Spring, 2000 Romani Refugee Update
Edited by Joe Benham
According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees) reports and documentation from the European Roma Rights Center, there are currently 5,000 - 6,000 Roma remaining in Kosovo, the majority of whom are living in makeshift camps and receiving nominal aid and protection from the international agencies operating on the ground there. A recent survey conducted by an independent researcher, Paul Polansky, placed the number of Roma currently in Kosovo at approximately 30,000. In his report he stated:
"Since the arrival of KFOR forces and the return of ethnic Albanians to Kosovo, more than 14,000 Roma homes have been burnt. It is not only the local Albanians who are discriminating against the Roma, but also the major aid agencies in Kosovo. In many districts I found Mother Teresa Society openly refusing to deliver food to Gypsies. Islamic Relief also seems to have a policy of not providing aid to Gypsies, although the Roma are Muslim. Even at Oxfam, who have done more for the Roma than any other aid agency in Kosovo, deliveries to minorities are sometimes delayed for long periods by local Albanian staff. Urgent requests for food aid for hungry Gypsy families, made to several major aid agencies months ago, have gone unfulfilled. Although the Roma are the second largest minority in Kosovo (and may soon be the largest minority at the rate the Serbs are leaving), no aid agency, including UNHCR and OSCE (Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe), have hired a Kosovar Rom, although many speak passable English."
Throughout the 78 days of NATO bombings, many Roma remained in Kosovo, while others fled to Serbia, only to find themselves in equally life-threatening circumstances in Belgrade, Nis, and other Serbian cities. Many Roma attempted to flee to Macedonia or Albania, only to be turned back at the border, or to be refused assistance at refugee camps inside these countries by Albanian officials who falsely accused them of being allied with the Serbs.
Those that remained in Kosovo, and those that returned or tried to return to their homes there after the bombing ended in June, found their lives threatened once again by the now triumphant ethnic Albanians. Thousands of Roma were forced to flee at gunpoint, with only the clothes on their backs. Estimates range from 125,000 - 200,000 Kosovar Roma who have either fled to other parts of Serbia, or sought refuge in other European countries, ranging from the southern tip of Italy to the north in Scandinavia. Paul Polansky's survey concludes:
"As seen by the results of this survey, most Roma have left Kosovo to save their own lives. They are not economic emigrants, as some UNHCR staffs depict them, but people desperately trying to survive. From my interviews in the refugee camps in Macedonia and Montenegro, most want to return when it is safe to do so. It is in their culture, their heritage and their tradition that Roma are buried in the homeland of their ancestors. For at least seven hundred years, Kosovo has been their homeland."
Since July, thousands of Roma have made the perilous 18-24 hour journey from Bar, in Monte Negro, to Brindisi, Italy. In groups numbering several at a time, they crammed onto small fishing boats, from which the boat captains jumped ship one to two hours out to sea (over 100 Roma drowned in the Adriatic in August, when one of these boats capsized, a story which received virtually no international press). Upon reaching Italy, Roma had initially been placed in locked camps for illegals. They were often coerced into registering as Albanians in order to receive assistance and documentation. This not only required them to adopt the identity of the very people who had driven them out of their homeland, but once again made them invisible in the eyes of the international help organizations and the media.
When released with temporary papers, many had gone to join friends or family at overcrowded ghetto settlements in various Italian Cities, where living conditions are appalling and the new arrivals are under constant threat of deportation. Other Kosovar Romani refugees, in countries including Austria, Hungary, Germany and Holland, are awaiting uncertain outcomes to their political asylum claims, while living in locked camps with poor food and housing. This takes place fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promises the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. This promise certainly rings hollow for the Roma of Kosovo.
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