Macedonia: End Cruel Limbo for Kosovo Roma Refugees

Report
from Human Rights Watch
Published on 10 Dec 2003
(New York, December 10, 2003) -- More should be done to address the plight of Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. 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? Addressing 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.

BACKGROUND:

Most Roma refugees in Macedonia owned property in Kosovo, had regular employment and attended schools. Their conditions in Macedonia, in contrast, continue to be dreadful.

Roma families who live in refugee camps are packed in small rooms housing many family members. Those living in private accommodation can afford to rent only small, suffocating rooms, and have been forced to move up to 10 times during their three or four years of living in refuge.

Most Roma refugee children in Macedonia do not attend school or do so irregularly. Many Roma parents are too poor to buy clothes and books needed for school; those children who do attend face harassment by non-Roma students. Human Rights Watch found that Macedonian authorities have not taken adequate measures to protect Roma children from harassment and ensure their equal access to education.

A formal ban on employment on "temporarily humanitarian assisted persons," in effect until July 2003, prevented the Roma refugees from working legally in Macedonia. Some managed to find temporary seasonal jobs -- such as construction work and canal digging -- in the "black economy."

Recently adopted legislation authorizes their employment under certain conditions. However, having been removed from the labor market for four years, and divested of most of their assets and the means needed to launch private enterprises, Roma continue to find it exceptionally difficult to find any employment. The high unemployment rate in Macedonia, compounded by discrimination against Roma in employment, is another impeding factor. The general unemployment rate in Macedonia is between 30 and 35 percent, while in the municipality of Shuto Orizari, where most of the Roma live, it is approaching 90 percent.

Information gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates the Macedonian government will grant the status of persons under humanitarian protection in Macedonia to most of the Kosovo Roma in the coming months. As such, they would have fewer rights in Macedonia regarding employment and social security than would be the case if the government recognized them as refugees.

To date, the Macedonian administrative bodies and courts have generally denied Roma asylum on the grounds that Kosovo Roma could relocate to another part of their country of origin, or that their physical integrity in Kosovo was not endangered. The Human Rights Watch briefing paper calls on the Macedonian authorities to refrain from resorting to these clearly unjustified rationales in the decision-making on asylum claims based on the new Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, adopted in July.

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