10 November 2008 – There are no precise figures, only estimates, about the number of Roma who have left the former Yugoslavia amidst the nationalist turmoil in the 1990s. The policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is said to have lead to the departure of up to 120,000 Roma.

In the recent years, there have been increasing attempts to deport Roma back to Serbia. Bilateral readmission agreements between Serbia and EU member states have recently been reinforced by the signing of a readmission agreement between Serbia and the European Union.

The UNHCR Position on the continued need for Protection of Individuals from Kosovo has so far provided a few guarantees against the deportation of Roma to Kosovo. However, the Kosovo Roma have allegedly been deported to other parts of Serbia, on sometimes highly questionable grounds. Three years ago, Germany managed to obtain the approval of the UNMIK for the deportation of criminal offenders, a practice which has also been followed by Switzerland.

This agreement has now become obsolete, with the adoption, by the Kosovo government, of a readmission policy and a reintegration strategy which has been hailed by UNMIK as a comprehensive framework to manage forced returns to Kosovo.

In January, the competencies for the treatment of readmission requests have been transferred from UNMIK to the Kosovo Ministry of Interior. As one of the consequences of this transfer, the screening of the readmission requests has been abandoned. The Ministry bases its decision on the sole criteria which is: whether a person is from Kosovo or not.

The governments of the host countries, who, via the international organisations, participated in the draft of these policy papers, have been quick to react to the changes. Already in December, the German Federal Minister of Interior addressed a letter to the Ministers of Interior of the Länder, in which he explained that the usual screening would be lifted, implying that neither the ethnic background of a person, nor the absence of adequate housing will be considered as an obstacle to return.

Soon after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the Swiss Foreign Minister rushed to Kosovo in order to negotiate bilateral repatriation agreements. Last month, the Swiss Federal Office for Migration announced that it will start sending back refugees, including Roma, to Kosovo soon. Even though, the UNHCR has not yet issued a new position regarding protection needs of individuals from Kosovo, the Swedish Migration Office has already anticipated a change in this position, and rejected asylum applications of Kosovo Roma on the grounds that Roma are no longer under threat in Kosovo.

In the region, the status of refugees and IDPs remains precarious, out of the approximately 2,300 refugees, in their huge majority, Kosovo Roma, who applied for asylum in neighbouring Macedonia, only some 28 have been granted a refugee status, according to the UNHCR’s statistics.

Serbia still hosts about 200,000 IDPs of whom an estimated 40,000 are Roma from Kosovo. The living conditions of these people, in card board cities or under bridges, remind one of Third World slums. In spite of being citizens of the same country, their rights have been curtailed.

In spite of the absence of so-called incidents, the situation in Kosovo can hardly be considered as conducive for returns. This was also the message which was conveyed by the Roma representatives who participated in an international roundtable which was recently organised by the Project on Ethnic Relations, together with the ODIHR/CPRSI in Vienna. Aside from security concerns, large-scale poverty combined with widespread discrimination against Roma, make a normal life impossible.

A particular crude example of the marginalisation and neglect of Roma in Kosovo is the unresolved situation, after ten years, of the approximately 700 refugees living on the lead-poisoned land nearby the Trepca mines, or the several dozens of families that are hosted in an army hangar in Leposavic.

NGOs have been calling for a sustainable solution of the refugee crisis, but after ten years, the interest in the issue has considerably lessened, making forced returns of Roma to Kosovo appear unavoidable.

Romano Them