The other refugees

03 April 1999

Dimitrina Petrova

Among the Kosovo refugees there are thousands of Roma: they arrived during the first weeks of the NATO bombing in Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Hungary. The world hears nothing about them, and thinks that the Kosovo refugees are only ethnic Albanians. Some Romani refugees claim that they were ordered by others from refugee convoys to declare themselves ethnic Albanians, and to speak only Albanian, in order to make the number of displaced Kosovo Albanians higher. Roma from Kosovo are Muslim and Christian. According to the interviews the ERRC conducted with Romani refugees, the former were treated as Albanians by Serbian authorities and were expelled from their homes; the latter took the side of Serb authorities and suffered violence and threats from KLA and ethnic Albanians.

Reportedly, Romani refugees have been discriminated in the distribution of humanitarian assistance. The Romani MP in the Macedonian parliament said on April 7 that he himself witnessed at the Blace border crossing that while ethnic Albanians were receiving food, Roma were not given any by the activists of El Hilal, a Muslim humanitarian organisation, and the Macedonian Red Cross. We have also learned that Roma have had difficulties when signing up to go to western countries. Thus, those Roma who managed to escape persecution quickly discovered the difference between being a refugee and being a Gypsy refugee.

In the Kosovo context, it has been Serbs against Albanians, Albanians against Serbs, and everybody against the Roma. During the break up wars of ex-Yugoslavia, much like during the World War II, Roma have been despised and abused, but their suffering was not acknowledged. Their continued persecution was only very rarely recognised and only very recently asylum was awarded in a small number of cases by western governments. Fifty years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its promise of the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution rings hollow.

These days, Roma are second class refugees among those we see on TV in the Kosovo news. Why? Because Roma have long been refugees. Not only from Yugoslavia, the country of origin of thousands Roma who have been waiting for over two decades in vain for residence permits in Italy, for example. Throughout their history, Roma have been forcefully deported, restricted to certain areas, banned from certain countries or towns, and even held as slaves. In November 1992, Germany repatriated all recent Romani arrivals back to Romania. Many Roma in Macedonia were forced there by Germany.

The ERRC, as well as many others, have been reporting racial assaults often resulting in deaths and injuries; invasions into private homes by armed police; looting, burning and evictions, sometimes of whole Romani communities; and constant problems in acquiring or maintaining citizenship and residence. Very few people have expressed sympathy or solidarity with the Roma. Officials at home have announced that they are to blame for their own misfortune. Asylum authorities, backed by politicians in the democratic West, have declared them to be economic migrants. Panicked by several hundred Romani applicants, European countries have tightened their immigration laws to prevent what the British press once called the "Gypsy invasion".

While other peoples - Kosovars, Kurds, Chechens, etc. - have sought to change their destiny through armed confrontation, the Roma have never taken up arms. Yet, they have lived the lives of forced migrants, victims of systematic persecution. In the tragic "event" of a mass exodus, such as the one out of Kosovo, one at least hopes that the world is watching and may help. But what happens when forced migration due to persecution is the daily reality?

Roma have been, for much of their history, forced migrants, many of them real; and all of them potential. Roma are a persecuted people with no mainstream media to cover their tortured journeys, no safe haven across any border, and no military alliances to interfere in their defence.

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