.

Approximately one week after the Roma fled to the Medžitlija border crossing, the Macedonian government distributed a leaflet to the refugees, indicating that it would not tolerate an irregular refugee camp at the Medžitlija border crossing and inviting the refugees at the Medžitlija border crossing point to return to Skopje and to accept the previously offered accommodation in private homes and in Katlanovo Collective Centre. The government leaflet also indicated that the government would accept individual applications for asylum from the persons at the Medžitlija border crossing point who had not re-registered their collective status in time. The Macedonian government's offer to the refugees to apply for asylum on an individual basis must be taken with a measure of skepticism in light of the fact that it was made in a week in which the Macedonian Supreme Court rejected the final appeal for asylum of one Romani man from Kosovo, and all of the refugees are aware of this and other similar negative decisions by lower courts. Very disturbingly, officials at the Ministry of Interior have reportedly threatened that persons who do not apply for asylum may be forcibly expelled to Serbia and Montenegro. These threats are especially worrying in light of the fact that Macedonian police have already allegedly expelled Romani persons to Kosovo in the past. In early July, apparently in response to the crisis, Macedonian parliament approved an asylum law - Macedonia's first - but Macedonian officials have reportedly stated that the law is not a mechanism through which all of the Kosovo Roma currently in Macedonia can secure permanent status in Macedonia.

Several international non-governmental organisations, notably the Roma National Congress and the European Roma Rights Center, have taken the position that the group should be allowed entry/facilitated entry to the European Union or other Western countries, on grounds that Macedonia has failed to provide conditions of dignity to the refugees. Prior to the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S. government brought approximately 300 Roma out of Macedonia to the U.S. On May 22, 2003, the ERRC sent a letter to European Commission President Romano Prodi, expressing concern about the manner in which the Macedonian government has dealt with the Kosovo Romani, Ashkaelia and Egyptian refugees since their arrival in the country. The ERRC urged EC President Prodi to undertake any and all measures within his power to facilitate bringing the refugees to European Union countries and provide them with international protection. In a response on behalf of Mr Prodi dated June 18, 2003, Mr David Huly, a Unit Head within the European Commission's External Relations Directorate General, stated, "[?] the background of this protest is for a large part the legal status provided to the refugees in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, unsatisfactory in view of international standards [?] the Commission has been taking this matter very seriously and placed it high on its agenda with the country's authorities." The letter further stated that the Macedonian government's commitment to adopt a new Law on Asylum in July 2003 is a positive development and encouraged the refugees and their representatives to "engage in serious discussions with the Government to resolve the situation."

On May 30, 2003, the ERRC forwarded a petition to EC President Prodi and to the Prime Ministers of all EU member states on behalf of the approximately seven hundred Kosovo Romani, Ashkaelia and Egyptian refugees at the border. In the petition, the refugees requested to be resettled and integrated into countries of the EU. Several governments have notified the ERRC that the petition has been forwarded to their national offices responsible for refugee and asylum issues. On June 3, 2003, a representative of the Greek Presidency of the EU urged the refugees to accept the offer of the Macedonian government, according to the MILS News of June 4, 2003. On June 16, 2003, MILS News reported that the refugees' applications for asylum in Greece - filed in late May at the Greek embassy in Skopje with the assistance of the Roma National Congress - had been rejected.

The apparent transition from group status to invitation to apply for individual status raises a number of concerns. Macedonian courts have already rejected the applications for asylum of a number of Roma, and Macedonian police have expelled Roma to Kosovo. In light of the extreme weakness of the Macedonian judicial system generally, the widespread ignorance of refugee law in Macedonia, as well as predominant anti-Romani sentiment in Macedonia giving rise to a skepti-cism that Roma from Kosovo may be genuine refugees and informing a prevalent hostility to the idea of integrating members of group, there is a real possibility that the move to indi-viduated status will be the first step to ultimate expulsion, either to Kosovo or to further displacement in Serbia and Montenegro. Further information on the situation of displaced Kosovo Roma living in Macedonia is available on the ERRC's Internet website at: www.errc.org.

(ERRC, MILS News)

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