Report on the UNHCR/Council of Europe Seminar on “Roma IDPs, Refugees and Returnees: Current Policies, Practices and Plans for Addressing their Needs”, Belgrade, 13-14 December, 2004
The purpose of this seminar was to gather the authorities of Serbia and Montenegro, representatives of states that had granted temporary protection to Roma who fled the country in the late nineties, and Roma representatives to discuss current policies, practices and plans for addressing their needs.
IDPs in Serbia include Roma who came directly from Kosovo and Roma who came to Serbia from countries that had granted them a temporary protection for humanitarian reasons and that had then been forcibly returned under bilateral agreements signed with Serbia. Among the states that signed a bilateral agreement with the country of origin, Germany is the country which is now sending back to Serbia and Montenegro the largest number of Roma..
None of the Kosovar Roma can safely go back to Kosovo. Many of them claim to have no identification papers, either because they lost them or have left them behind when they fled the war. Some Roma claimed that the temporary documentation furnished to them by the host country is systematically confiscated by the Serbian authorities on their arrival. This has been denied by the local authorities.
As a result, they are refused registration as IDPs and find themselves in a juridical no man’s land, without any social assistance or access to school for their children.
The Government authorities were well represented and both the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights and the local authorities took an active part in the discussions. The Ministry for Internal Affairs and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, both represented, refrained from making any statements.
Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and the USA were represented through an Embassy official. The German representative chose to explain his country’s approach to the problem.
The following issues were discussed
The return of IDPs and their registration
Ms. Ivana D’Alessandro on behalf of the Council of Europe, presented the Parliamentary Assembly and Committee of Ministers position on forced return. The Recommendation 1633 (2003) on “Forced returns of Roma from the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, to Serbia and Montenegro from Council of Europe member states” was welcomed by the participants as a powerful instrument to orient member states policies on this issue.
Both the Council of Europe and the UNHCR underlined that the situation in Kosovo does not allow Kosovar Roma to return to that region, and on the other hand that the economic situation of Serbia and Montenegro made it difficult for this country to receive more returnees..
The report of the Council of Europe fact-finding mission to Serbia and Montenegro carried out in February, 2003, was presented to the Seminar and elicited criticism from the representative of the German embassy, who insisted that no Kosovar Roma has been deported under the bilateral agreement. He added that prior to deportation, the identity of the person concerned is thoroughly checked.
The lack of identification papers was mentioned as the major problem by most participants, including the Serbian authorities, as no registration as IDP was possible without them, and no social services were available unless they were registered.
The gravity of this situation was, strangely enough, minimized by a representative of a Roma organization who claimed that only two per cent of returnees lacked these papers. In any case, identification papers were obtainable from their home towns, but the Roma claimed they did not have the means to travel and pay for the documents, which coast is relatively high.
Excellent presentations were made by the Head of the Roma Secretariat, Ms. Tinde Kovac-Cerovic, and Mr. Vladimir Macura, from the Town Planning Institute of Belgrade. Mr. Macura was the Council of Europe consultant in the preparation of the draft recommendation on housing. The underlying principles of this draft recommendation were also presented.
This part of the seminar was a good opportunity to raise the question of evictions of Roma IDPS from illegal settlements.
We also visited two settlements in the suburbs of Belgrade, -Bloc 28 and Gazela in New Belgrade together with UNHCR representatives and a few representatives of the embassies.
The living conditions are appalling, particularly in the Gazela settlement which is situated next to a rubbish dump. Rumor has it that they have been placed there by individuals, seemingly Roma, who are exploiting them by making them collect cardboard and paper.
Both settlements are illegal. In the case of bloc 28, eviction has been postponed to spring, 2005. There is no law which requires that alternative accommodation should be offered before eviction.
We are therefore faced with a population of several hundred persons, many of them children, who have no rights to any social or educational service and very shortly no shelter at all.
The Council of Europe representatives insisted that there was no point in having seminars and making speeches if there was no concrete action taken to alleviate the condition of these IDPs.
In conclusion, it was agreed to hold a meeting limited to the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities, representatives of IDPs and international organizations particularly involved (Council of Europe, UNHCR, OSCE/ODIHR, Red Cross) to discuss specific concrete issues such as:
reception of returnees at the airport;
identification papers issue: the extent of the problem, how to obtain these papers, possible funding of expenses involved;
the Roma currently living in Bloc 28 which is to be pulled down;
schooling of children.
Such a meeting would help to clarify a situation where all the parties concerned are resorting to half truths and passing the blame and responsibility to each other.
In this connection, it is useful to mention that the Informal Contact Group of inter-governmental organizations dealing with Roma issues agreed at its last meeting in November, 2004, to draw up a report on the situation of IDPs and the work of international organizations in this area.