As the world marks International Roma Day on April 8, the issue of Roma who fled from Kosovo to the Serbian capital remains a source of controversy.
Verdi Gara, a thin 22-year-old Roma, was evicted along with his wife and three children from his home in Belgrade’s informal Roma settlement in mid-March.
One of thousands of Roma who fled Kosovo following the 1999 war, Gara has been living in Belgrade ever since.
Refugees from Kosovo moved in large numbers to Belgrade, seeing the Serbian capital as their best chance to earn money from collecting waste.
Once in the capital, they often had no choice but to build informal settlements. The settlement at Block 72 that was home to 33 families has now been razed to make way for the construction of commercial buildings.
Of the 33 Roma families there, 20 were refugees. Those with Belgrade residency permits were allowed to stay in Belgrade and given metal containers in Roma settlements that the city has built to provide accommodation to Roma evicted from other parts of the city.
But Kosovo refugees were only offered the choice of going back to Kosovo or moving to collective refugee centres in other parts of Serbia.
According to Amnesty International, collective centres with no basic infrastructure are not an adequate housing option.
It says the government has also failed to guarantee the evicted Roma the possibility of a sustainable return to Kosovo.
Faced with discrimination, segregation, poverty and lack of health and social protection, the Roma community in general is one of the most vulnerable groups in Serbia.
Both NGOs and Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees believe that Roma from Kosovo are in an even tougher position.
Although there are no official statistics, the Commissariat for Refugees estimates that about 22,500 Roma from Kosovo have taken refuge in Serbia. NGOs say the number is much higher, at about 40,000.
Usually having no documents and living in informal settlements, they are frequent victims of evictions and are forced to move to other informal settlements, collective centres or return to Kosovo. They are also often hindered from exercising their right to legal counsel.
Verdi Gara was offered a move to a collective centre in Zajecar, eastern Serbia but refused to go.
“I am supposed to go back to Kosovo, as my house there has been rebuilt. But my brothers sold it without me knowing, so I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Gara says.
“Then I was offered to go to Zajecar but I refused, because I don’t have anything to do there. I’m collecting rubbish in Belgrade and somehow I manage to survive from that. In Zajecar I can’t feed my family,” says Gara, father of two sons, aged five and two, and a month-and-a-half-old daughter.
Although according to the international conventions that Serbia has signed, the authorities were obliged to find compromise solutions with the evicted families, Gara was not offered any other option.
“The authorities held numerous meeting with the families but it was done just to comply with the procedure,” says Danilo Curcic, from the NGO Praxis, which monitored the eviction on behalf of the UN’s refugee arm, UNHCR.
“We have no proof that the authorities tried to reach a compromise,” he added.
In its report, Praxis wrote that the evicted families asked for a piece of land near Belgrade where they could build houses on their own, or be placed in collective centres in Belgrade.
“The civil sector suggested the inclusion of the inhabitants in permanent integration programmes. But all the proposals were rejected without any written record of the decisions,” the same note added.
Gara is currently living in another Belgrade informal settlement in Zemun.
But two days after he moved there he received another eviction order. He believes his decision to refuse to go to Zajecar means that he will end up homeless.
“I don’t know why they can’t just leave us in peace. I have no idea what to do,” he said.
“The boys are older, so they can move, but my girl is so small… I don’t know where to go. I asked for a metal container anywhere in Belgrade, but was refused,” Gara added.
Until publication date, BIRN has not received an answer from the Municipality of Zemun as to why the Gara family was ordered to leave the settlement.
Meanwhile, Nenad Djurdjevic, head of the Directorate for Human and Minority Rights, says the evictions from Block 72 were “an example of good practice.”
“We helped many of them to find accommodation. Those who refused what we offered left the settlement voluntarily,” he says.
Djurdjevic and many other Serbian officials believe that some Roma are “abusing” the fact that the city provides accommodation to Roma who possess documents proving they have resided in the capital for more than five years.
“Many of them came to the city with the idea that the city will solve their housing issues and that they will get rights that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t in the capital,” says Djurdjevic.
The Commissariat for Refugees also believes it would be “unfair” to local Roma if those from Kosovo obtained permanent housing in the capital.
Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas has stated several times that it would be unjust if Roma got apartments while many other Belgraders lacked permanent accommodation.
“But they have failed to see the overall situation and take into consideration why and how those people came to Belgrade,” says Curcic.
The state has no new plan for the thousands of Roma displaced from Kosovo. The collective centres are also to be closed by 2015.
“Those who are not in public collective centres are left out of the system and are under no one’s care. According to my knowledge, there is no sustainable plan for them,” Curcic says.
The Commissariat for Refugees says the Roma will be able to apply for social housing like other refugee families.
“There is no special plan for them, but as they are usually in worse situations than others they will have priority,” the Commissariat told BIRN.
The Directorate for Human and Minority Rights announced that it will soon form a working group to deal with the Roma who fled Kosovo.
In the meantime, Amnesty has launched an initiative to outlaw forced evictions.
“The only way to stop the forced evictions is to prohibit them under Serbian law,” wrote Amnesty in December 2011.
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