Presentation on the occasion of the International Roma Day
Kulturpavillon Hannover, 8 April 2009 (translation)

In Winter 2008, we were invited by the regional director of the World Health Organization in Belgrade, Dr. Dorit Nitzan, to participate on a mission of the World Health Organization to Kosovo. The purpose of this mission was to assess the situation in the refugee camps in northern Mitrovica, where several hundred Roma and Ashkali have lived for almost a decade on a lead contaminated site nearby the Trepca mines.

The situation in the refugee camps Cesmin Lug and Osterode is in so far unique, as that a solution to this humanitarian disaster requires a close interplay between the international community with the local authorities in both parts of Kosovo. However, we believe that it can serve as an example to illustrate some of the problems related with the return and reintegration of Roma in Kosovo.

The refugee camp Cesmin Lug and Osterode are just a few miles from the Trepca mines which were closed down in Summer 2000. In November 1999, the UNHCR accomodated several hundred IDPs from the Roma Mahala in Kosovska Mitrovica and of the southern parts of the province on a an empty site in the vicinity of these mines. When a return of the refugees did not seem possible anymore, the UNHCR raised wooden barracks at the end of 1999, and what was conceived as a temporary solution became permanent.

At about the same time, French KFOR soldiers who were housed in the neighborhood of the refugee camps (the Osterode military compound) were diagnosed with strongly increased lead levels in their blood. The then head of the UN civil administration, Bernard Kouchner, ordered the mines to be closed and an inventory of the lead pollution in the whole area. The UN doctor who released his findings in November 2000 demanded an evacuation of refugees and a closure of the land, which should be made inaccessible for human beings.

 Source: Danish Refugee Council

The picture shows an aerial photograph of Kosvska Mitrovica. Marked in yellow is the area of the former Roma Mahala, which was one of the largest and oldest Roma settlements in the region. Between 15 and 16 June 1999, nearly a week after the end of the war, the Mahala was destroyed and its inhabitants pushed out. Politically speaking, the Mahala is today located in the southern, Albanian part of Kosovo. The refugees are located in the Serbian-controlled North.

The World Health Organization has led several studies in the region. They confirmed that the soil in the entire environment around the mines is highly contaminated by heavy metals, and that all its residents have increased blood lead levels (BLL). However, it also showed that the Roma and Ashkali in the refugee camps have much higher BLL than the other residents of the area.

In June 2004, the then director of the Kosovo office of the World Health Organization, Gerry McWeeney, sounded alarm and called for an immediate evacuation of all pregnant women and children. Four months later, she reiterated her call and asked for the temporary evacuation of all residents of the camps until a final solution was found.

In 2005, the issue briefly attracted international attention. This is due to the reports of NGOs and high-level international representatives, such as the then Kosovo Ombudsman Marek Novicki and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of internally displaced persons, Walter Kälin, who all called for immediate solution to the problem.

In early 2006, UNMIK and other international organization called on the refugees to temporarily move to the former French military barracks which were entirely refurbished for this purpose. Several months later, the foundation ceremony for the reconstruction of the Roma Mahala took place, where the refugees were promised new homes.

Later this month (April 2009), the second phase of the reconstruction project should be completed. However, this project, which was hailed as the greatest return project for the Roma to Kosovo (see video of the French defense ministry) has a few flaws:

First, the city administration of Mitrovica South wanted to build a shopping mall and a recreational center on the site, where the Roma once live. They made use the argument that some of the Roma houses were built on community land, and that their owners could not present due ownership proofs, which is not uncommon in Kosovo.

A compromise was only reached after the international community gave in to the demands of the municipality and left to it a part of the site of the former Mahala.

This, however, angered the former residents of the Mahala, whose representatives started to boycott the Steering Committee for the Reconstruction of the Mahala.
The fact, that the reconstruction of the Mahala was linked with a return of Roma to Kosovo, had also a certain impact. The return to the Mahala was to serve as a show case example to prove that the conditions for a successful return of the refugees were now fulfilled.

According to the UNHCR, more than 440 people have returned to the Mahala so far. They are distributed over 4 apartment buildings and a few dozen single-and multistory buildings. A representative of the former inhabitants of the Mahala firmly denies this information. According to him, more than twenty apartments, and more than two dozen houses are empty.

And indeed, during our visit in January, we saw many houses which were empty. The doors stood wide open, and the windows were destroyed. On the walls of one house we noticed KLA tag. Neighbors said that the owners of those houses were staying abroad and would not intend to return to Kosovo. 

Residents of the Mahala, whom we met in the street, complained that there was no work. They said that even though many aid agencies had been visiting the Mahala, no projects had been implemented. They said that there is no basis for a return and hoped to be able to leave Kosovo.

In fact, the situation in the Mahala, which provided a home to 8,000 to 10,000 people, before the war, is not really inviting for the Roma to come back. After the remnants of the houses have been cleared and largely removed, the largest part of the Mahala is today wasteland. With the exception of a police station, which is located in one of the apartment buildings, an ambulance and a modest playground for children, there is no public infrastructure.

There are no opportunities to work. Even the promised transport for school children has been stalled out of lack of money. Children, who attend school in the Serbian-speaking North, said that they were harassed by Kosovo Albanians, when crossing the bridge over the Ibar river. Garbage is spreading next to the houses. It seems that it is not collected, maybe, because the residents do not pay taxes.

The international organizations involved in the reconstruction project were unable to inform us about the origin of the current residents of the Mahala. The people we spoke to said that they came from Serbia or Montenegro.

Although, 24 families from the camps are set to return to the Mahala this month (April 2009), the majority of refugees prefer to stay in the North. There are many reasons for this, and maybe one reasons is also that the social security system, which is financed by the Belgrade authorities, is more favorable.

The refugees were originally thought to remain nine month in the former French military compound Osterode which was presented as a transit station on the way to a new home. Some of the children with very high BLL went through a therapy, which was terminated short time later, under unclear circumstances.
In March 2008, the Public Health Institute in Northern Mitrovica made new tests, which showed that the lead level in the blood of the children was still very high. As a matter of comparison: In industrialized countries, 5 micrograms per deciliter blood is today considered as an upper limit. The tests conducted in March 2008 showed a median value of 38.9 micrograms per deciliter blood.

Elevated BLL causes permanent health damages, especially for children. It damages the brain which is reflected, among others, to a reduced IQ. Via the umbilical cordon, lead is transmitted from the mother to the fetus. 

The visit in January consisted mostly in meetings with representatives of international organizations and local authorities. It became obvious that the importance of the disaster is today well known and recognized, and there is a large consensus that the refugees must be evacuated urgently. The question is, however, whereto, since the refugees do not want to “return” to Mahala, and that there appears to be no room for them in the North, or, to be more precise, the Serbian political elite is not willing to host them permanently in the North.

It also turns out to be a peculiar problem that UNMIK has largely given away its competencies, and that the EULEX has no influence in the North. We found it most surprising that the representatives of the international community accepted the blockage by the Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, but blamed the Roma for the fact, that their situation is not resolved. It should be clear that the Roma are once again become a pawn in the conflict of interests between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, and that they thus depend, more than any other group, on the support of the international community.

This can be illustrated by the following example. During a meeting with the World Health Organization, the director of the public health institute in Mitrovica North, who is also a local politician, described in a very touching way, how he watched powerlessly, when the Roma were driven out of the Mahala, and that he then advocated for them to be hosted in his municipality, Leposavic. Then, he added that they could no longer stay there, as they were occupying one of the best sites in the municipality, for which there were other plans.

Given the fact, that the international community, in ten years, did not succeed to provide a safe home for a few hundred internally displaced Roma and Ashkali, one may wonder how the return of several ten thousand people to Kosovo can be organised. This is what we pointed out to representatives of UNMIK, who told us that conditions are not right for a return of refugees to Kosovo.

A representative of the UNMIK even said that the reintegration of forcibly repatriated Kosovo Albanians posed problems if they had no accommodation in Kosovo and called on our organization to lobby the western governments to refrain from forced repatriation. The same answer was repeated by other representatives of the UN.

Under the pressure of Western host countries, the Government of Kosovo adopted, in October 2007, a strategy for the integration of failed asylum seekers and so-called illegal aliens. This strategy, which was drafted under the heavy impact of international organizations such as UNMIK and the UNHCR, is laid out to receive up to 5,000 people annually, but its implementation poses problems. In its most recent report, UNMIK has pointed out that in particular the integration of so-called vulnerable groups, which Roma belong to, raises concern.

Some Western governments are now hoping that the transit center for refugees which is to be built in Kosovo, will first serve as a temporary accommodation for failed asylum-seekers. But before this, it will happen again and again that forced returnees will have to spend the night in the street.

In addition to these fundamental problems comes the fact that there are hardly any employment opportunities for Roma in Kosovo. As UNMIK statistics show, there are hardly any Roma working with public administration and public companies, with the exception of the refuse collection, where Roma are over-represented. There are also hardly any Roma working with international organizations.

So it is no surprise that Roma, more than any other community in Kosovo, depend on remittances from abroad. Forced repatriations have thus a two-fold negative impact, for those who are deported and for their families in Kosovo.

We have just highlighted the political situation in Kosovo using the example of the situation of the IDPs in the North. Similar situations exist in other places such as for example, in Rudeš nearby Peć, where Ashkali families are prevented from returning to their place of origin, because it is now located in an area which has been designated as a protection zone in the plan of international mediator Martti Ahtisaari. However, the return of the refugees is an internationally guaranteed right, and is also enshrined in the UN Resolution 1244 (1999).

But even in less tense situations, Roma have no other choice than to adapt to the local majorities. The much-acclaimed minority rights in Kosovo help them little. The majority of these rights are very clearly designed for the Kosovo Serbs. For others, such as the use of mother tongue in communication with local authorities or education in mother-tongue, it is entirely dependent on the local political situation, which is hardly favorable to Roma.

An example: The Kosovo Gazette appears in the so-called official languages, Albanian and Serbian, not only in English but also in Turkish and Bosnian. Whereas differences between Bosnian and Serbian are minimal, save for the Cyrillic alphabet, Romany is a language of its own.
Mother tongue education in Romany is available nowhere in Kosovo. At some Serbian schools there is a possibility to take Romany as an elective subject. This is not only contrary to the Constitution and the law on language use, but also hampers the integration of children who were born abroad or grew up in an other country, and, apart from the language of their host country, speak only Romany.

We have already mentioned the discrimination of Roma in the labor market. Another form of discrimination is the exclusion of Roma from public services. In some cases, there may be objective reason for this, such as the power supply or refuse collection, which are not available to those supplies who do not pay. As Roma belong to the poorest segment of the population, this ultimately results in discrimination.

Our stay in Kosovo was too short to get a comprehensive picture of the security situation. The head of the UN civil administration, Lamberto Zannier, said recently that the situation in Kosovo is substantially stable, but potentially volatile. In addition to political tensions comes the fact, that Kosovo has remained a transit station for mafia and smuggling activities of any kind. Our contacts on the ground told us that Roma still live in fear. In autumn of last year, we received information that a Roma woman had been raped in a hospital in Pristina. Out of shame and fear of reprisals the family has not recorded a complaint.

During our stay, we received reports about thefts of farm equipment or livestock which deprives people of their means of livelihood. We were also told that vacant or illegally occupied homes are destroyed by their inhabitants or neighbors as soon as the owner seeks to collect rent via a rental scheme which was established by UNMIK. The latter was confirmed to us by UNMIK representatives.

We were very much surprised to learn that incidents with an economic background, are not considered as “inter-ethnic incidents” and thus not recorded by UNMIK. Given the fact that the Kosovo conflict as well as the conflicts in other parts of the former Yugoslavia are conflicts over the distribution of wealth, this is indeed puzzling.
Such conditions do not constitute a basis for safe and sustainable return of refugees. Even if there are only a few “security incidents”, they cannot be excluded, but the main obstacle for the majority of the Roma is certainly an all pervasive pattern of discrimination, which is well documented by international reports, and makes live impossible.

It is therefore hardly surprising if the number of those who voluntarily return to Kosovo has remained low and is even declining. The UNHCR recorded 18,232 so-called voluntary minority returns1 over the past eight years, of whom 2,488 concerned Roma. This figure has declined after the March 2004 pogroms. Last year, only 582 members of local minorities “voluntarily” returned to Kosovo.

This figure is contrasted by the number of people who leave Kosovo every year: Last year, approximately 9,100 people from Kosovo sought asylum abroad; the population drain continues.

According to UNHCR, 84.5 percent of all voluntary returns are sustainable. This statement is not based on a scientific survey, but on observations of the UNHCR field teams. For the purpose of this survey, the UNHCR has considered a return as sustainable, even if the returnee was absent at the time of the visit of the field officers, but could be expected to return home within the next six months.

In contrast, the UNHCR assumes that 90 percent of the people, who are forcibly deported to Kosovo, leave again after a short period. This means, that those who forcibly return people to Kosovo, accept that they are subsequently becoming “illegal” aliens.

Given the fact that the international community, in ten years, has not been able to establish the rule of law in Kosovo and to safeguard the rights of minorities, it is indeed cynical and a declaration of failure, if Kosovo’s declaration of independence is now used to forcibly return minorities to Kosovo.

Ten years after the end of the war the issue is still to create conditions for minorities to stay and survive in Kosovo. Only then is it possible to consider refugee returns, on a voluntary basis.

1. This figure includes people who have chosen to “voluntary” return having chosen under the threat of being deported.

See also:

Romano Them: Fact-finding mission to Kosovo and Macedonia, 10 February 2009