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Serbia and Montenegro: The rush to repatriate

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News and Press Release
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by Karin Waringo

Germany and other host countries up the pressure on Kosovo refugees to go home, despite abundant signs that they are still not welcome there.

No mercy. On 24 June, the interior ministers of the German Länder rebuffed a proposal to remove the threat of forced return from at least a few of the thousands who fled the conflicts in Kosovo. Federal Interior Minister Otto Schily had simply asked that children who had been in Germany for several years, along with their families, not risk deportation.

The refusal of the states' ministers to consider Schily's proposal means that up to 54,000 people face the risk of being forcibly sent back to Kosovo. Most are Roma, Ashkali, and Kosovo Egyptians; a minority comprises ethnic Serbs and Albanians.

DEFINING AWAY A THREAT

Kosovo is entering a new phase of insecurity. In February, the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group warned that violence might escalate in Kosovo if the Albanian-speaking majority's expectations of achieving independence soon are frustrated. In March 2004, a sudden and unexpected outbreak of violence led to the deaths of 19 people and the displacement of more than 4,000 Serbs, Roma, and Ashkali, chased from their homes by angry Albanian rioters. NATO is making contingency plans as the province enters "the sensitive period," as Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer put it recently, when the international community is to assess the province's readiness to begin multiparty talks on its future status.

The coordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, Erhard Busek, acknowledged in a recent newspaper interview that, six years after the end of the war, Kosovo Serbs and Roma still face problems being accepted by the Albanian-speakers who make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population. He nevertheless defended the German government's repatriation plans as part of a normalization process.

Voluntary returns to Kosovo have been slow to take place. By the end of last year, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reported 12,000 "minority returns," defined as the return of people to places where their community is not dominant. About 10,000 forced returns were registered in 2003 and 2004, the majority of them ethnic Albanians, followed by Bosniaks and Ashkali.

Until this spring, UNHCR defended the position that people belonging to minority communities in Kosovo continued to face threats and should therefore not be forcibly returned. But in March the agency changed its position regarding the Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptians, stating that their situations should be assessed on a case by case basis. (The Ashkali and so-called Egyptians of Kosovo are Albanian speakers, unlike the Roma, who typically speak Serbian.) On 26 April, the German federal government struck a new agreement with the UN civil administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, enabling Germany to propose the names of up to 500 Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptians monthly for forced repatriation, although it is thought that only about a fifth of these will actually be sent back after going through a screening process.

The agreement excludes members of the Roma ethnic group from forced repatriation for now, except for up to 20 (from September 2005 up to 30) Romani convicts serving jail sentences of two years or more. In September new negotiations are set to take place. The optimistic forecast by UNMIK and Berlin is that all restrictions on forced repatriations can be lifted as of 2006.

SECRET PROTOCOLS FOR "VOLUNTARY" RETURNS

From a right defined in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999 ("the right of all refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes [in Kosovo] in safety"), the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to Kosovo has turned into a threat. The present deportations are hardly compatible with UNMIK's principles for sustainable return, defined as a free and informed choice, nor with the principles enacted in the UN-authored "implementation plan" for Kosovo: "All refugees and displaced persons who wish to return to Kosovo must be able to do so in safety and dignity."

Over recent months, representatives of the elected Kosovo government have multiplied their appeals to the communities in exile to return to Kosovo. A Kosovo Serb has been appointed as minister for returns. Several municipalities have established return commissions. Officials visited neighboring countries and received visits from their counterparts in turn.

As a result, Macedonia and Montenegro signed protocols on refugee returns with the government and UNMIK. In high contrast with the German agreement, these protocols concern only voluntary returns, but the wording of the agreements is not public and the refugee communities fear that they may face the same destiny as their fellows in Germany and other West European countries. Moreover, representatives of the Macedonian government have already announced that they will put pressure on the refugees to go home.

The situation in Kosovo remains volatile. The UN administration has recently shown a tendency to downplay the security concerns of the refugees, noting for instance that no serious act of "ethnically motivated crime" has been reported since the mob violence of March 2004. The UN refugee agency makes similar claims in its position paper released in March 2005, concluding however that the absence of serious violence against members of minority communities may be linked to their newly restricted freedom of movement.

UNMIK, however, has also in effect admitted that the terms of the repatriation agreement with Germany are hardly practicable. In an appearance before the U.S. government's American Helsinki Commission in May, UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen acknowledged that Kosovo lacks the capacity to absorb large numbers of returnees. He repeated this in response to a letter from the Kosovo Ombudsperson, Marek Nowicki, in June, adding that UNMIK had not agreed to and he did not expect any massive returns of Kosovo Roma from Germany or other countries, not mentioning, however, whether he was also referring to Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptians.

REFUGEES AT HOME

What is often overlooked is that Kosovo also is burdened with a large number of internal refugees, or internally displaced persons. In late June the UN special envoy on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Walter Kälin, visited Kosovo. By the end of his visit he was deploring the situation of many IDPs who are forced to continue their miserable lives in camps and elsewhere because there is no donor money available to implement their return to their homes, which may be just a few kilometers away but in many cases were destroyed in the 1998-1999 conflicts or occupied by members of more powerful groups. He added that the lack of attention to this problem particularly affects the non-Serbian minorities - Roma, Ashkali, Kosovo Egyptians, and other smaller groups who feel caught between the two main ethnic communities.

At the end of April, the disastrous living conditions of the Roma living in camps at Zitkovac, Cesmin Lug, and Kabalare briefly caught the attention of international media. Blood tests conducted by the World Health Organization revealed above-normal levels of lead in 40 percent of the people tested. Twenty-seven people, the latest a 26-year-old man, have already died from what their relatives see as the consequences of the lead contamination in the soil of the camps.

The people living in these camps are the former inhabitants of the old Romani quarter, in Kosovska Mitrovica. In April, UNMIK, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations proudly announced an agreement with the municipal council on the reconstruction of the mahala, which burned down in June 1999 under the eyes of French KFOR troops. At a donor meeting in May, however, no international sponsor came forward with funding.

UNMIK has released only scant details about returns and forced repatriations under the new agreement with Germany. From the exchange of letters between UNMIK and Nowicki it emerged that 14 Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptians were repatriated in the first weeks after the agreement came into force. Jessen-Petersen has also acknowledged that Germany is not the only country that is currently exerting political pressure for the return of refugees. Soon, the Kosovo government, Serbia, and the international community will open talks on the final status of Kosovo. Because refugee return is one of the preconditions for talks to begin, a window of opportunity is opening for host governments to send refugees back.

Resistance is building slowly. The world seems to have forgotten that the Romani refugees, never welcome guests wherever they went, left their country under violence and threats. In one of his regular columns in the Kosovo press, Ombudsperson Nowicki reminded the host countries that the "home" to which their governments wish to return refugees may hold negative memories and in many cases not even exist anymore.

While the refugees abroad are often crippled by fears that any act of resistance might aggravate their case and make deportation more likely, their cause is being taken up by their communities in Kosovo. Members of the Kosovo Roma and Ashkali Forum have started to speak out against what they call an open experiment on undefended communities. In a call to the high representatives of the international community they demanded an immediate end to the deportations and asked to be included in the negotiations on Kosovo's future.

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