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Serbia and Montenegro: Forced 'home'

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Originally published
by Marek Antoni Nowicki

If Kosovo's refugees are to be sent back to a homeland that is no long really home, the authorities must at least create the conditions necessary for them to build a real home.

Many people in Kosovo know what it means to be in an unfamiliar country with strange habits and an alien culture, nurturing a strong desire to return home.

But what if you were told that you were home already?

This is the fate that has befallen untold numbers of people in Kosovo - and more are to follow.

Several European countries have concluded agreements with Kosovo's UN administration (UNMIK) for the forcible return of unsuccessful asylum seekers to the province. The practice has been going on for some time and is expected to gain momentum since the situation on the ground is said to be improving.

People who fled Kosovo and have often spent the greater part of a decade in their adopted country - working, forging relationships, embracing a new language or culture, or getting an education - are now told that they are no longer welcome and that it is time they went "home."

The "home" they know of may not only hold negative memories for these refugees; many of them, including children, simply do not know the place to which they must now return, and the communities they left no longer exist.

What exactly did these governments think when they decided to repatriate people to Kosovo?

That refugees who have been eligible to collect monthly social assistance in their host country could expect the same in their "homeland"?

That a Kosovo Albanian or Ashkaeli who has been living in Germany for the past 15 years must naturally speak Albanian?

What of those who were toddlers when their parents took them abroad? Or those who were raised in a German-speaking environment, educated in a German school?

A spokesperson for Kosovo's government recently commented that the story contained good news and bad news. The good news: the returns signal that the general situation in Kosovo is improving. The bad news: the returnees will receive not one bit of assistance. They arrive at Pristina airport and are left to fend for themselves.

How are they expected to navigate their new homeland?

In Kosovo, where unemployment is rampant and the budget deep in the red, is it realistic to assume that they will be able to make a living? This is especially difficult for those who happen to belong to a minority, such as the Ashkaeli or Roma. Inter-ethnic accommodation and coexistence is still the exception not the rule in Kosovo.

Not only are these people returned to Kosovo against their will; the return is in some countries selective, targeting primarily individuals with a criminal record. Since many of the people who fled Kosovo over the years are members of minorities, this selective repatriation only serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes that parts of the Albanian majority hold about them.

Let us acknowledge that these returnees are not really returning home - because Kosovo has not been their home for a long time and the Kosovo they are returning to is not the Kosovo they left.

But let us also acknowledge that, for the moment, forced returns from Western Europe are a reality and must be dealt with.

UNMIK, the Kosovo government, and the province's municipalities need to create some sort of infrastructure to handle the influx of these new inhabitants. Returnees need to be provided with shelter, employment opportunities, and language courses for children. The government should develop special programs to help them integrate into Kosovo society through social assistance and social housing.

But how can such conditions be created without taxing the limited resources of the province and its current residents?

Aside from the obligation of UNMIK and of the Kosovo government to initiate such programs, citizens and municipalities must deal with this issue head on and understand that it is their duty to create the conditions necessary for the returnees to be able to establish a real home here.

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