Background

Since April 2008, Romano Them has been monitoring the situation in the IDP camps in Northern Kosovo whose inhabitants have been affected by exceptionally high levels of lead-poisoning, causing irreversible damages to the health of young and new-born children.

Following intensive discussions, the organization was invited by the regional office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Belgrade to participate in a health assessment mission in Kosovo. The mission took place from 27 to 31 January 2009 including meetings with international community representatives, Kosovo government and local institutions, and community leaders.

During the visit, in which Romano Them participated from the second day on, the organization had the opportunity to speak with IDPs and returnees. By the end of the mission, Romano Them left for a three day visit to Macedonia with the aim of assessing the situation of the Roma refugees from Kosovo. On 4 February 2009, Romano Them returned to Kosovo, where it met with representatives of the international community in order to discuss refugee returns and repatriations. 

Since the sanitary and environmental aspects of the situation in the camps will be the subject of a separate report, which is prepared by the WHO, the following report will concentrate on political and social questions as well as on the issue of refugee returns and forced repatriations.

 Lead poisoning in IDP camps

Much has been written and much more has been polemicised surrounding the lead-poisoning in the IDP camps in Northern Mitrovica. Almost ten years after the war, the camps which had been set up to provide a temporary shelter to the inhabitants of the Roma Mahala following their violent expulsion by Kosovo Albanians, are still hosting some 480 people, divided between the old Cesmin Lug camp and the newly refurbished Osterode camp, where they have been relocated to in 2006.

Romano Them got alerted on this issue in April 2008, when an article published in the New Kosovo Report claimed that the Blood Lead Level (BLL) in the blood of children had doubled. Romano Them launched an enquiry with the international organizations which have been involved in the issue including UNMIK; UNICEF and WHO, before it was forwarded the results of new tests which had been carried out by the Institute for Public Health in Kosovska Mitrovica, by one of the camp leaders. 

Romano Them subsequently called on the international organizations to release the entire results of the tests which have been conducted over the last nine years in order to allow for an assessment of the situation. It also asked for the immediate opening of negotiations with the inhabitants of the camps regarding their relocation to a safe area.

Romano Them‘s participation in the health assessment mission of the WHO has been the outcome of intensive discussions with the regional office of the WHO in Belgrade surrounding the character of the crisis and its solution.

The mission team was composed of two representatives of the WHO regional office in Belgrade, an expert of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and Romano Them.

During the first three days of the visit, various meetings were scheduled with representatives of the international community and of the Kosovo government in Pristina. During these meetings, the WHO presented the results of its evaluation of the tests conducted since the establishment of the camps. The organisation concluded that there has been a slight improvement of the BLL in particular among those IDPs who moved from the old camps to the newly Osterode, but insisted that the situation still constitutes a medical emergency. Dr. Mary Jean Brown from the US-based CDC pointed out at the detrimental effects of lead-poisoning, particularly on the health of children and new born. She said that the tragedy is not that children are dying, but that lead-poisoning is taking away their future and pointed at its lasting impact on the children’s IQ.

Consequently, WHO asked for an immediate relocation of the IDPs and a closure of the camps. It reminded that the Osterode camp had been established as another temporary solution which has come to last for two years, already.

Romano Them confronted numerous prejudices regarding Roma claiming that their “life style” or habits were responsible for the sanitary crisis in the camps. The organization insisted that the exposure of the IDPs to life threatening levels of lead contamination consisted of a violation of basic human rights. It also said that the situation in the camps needs to be seen in a broader Kosovo context where little had been done for the Roma. As a case in point, Romano Them mentioned the appalling conditions in the Leposavic camp, a former Yugoslav military hangar, which had been adapted to provide a temporary shelter for the Roma who had been chased from Southern Mitrovica and other parts of Kosovo and has also lasted for about ten years.

In view of the fears expressed by different representatives of the international community that a relocation of the inhabitants of the two camps would draw IDPs and refugees from the neighbouring countries to move into the newly evacuated camps, Romano Them said that it was necessary to tackle the refugee problem within a regional and European framework as many countries had failed to integrate the refugees. It pointed out to the incongruence of aiming to forcibly repatriate several ten thousands of people to Kosovo if a solution for 480 people could not be found.

While the talks with the local authorities such as the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for Returns and Communities rather focused on practical, every day issues including the medical follow-up of those who returned to the Roma Mahala and the transfer of documents between the North and the South, talks with the representatives of the EU and the United Nations (UNMIK), consisted in finding a “long-term” solution to the sanitary emergency implying a relocation of the inhabitants of the camps to a safe environment. Whereas the US-based NGO Mercy Corps had already started with the implementation of a 2.4 million $ project financed by USAID, consisting in the relocation of 50 families from the camps, the EU Commission is still in the process of initial assessment. Commission representatives said that the Commission delegation wanted to develop a comprehensive approach including the relocation, the cleaning of the location, income generation schemes, and awareness-raising. They also said that it was necessary to work closely with other stakeholders and that they would meet with USAID and Mercy Corps. 

WHO explained that the purpose of its mission was also to “find out who is responsible.” Romano Them called for the establishment of a task force aimed to coordinate the activities of different stake holders. It warned of the risk of further delaying a solution to the problem. 

UNMIK representatives pointed out to the fact that the reconstruction of the Mahala in Kosovska Mitrovica was complicated by the fact that some of its former inhabitants did not hold property documents which was used by the municipal authorities in Mitrovica South to withhold parts of the land formerly inhabited by the Roma. They also explained that UNMIK had no possibility to intervene in the North. Another problem which was raised was the shortage of funding which explained why the distribution of dairy problems to the inhabitants of the camps had to be terminated.  

The issue of refugee returns from Western Europe was briefly evoked, where UNMIK representatives made clear that there are no conditions for returning Roma. Accordingly, even in the case of ethnic Albanians who are returned to Kosovo without a family or accommodation, a reintegration is difficult.

Romano Them said that, given the lack of cooperation and obstruction by the local structures, it was unfair to put the blame on the Roma. It said that if the international community was not able to impose its will on neither the Kosovo Albanian, nor the Kosovo Serb authorities, it should be prepared to give something in return to the Roma. It also said, that if a return to the Mahala was unrealistic and a relocation in the Northern part impossible, the inhabitants of the camps should be given the possibility to relocate to another country.

On the fourth day, the mission team visited the Roma Mahala in Kosovska Mitrovica, where most of the inhabitants of the camps originate from. Romano Them took the opportunity for a short investigation of the site. It saw several finished and half-finished buildings, some of them small apartment blocks, others family houses. One of these blocks had a police station and a pub. Behind it, there was a playground for children. A little far away, stood several empty family houses, all of them with open doors and doors and windows smashed. One of these houses bore the inscription “UÇK” in white, painted letters. 

Romano Them talked with a few inhabitants of the Mahala. They complained that they received no assistance whatsoever except for social welfare payments from the Southern municipality. They said that many organizations visited the Mahala, but that no projects were realized. The lack of income opportunities and unemployment were quoted as major problems.

Residents said that the empty houses belonged to former inhabitants of the Mahala who escaped to Western Europe. Given the dim economic outlook, they said there were no opportunities for return. Even for them, they said “third country resettlement” was the only hope.

Romano Them met a group of children on their way to school on the Serbian side. While they claimed not to face any problems at school, they said that ethnic Albanians were shouting at them when they crossed the bridge to the North. 

In the afternoon, of the same day, the mission team visited the Leposavić camp, a defunct army hangar, which has been accommodated to host IDPs. The building is dark-green and hostile. It is surrounded by shacks, some of them inhabited, others serving as stalls for poultry. As usual in these locations, Romano Them found the conditions extremely cramped and unhealthy. Families of ten and more people, sometimes three generations, shared single rooms with only one window. The walls, made of compressed wood, bore black marks from dampness. Inhabitants presented cockroaches as yet another evidence for the unhealthy living conditions.

Contrary to what was said by different representatives of the international community, the accommodations were generally very clean. As usual for Muslim families, people did remove shoes at the doorstep. The walls were nicely decorated, documenting an evident will for ordinary housing standards. The outside, however, was clearly untidy. The whole surrounding of the hangar is bare soil which became muddy from the wet winter weather. The whole area is invaded by old metal stemming from scrap collections, constituting a dangerous playground for children. Residents asked for containers to be placed to clean up the waste. Romano Them saw some outside latrines. Obviously, sanitary equipment is shared by all the inhabitants of the camps, making it difficult to maintain tidiness.

Several inhabitants claimed to suffer from chronic diseases including heart problems and asthma. Children were of pale complexion as a possible indication of malnutrition and anaemia. Romano Them met with a family whose members are affected with a congenital handicap, for which no help was available.

Romano Them met a single old person who had relatives in another part of Kosovo and asked for a house to be built so that she could join them. Another old woman expressed her deep despair for having to live ten years under such circumstances. She claimed that the policy of the Nazis consisting in mass executions of Roma was more human. Another Egyptian family claimed that it had no place to go, since it was neither welcome in the North nor the South of Kosovo. 
 

WHO visited the health centres in both sides of the towns in order to make sure that medical assistance to the residents of the camps was not disrupted by the failing transfer of documentation. The meeting at the health centre in Mitrovica North was joined by a delegation from the Health Ministry in Belgrade. 

On the last day of the visit, the team visited the IDP camp in Osterode. The purpose of the visit was to inform the inhabitants about the results of the analyses in reaction to complaints that the inhabitants had not been properly informed by the WHO. However, the information had not been properly disseminated to the refugees who stayed away and refused to speak to the team. At the same time, there were several representatives of international organizations present in the camps.

Later on, different explanations were provided for the IDPs refusal to speak to the representatives of WHO. What was however very obvious was that the inhabitants of the camps feel insecure and are being pressurised from all sides. Reportedly, the IDPs have been blamed for a law suit which has allegedly been filed against Serbia on the grounds of the European Convention for Human Rights.[1] At the same time, it has been clear that the IDPs are welcome on neither side of the Ibar River.

Romano Them got confirmation that the whole issue smells heavily of politics, and that the inhabitants of the camps are being trapped that they cannot move to either side without being blamed. This is why it called on the particular responsibility of the “international community” for resolving the problems of the Roma in the camps.

The visit was concluded by a joint press conference of the WHO and the UNDP, during which the director of UNDP spoke of failure of the international community and issued an urgent call to put an end to the violation of Human Rights and the rights of children.

 The situation of the refugees in Macedonia

On Saturday, 31st, January, Romano Them travelled further to Macedonia. In Shuto Orizari, the organisation met with representatives of the refugee committee with whom it has been cooperating, in past. During the first two days, Romano Them heard the complaints of the refugees relating to their unresolved status in Macedonia. It was shown the new identity papers. There are different types of documents/colours depending on status of the refugees, red for those who have been granted asylum on the basis of the 1951 Geneva Convention, (some 28 people according to the UNHCR statistics), brown for those with a temporary status on humanitarian grounds, and blue for those who are living in a mixed marriage and qualify for Macedonian citizenship. Those refugees whose asylum application has been rejected by the Macedonian Supreme Court continue to hold special identification papers for refugees called “žutni kartoni”, yellow cards.

Romano Them understood that the introduction of these new ID documents has caused great confusion among the refugees. Parents were worried about the fact that their children have not been registered in there documents. Furthermore, it seems that the holders of blue ID cards now have to pay in order to receive particular health services which has lead to the rejection of these cards.

Romano Them was given intensive information on the health situation of the refugees and access to health care. Accordingly, many refugees suffer from chronic diseases such as rheumatism, asthma or bronchitis. Romano Them was particularly concerned to learn that a huge number of refugees including small children seem to be administrated anti-depressants, sometimes in high doses, in order to cope with stress and trauma.

The refugees complained that there is no ambulance available to take people to hospital. Hence, the refugees have to take a taxi which is overstretching their small budget. They also complained about the cumbersome procedure according to which they have allegedly first to visit the local Red Cross, before seeing a doctor which leads to deadlocks on weekends and in the evening. Many of the refugees seem to suffer from the impact of malnutrition. Several middle-aged persons had many of their teeth lost. Young children were said to suffer from anaemia. The refugees also reported that there are hardly any old people in their community. Cases of TBC were also reported.

Schooling was mentioned as yet another problem. Many children seem to have abandoned their education after their flight from Kosovo, since they were often obliged to start from the first grade. Another problem is secondary school, which obliges the refugees to leave Shuto Orizari, where most of them are accommodated. Parents said that they are afraid to let their children out. Many of the girls seem not to receive any school education which tradition alone does not explain.

Housing was also mentioned as a problem. Refugees in Shuto Orizari are accommodated in private houses. They allege that the owners exploit their difficulties in finding housing and raise the rent in a discretionary way forcing people to change residence every few months.

As an obvious sign of what it means to change housing all the time, it could be seen the accommodations of the IDPs in Leposavic were mostly decorated in a personalised style. Of the families visited in Shuto Orizari, one family, which did not have to move, had been able to buy its own furniture whereas other families lived in slept on the floor.

They also reported changes in the registration procedure, imposing people to be accompanied by the owner of the houses when they register at a new address.

Romano Them also heard that newly born children had no identification documents at all. Apparently, they are not issued ID cards or enlisted in the ID cards of their parents. Moreover, it seems that the refugees were advised by the Macedonian authorities not to get in contact with the Serbian embassy in Macedonia in order not to jeopardise their status. As a consequence, the only document these children have is their birth certificate.

The main concern of the refugees regards their future. According to them, a few families had agreed to return to Kosovo, but security concerns together with concerns about possibilities to ensure their livelihood, in a hostile surrounding, were mentioned as the main obstacles to returns. Some families continued to cherish hopes for a third country resettlement. In this context, there was a lot of questioning surrounding the resettlement of Kosovo Roma from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the United States. Other families simply wanted to have a perspective for their children as they consider that life for themselves is over.

On 5 and 6 February 2009, Romano Them met with representatives of international organisations in Macedonia including the EU Commission delegation and the WHO. It highlighted the problems faced by the refugees and asked to pressure the Macedonian authorities in order to work towards the integration of the refugees, in line with the recommendations issued by the Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg.

In a meeting with the local Open Society Institute, the problems in the field of education were discussed. Romano Them pointed to the fact that the refugees had not been included in the National Strategy for the Roma Decade.

Romano Them has unfortunately not been unable to meet with representatives of the UNHCR in Skopje in order to discuss the situation of the refugees and plans for a sustainable solution to their problems.

 The situation of Roma in Kosovo and Repatriation plans

Romano Them concluded its visit with talks in Pristina. It met with representatives of the Council of Europe to whom it conveyed its concerns regarding the poor legal status of Roma in Kosovo and the fact that their voices remained largely unheard.

It further discussed repatriation plans of the governments of the host countries with representatives of the UNHCR and UNMIK. Romano Them received information that Germany and Switzerland were about to start or have started negotiations regarding the signature of bilateral readmission agreements. Romano Them also heard that Denmark and Sweden were in the process of negotiating such agreements. The organisation was further informed about changes in the readmission procedure after the complete take-over of the responsibilities in the field of return and readmission by the Kosovo government. However, it was also told that the number of forced returns in 2008 had been low, involving 71 people, mostly so-called criminal offenders with some of these people however only convicted for minor theft.

Romano Them was told that contrary to voluntary returnees, forced returnees were not offered any kind of assistance. Problems start with the reception of the returnees where some EU countries are nurturing hopes that the planned construction of a transit centre for asylum seekers could help to alleviate the problems of the reception of forced returnees. Romano Them received information from a journalist, that an Ashkali family which was forcibly deported from Germany had to sleep two nights in the streets, before finding an accommodation in a collective centre.

Access to documents, registration, education and health care remain a problem.

Romano Them reported information regarding security incidents which it received during its visit. These included the rape of a Romani woman at a hospital in Pristina and the theft of farm animals. It learned that incidents with an economic background are not considered as interethnic crimes and that incidents need to be reported to the police or the OSCE to be entered into the UNMIK reports.

 Conclusion

The Kosovo government is about to embark or has already entered negotiations with the governments of host countries regarding the signature of readmission agreements. For the moment, the UNHCR position on the international protection needs for individuals from Kosovo of 2006 is still valid. According to this document, Roma are still considered as in need of individual protection and should not be deported to Kosovo. The document is currently under revision, but the UNHCR remains of the opinion that the conditions for a sustainable return of Roma are not met.

With the transfer and take-over of responsibilities in the field of return to the Kosovo governments the patterns for forced repatriations have however changed. Most importantly, the ethnicity of a person to be deported is no longer communicated to the competent authorities dealing with readmission, nor is their health status.

Even if admitting that there are no conditions for large-scale returns of Roma, – the Roma strategy which has been adopted by the government in December, gives priority to improving the situation of those still in the country – , the Kosovo government will not be in a position to reject repatriation requests. Quite on contrary, it seems quite keen to proof that Kosovo has deserved independence and is ready to receive returnees from all ethnicities.

On the grounds the situation is very different from the public rhetoric. The most obvious problem faced by Roma is the difficult economic situation which becomes a question of survival for a small and marginalized community. The economic hardship experienced by the Roma largely results from structural discrimination and prejudices.

Unfortunately, the international community has failed to create the conditions for Roma to lead a safe and dignified existence in Kosovo. Their interest have been sacrificed towards the interests of Kosovo’s two largest communities, the Kosovo Albanians and the Kosovo Serbs. The failure to reconstruct the Roma Mahala in Mitrovica is the most stringent evidence for the failure of the international community to safeguard the interests of the Roma.

Contrary to Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, the Roma do not have a strong political lobby. Prejudice against them is ripe and prevents the development and implementation of a policy that would create a stable livelihood for Roma in Kosovo. Crimes and harassment against them remain under- or unreported.

Even if under different premises, the condition is quite similar in neighbouring Macedonia where refugees have been left on their own devices for years. Instead of being able to start a new life, they have been kept dependent of humanitarian assistance.

While there seem not to be any immediate threats of forced repatriations of Roma from Macedonia, the phasing out of this assistance which is the main and often the sole basis of survival, may prompt so-called voluntary returns to Kosovo.

In Kosovo and in Macedonia, a whole generation of Roma has been sacrificed. Many children know no other life than life in camps and temporary shelters. They have grown up with the traumas of their parents and are likely to convey these traumas to their children. Lead is conserved in the bones and transferred to the baby in the womb via the umbilical cord.

The reminiscences of Fascism were heard in Kosovo. They were echoed by the refugees in Macedonia who see no end to their suffering.

Before considering any refugee returns, the international community and, in particular, those countries, that participated in the NATO military intervention against Yugoslavia, should seek to find a solution to the problems of the refugees and IDPs in the region. Unless this is done, new returns will only increase misery.

10 February 2009

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[1] Romano Them verified these information with lawyers who have been involved in this issue. Accordingly, there is no such law suit against Serbia. The fact that there is such a rumour indicates, however, that the IDPs are subject to any kinds of pressure and accusations.