Human Rights concerns regarding the situation of Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia
Mrs. Judith KUMIN
UNHCR Bureau for Europe
Rue Van Eyk 11b
B – 1050 Brussels
Mr. Volker TÜRK
Director of International Protection
P.O. Box 2500
CH – 1211 Geneva 2
cc.: Mr. Thomas HAMMARBERG
Commissioner for Human Rights
Dear Mrs. Kumin,
Dear Mr. Türk,
We are a coalition of Roma rights NGOs and support organisations working in the field of asylum and migration.
We are writing to you in order to express our concern regarding the situation of the Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia. Indeed, we have learned that these refugees, who have lived in Macedonia for more than a decade, are currently experiencing serious hardship. This has followed the transfer of responsibility for the distribution of financial aid from the UNHCR to the Macedonian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.
We understand that the UNHCR in Skopje tried to prevent any suffering caused to refugees as a consequence of this transfer. Nevertheless, the refugees have experienced repeated payment delays, since March 2010, when the transfer became effective. Many of them have also lost their housing allowance as a result of the restrictive criteria which have been set by the Macedonian Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, and which the refugees are unable to meet.
In May 2010, the UNHCR in Skopje issued a “bridge payment” to those refugees under the responsibility of the Ministry. This concerns persons who have been granted asylum on the basis of 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol or subsidiary protection. However, according to our information, the problems have not been settled.
Moreover, those refugees whose asylum applications have been rejected, in a final instance decision, by the Macedonian Supreme Court, have lost all their entitlements. Initially, the UNHCR, in its subsidiary role, continued to provide assistance to these refugees but this assistance was discontinued in March 2011. As a consequence, many refugees have become unable to pay their rent, and utilities, or to purchase food and essential medicine, which is not provided by the health centre. With the approach of a new school year, secondary school students worry how to pay their transport and the fees for their exams. Adult people are upset, because they do not know how to purchase firewood for the winter.
We are unaware of the reasons behind this decision, but we share the feelings of the refugees that the purpose is to speed up their return to Kosovo. Indeed, we have noticed a strong increase in the number of those who have allegedly returned to Kosovo since 2010. This concerns all categories of refugees, with the exception of those very few refugees who have been granted a refugee status in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Since the beginning of 2010, 325 refugees have left Macedonia. This is almost a quarter of the entire population. The sharpest increase is witnessed amongst those, whose asylum applications have been rejected by a final instance decision. This phenomenon started in 2010 and has gained momentum in 2011. Together with statements from the refugees, alleging that they were promised financial aid if they applied for a “voluntary return” to Kosovo, this leads us to believe, that money, or the lack of it, is the main factor explaining the sudden interest in returning to Kosovo.
Your agency has always maintained that refugee returns to Kosovo should occur on a strictly voluntary basis. In your 2009 eligibility guidelines for assessing the international protection needs of individuals from Kosovo, you have pointed out the difficult situation faced by ethnic minorities in Kosovo and you have underlined that the situation of Roma is particularly problematic. Accordingly; “Kosovo Roma inhabiting any part of Kosovo, continue to face serious restrictions to their freedom of movement and the exercise of fundamental human rights, including serious societal and sometimes administrative discrimination that would limit in particular their ability to exercise their political, social and economic rights.” For this reason, you have also ruled out the internal flight alternative, as you have excluded the possibility for Roma to relocate to Serbia.
This is why we are unable to understand why the UNHCR in Skopje is not more vindicatory and vocal in denouncing the Macedonian authorities unwillingness to integrate the refugees. Furthermore we question why the UNHCR has not denounced the complete lack of support from the international community, in particular, the European Union. Indeed, the Integration strategy for refugees and foreigners, which was adopted in December 2008, does not provide a durable solution to the situation of the Kosovo Roma refugees, who have lived in Macedonia for more than a decade, who had their children born and brought up there, and have established links with the local community. This is excessively vague in its language and fails to identify clear targets and reasonable time-frames for its implementation. These problems are not resolved with the National action plan for the implementation of the strategy, which does not define any concrete measures aside from feasibility studies and information campaigns.
Another issue of concern is the status of the refugees. Indeed, their current legal status does not grant them permanent residence rights in Macedonia. Refugees under temporary protection need to have their status renewed every year. To continue leaving them in this uncertainty is inhumane, in particular, because the situation in Kosovo is still not conducive for sustainable returns. Therefore, the only solution to grant the refugees a life in dignity is to grant them a permanent right of residence in Macedonia, integrate them into Macedonian society and guarantees them their basic human rights.
The Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia have experienced terrible suffering. During their time in Macedonia, they have not been given the chance to recover from the persecution they experienced in Kosovo. Instead, they had to endure additional hardship. Forcing these refugees to return to Kosovo by depriving them of their financial assistance will only serve to revive their traumas. Many of them are unable to return home as their houses have been destroyed or are still occupied. Others will be afraid to return to places where their community has been wiped out and where they may be accused of having collaborated with the Serbs. They will thus inevitably end up in a situation of secondary displacement within Kosovo or Serbia, which the UNHCR seeks normally to avoid. Others will try to make their way to the EU, in the hope of finally being able to live without fear.
We believe that the UNHCR, with its mandate to assist and protect the refugees and find durable solutions for them, should not ally itself to a process, which will ultimately lead to another uprooting of an already uprooted and fragile population and to the destruction of family links. Instead, we are calling on you to work with the Macedonian authorities and with the ‘international community’ in order to find durable and dignified solutions for these refugees.
Indeed, we consider that the ‘international community’, and in particular the European Union, are responsible for these refugees, who have been kept in Macedonia as part of a regional containment plan knowing full well that Macedonia with its own inherent instability and economic problems, was neither willing, nor able to shelter them. They should assist Macedonia with the integration of refugees and offer them a new prospect of life.
One of the most urgent issues to be resolved is to grant all refugees, including those whose asylum application has been rejected by a final instance decision, a durable solution in Macedonia. We can only reiterate the statements of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Mr. Thomas Hammarberg, who has criticized the fact that the residency of the refugees in Macedonia is still considered as an interim measure. He has asked for their status to be reassessed and for them to be issued proper IDs, taking into consideration their long-term residency in Macedonia, to which we should add the flawed character of the RSD procedure.
Moreover, we believe that serious efforts need to be undertaken in order to integrate the refugees into the labour market. Indeed, it is simply unrealistic and unfair to count on the refugees self-reliance, as they have been kept out of the labour market and in a situation of dependency for almost twelve years and lack the capital, skills and contacts for such an endeavour to be successful.
Children and young people should be given the possibility to complement their often incomplete school education and be offered fellowships to pursue higher education and university studies. The housing issue needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. Finally, we believe that the refugees should be given the opportunity to start therapeutic courses as many of them are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, which cannot be healed through the mere provision of drugs.
Our organisations are ready to assist the UNHCR in advocating a durable solution for the Kosovo Roma refugees in Macedonia. Such a solution should be based on their free will and their active involvement and not be imposed on them using methods which can be at best qualified as inconsistent and thoughtless, at worst as blackmail.
We would like to thank you in advance for your consideration of these matters and would very much appreciate if you could inform us about the steps you have taken as a follow-up to our letter.
Chachipe a.s.b.l., Luxembourg
Sebastijan Kurtisi und Joachim Rosenberg
Roma Union Grenzland e.V. Aachen/Germany
Förderverein Roma e.V., Frankfurt am Main/Germany
Nedzo Neziri Nedzmedin
Union des Roms d’Ex-Yougoslavie en Diaspora, Troyes, France
Union française des Roms du Kosovo, Saint Etienne/France
Romane Aglonipe, Hannover/Germany
Project Roma Center, Göttingen/Germany
Centre de Médiation des Roms et des gens du voyage, Namur/Belgium