More should be done to address the plight of Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper. The Macedonian government, its Western counterparts, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should redouble efforts to ensure them dignified living conditions.

The briefing paper, “Out of Limbo? Adressing the Plight of Kosovo Roma Refugees in Macedonia,” describes the dismal conditions that Kosovo Roma refugees face in Macedonia. Human Rights Watch urges the Macedonian government to make stronger efforts to improve their status in the country, and calls on Western governments and the UNHCR to seriously consider resettlement for those refugees who are in a particularly difficult situation.  
 
“These refugees are in a cruel limbo,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Most of them clearly can’t return to Kosovo while their prospects for integration in Macedonia remain dim. It’s high time that the Macedonian government and its Western European counterparts end this untenable situation.”  
 
Macedonia is currently hosting some 2,500 Roma refugees displaced from Kosovo as a result of the 1999 war. In May, Macedonian authorities and UNHCR closed Shuto Orizari, the largest camp hosting Roma refugees, due to unacceptable health and sanitary conditions. To draw attention to their desperate situation, the 700 Roma who had lived in the camp then occupied an area in the immediate vicinity of the Macedonian-Greek border, near the village of Medzitlija.  
 
On August 9, exhausted and frustrated by the lack of visible achievements after 80 days of protest, the Roma refugees abandoned Medzitlija for several other locations within Macedonia.  
 
“While the Medzitlija crisis has passed, a viable long-term solution for the Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia continues to elude the Macedonian government and relevant international actors,” said Denber.  
 
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper argues that conditions are inappropriate for the return of most Kosovo Roma, because their property in Kosovo was destroyed when they were expelled and their security cannot be guaranteed there.  
 
Relocation to other parts of Serbia and Montenegro is also not an option, because the Kosovo Roma already displaced to these areas face undue hardship in meeting what UNHCR terms as their basic social, cultural and economic needs. The Serbia and Montenegro government itself acknowledges that living conditions for displaced Roma in Serbia are “extremely poor.”  
 
For the time being, the only two practical options for the refugees appear to be resettlement to third countries or integration in Macedonia. But the latter option is feasible only if the Macedonian government and relevant international agencies significantly improve the legal, economic and social situation of the affected Roma.  
 
Most of the Kosovo Roma refugees favor resettlement in third countries, but EU member states appear to be unwilling to accept them.  
 
“Resettlement should not be excluded when countries of refuge are coping with a protracted refugee crisis of this kind,” said Denber. “For more than four years now, the Macedonian government has failed to provide these refugees with a sustainable existence, making the prospect of integration ring hollow.”  
 
Human Rights Watch argues that third countries with resettlement policies, working with the UNHCR, should give serious consideration to accepting those individuals whose prospects for safe voluntary return to Kosovo and integration in Macedonia are particularly dim.  
 
At the same time, and as long as conditions for safe return to Kosovo are not in place, the Macedonian government, with the assistance of international institutions, should strengthen efforts to recognize the status of Roma refugees, and enable them to fully enjoy their rights under the Refugee Convention as well as other human rights treaties.  
 
10 December 2003

The report is available at:

http://hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/macedonia1203/macedonia1203.pdf (in English)

http://hrw.org/macedonian/press/2003/macedonia121003-bp.pdf (in Macedonian)

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