Report on developments in the situation of Roma refugees at the Midzitlija border, the "former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Report, 11 August 2003



Background

In January, 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) informed the Roma refugees under the Temporary Humanitarian Assisted Persons Status (THAP) living in Shuto Orizari Collective Centre that the Centre would be definitely closed by 30 April, 2003, due to the sanitary conditions prevailing in the said Centre. As an alternative the refugees were offered private accomodation or accomodation in host families.

In February, 2003, the UNICEF reassured the refugees that their children would continue to receive their education in the schools nearest to their new accomodation.

The refugees were also informed that after 30 April, 2003, they would no longer be able to give the Centre as their address when renewing their THAP status.

Several of the refugees refused to move and following the closure of the Centre, water and electricity were cut off.

On 20 May, 2003, about 800 refugees from the Centre made their way by bus to the Greek border at Medzitlija, with the express aim of entering Greece and seeking asylum there. They were refused exit by the authorities of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia and subsequently camped at the border crossing.

The Government of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia issued an information leaflet inviting the refugees to accept the private accomodation offered and committed itself to accept individual applications for obtaining the status of refugee, in accordance with a new law on asylum expected to be adopted in mid-July.
This was followed by a statement by the European Union Presidency strongly encouraging the refugees to accept the offer of the government of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia.

Following their settlement at the border, the UNHCR provided them with tents, water and medical aid. Food supply was maintained at subsistence level to discourage the refugees from settling there permanently. During the two months that the refugees were camped in Medzitlija the UNHCR ensured a daily presence of its staff at the border in order to continue negotiations and counselling with the group and with individual families.

During the last few days the refugees have started going back to Skopje and by today, 11 August, all the refugees have left the border.


The roots of the problem


Though this mass protest took place following the closure of the collective centre, the closure is not in itself the cause of the problem. In fact the refugees themselves had been complaining for months of the sanitary situation at the centre, and requested its closure and their relocation.
In my view the causes are two:
- the dispersal of the group in separate accomodation. The group feel safer and stronger living together in a collective centre, particularly as it ensures the continued exercise of the leadership.. Their dispersal was perceived as a way of rendering them vulnerable vis-a -vis the authorities. Moreover, some refugees with host families claimed to have experienced harassment from the latter.
- The precarious situation of the refugees in the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia. Their THAP status is renewable every six months. Moreover, they are not allowed to work. This situation has now lasted four years and although all the refugees are grateful for having been given refuge, they feel that they and their children have no future in the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia and wish to enter the Schengen area.

Council of Europe position

Following the settlement of the refugees at the Medzitlija border a task force was set up in Skopje composed of representatives of the UNHCR, the OSCE, the European Commission, the European Union Presidency, NATO, US Embassy, the Council of Europe(Mr Jens Olander), and the EUMM.

Meanwhile several Roma organisations alerted the Council of Europe of the situation at Medzitlija and a letter by Mr Rudko Kawczynski, Chairman of the Roma National Congress, of the 23 May, 2003 to the Secretary General prompted the Council of Europe to take a stand on the situation.

By letter of 5 June, 2003, the Deputy Secretary General, Mrs Maud Buquicchio, replying to Mr Kawczynski, expressed her concern over the situation at the Medzitlija border and strongly recommended that the refugees take advantage of a new asylum law scheduled for adoption in July, and for that purpose should return to Skopje and avoid their current situation of illegality.


On 26 June, 2003, the Deputy Secretary General wrote to the Permanent Representative of the F. Y. Republic of Macedonia to express her concern over the situation and to insist on the need for an early adoption of the new Asylum Law.

The Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Gil Robles, also expressed his concern to the Permanent Representative of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia by letter of 5 June, 2003.

Negotiations

Efforts to convince the Roma refugees to return to Skopje went on unrelented throughout the months of June and July.
The abovementioned Task Force met regularly and representatives of the UNHCR paid daily visits to the refugees.
Mr Nicolae Gheorghe (OSCE/ODIHR) spent long periods at the camp using all his influence as a reputed Roma leader to convince the refugees to return to Skopje.

On 7 June, 2003, the Coordinator for Roma/Gypsies, accompanied by Mrs Eleni Tsetsekou, visited the camp at Medzitlija and tried for several hours to convince the refugee leaders of the need to go back to Skopje, but to no avail.

On the initiative of Mr Rudko Kawczynski, Chairman of the RNC, an informal meeting on the situation was held on 9 July, 2003, at the Council of Europe offices, between Roma leaders, representatives of the FY Republic of Macedonia (Permanent Representative, and representative of the Ministry of the Interior) and members of the Secretariat.
In conclusion it was proposed to hold as soon as possible a restricted informal meeting of representatives of UNMIK, UNHCR,OSCE,the EU presidency, the Greek Embassy, the Roumanian Embassy, the authorities in Skopje (Ministry for Internal Affairs and Ministry for Foreign Affairs), and representatives of the refugees at the border . The meeting would be held in Skopje.

The proposed informal meeting was held in Skopje on 23 July, 2003, under the chairmanship of Mr Branko Bojcevski, Director of the Bureau for public safety, at the Ministry of the Interior.
Although they have had many regular meetings with different authorities and international organisations at the border,this was the first occasion for the representatives of the refugees to meet representatives of ministries, and of international organisations all together.
The meeting lasted three hours (from 5pm to 8pm) and gave the representatives of the refugees the opportunity to give vent to their feelings of abandonment by the international community. In fact the meeting was psychologically beneficial to them as it reassured them that the international community did care.
Following a brief introduction the chairman asked me, as responsible for the initiative, to open the discussion.
My approach was humanitarian. I pleaded with the refugee leaders not to let women, children and babies in their present condition when they know full well that they could not cross the border. I insisted that they had no right to impose such conditions on others more fragile than them (all the leaders are men). Moreover, their action had accelerated the adoption of the asylum law and they should take advantage of it rather than placing themselves in a situation of illegality.

The ensuing discussions covered the whole range of issues
- the precarity of their legal status
- the unfavourable conditions of accomodation with host families
- the fear that the new asylum law (adopted on 16 July, 2003) would be used against them
- the doubtful prospects of returning to Kosovo
- their strong desire to get to Western Europe

On their part, the authorities of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia were prepared to examine all requests for asylum under the new law. A draft decision of the Ministry of the Interior gave the refugees five days to return to Skopje and apply for asylum, thereby regulating their stay in the country. The appropriate application forms had already been distributed at the camp
.
Mr Alexey Kojemiakov, Head of the Public Law Department, (Directorate General of Legal Affairs) stressed that the return of the refugees from the border following the goodwill proposal of the government to register would create a good basis for providing them with the status of asylum seekers. He feared however that the delay of five days imposed by the Ministry of the Interior to leave the border and apply for asylum was too short for 700 persons.*

The UNHCR was prepared to transfer at short notice all the refugees back to Skopje. The refugees would be lodged for a few days in a collective centre and then transferred to private accomodation

During the meeting the leaders of the refugees withdrew to discuss between them and on their return set out orally proposals for their return to Skopje. The proposals as presented sounded prima facie acceptable. The chairman invited them to put them in writing for examination by the authorities.
The proposals in writing were distributed the following day.

The refugee representatives carried on meeting alone or with Roma leaders only throughout 24 July, and then again together with the international organisations on 25 July, 2003. The main obstacle amongst the proposals was the private accomodation..The refugees continued insisting on collective accomodation and in default, independent accomodation, and not with a host family.


Conclusions

1 There is no doubt that the refugees wanted to return to Skopje but did not want to lose face, following their action. They must be made to feel that they have acquired some advantage and that the international community cares. The Council of Europe initiative succeeded in achieving a breakthrough because it helped to show them that the international community does care. All future negotiations, concerning the follow-up to this crisis should take this fact into account.

2 The Council of Europe should continue to follow developments closely. It would be important for the Council of Europe and other organisations to meet in, say, six months time to assure the refugees that they have not been forgotten.
Meanwhile the Task Force is continuing to meet weekly and it is important that the Council of Europe Representative in Skopje should attend these meetings.

3.The proposals of Mr Kojemiakov (DG. 1) to contribute to the work of the UNHCR concerning an expertise of the regulation pending the newly adopted law on asylum and the training of officials dealing with the applications of the asylum seekers should be followed up rapidly by DG 1.


4.The authorities of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia have so far shown remarkable restraint in dealing with the problem. They have tolerated for over two months hundreds of refugees to camp illegally at the border, providing them with water and medical facilities. They have constantly collaborated with the UNHCR, the EU and the Council of Europe in finding a peaceful solution . At both the meeting on 9 July, 2003 togerther with the Permanent Representative of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia and a representative of the Ministry of the Interior and at the meeting on 23 July, 2003, I was most favourably impressed by the tolerant and friendly attitude of the authorities towards the refugees and their genuine concern to end the crisis amicably. I strongly suggest that the Secretary General or the Deputy Secretary General should express to the authorities of the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia our satisfaction with the way they have dealt with the crisis.
 


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*In a private conversation the Director informed us that the five day limit was only intended to push the refugees to take action.
By lunchtime, the refugees had agreed that they would go into private accomodation which they would visit beforehand together with UNHCR representatives.
By today all the refugees are back in Skopje and are being relocated. About 200 of them are in a transit centre for a few days, awaiting final relocation.