Feature 31 Oct 13

Roma Deported by EU Face Harsh Reality in Kosovo

As EU countries deport hundreds of Roma refugees like 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani, the schoolgirl controversially expelled by France, many are struggling to survive in impoverished Kosovo.

Edona Peci
Leonarda Dibrani (left) with her sister. Photo: BIRN

Within days of arriving in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, Leonarda Dibrani wanted to go home.

Not to another town in Kosovo, but back to France. Life in Kosovo was “bizarre”, she told journalists outside the house where her family is now living after being deported by the French authorities - an incident that sparked protests across the country.

“I hope I will [get back to France], but who knows,” she said, speaking in French because she does not know any Albanian, the language of Kosovo’s majority.

Her story shone a light on the lives of hundreds of other Roma who found asylum in wealthy EU countries and started to build new lives, but have now been sent ‘home’ to a place that their younger children barely recognise, if they have even lived in Kosovo at all.

They fled because they were considered allies of the former Serbian regime by the ethnic Albanian majority during the 1998-99 war, but now they are back in the homeland they escaped, living in poverty with little hope that a European education could give their children any chance of a better future.

Gylfidane Qurkolli and one of her sons. Photo: BIRN

One of them is Gylfidane Qurkolli, aged 23, a Roma woman with two children who had to leave her four-room apartment in Hallsberg in Sweden at the end of 2010.

She now lives in a 40-square-metre single room with eight other family members in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje near the capital Pristina.

After having spent six years in Sweden, where her sons, five-year-old Bajram and two-year-old Ibrahim were born, she had to leave the country and go back to Kosovo, where a “cold and bitter reality” awaited her.

“It’s been three years now that we have lived in miserable conditions. I’ve been crying more than I have had the chance to laugh,” Qurkolli told BIRN.

Qurkolli has not been able to apply for work anywhere because she cannot read or write, but she said that “Kosovo institutions” give her monthly aid payments of 50 to 60 euro.

Like Leonarda Dibrani, Qurkolli wants to go ‘home’ to Sweden, where her estranged partner, the children’s father, still lives.

“I hope I can return [to Sweden]. My sons keep asking for their father. This [Kosovo] is not their home,” she said.

The young Roma mother said she was “betrayed” by her partner who has not been responding to her phone calls and emails and is “not interested in bringing his wife and children back to Sweden”.

Poverty, unemployment and discrimination

Gylfidane Qurkolli's kitchen in Fushe Kosove. Photo: BIRN

It is estimated that currently around 35,000 to 40,000 Roma and people from the Albanian-speaking Ashkali and Balkan Egyptian minorities live in Kosovo, and an even larger number who come from Kosovo now live outside the country.

“[Being a Roma in Kosovo] means that you spend your childhood slightly more sick and a lot more hungry, that you have parents who are less likely to be educated, and you yourself are less likely to go to school,” Elizabeth Gowing, one of the co-founders of The Ideas Partnership, a humanitarian volunteer group working in Kosovo, told BIRN.

“If you do go [to school], it will be harder for you to succeed because you have no one at home to help with homework, and are more likely to experience discrimination from your teachers. All this means that when you leave school, you’re less likely to get a job,” Gowing explained.

She said that poverty was endemic among Kosovo’s Roma.

“A high proportion of the families we work with earn their money either by begging or by going through the garbage for scrap, and both of these are occupations which put those who practice them at risk,” she said.

At the end of 2008, the government endorsed its Strategy for the Integration of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities in the Republic of Kosovo 2009-2015, which said that “the central authorities will provide the framework for the reintegration policy while the municipalities will be the main responsible actors for the actual reintegration of the returnees”.

But the OSCE mission in Kosovo, which has been observing the situation of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian people in the country over the past few years, has said that returning refugees are still not getting the help that they need.

“Where municipal returns strategies have been adopted, they are often only partially implemented, and during the implementation of relevant policies, strategies and projects, municipalities are confronted with persistent problems relating to budgetary constraints, lack of political will or commitment by the municipal leadership, lack of capacity among relevant municipal officials, and problems of coordination and information sharing among stakeholders at both the central and local levels,” the OSCE mission said in its latest ‘Community Rights Assessment’ published in July 2012.

Kosovo’s Ombudsperson, Sami Kurteshi, also said that “no changes can be seen in improving the situation” for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian people.

“People of the RAE community remain the most marginalised ones in Kosovo. Unfortunately, people belonging to this community are treated differently compared to other communities and they don’t have the same rights... as other communities do,” Kurteshi told BIRN.

The interior ministry told BIRN that the budget for the reintegration of refugees who have come back from Western countries was 3,170,150 euro in 2012, and that the same amount was allocated for the process in 2013.

According to the ministry, in the first six months of 2013, 434 Roma, 162 Ashkali and six Egyptians were readmitted to Kosovo.

In 2012, 667 Roma, 198 Ashkali and 9 Egyptians were “reintegrated” – given housing, financial aid and assistance in finding jobs and schools for their children.

“Some 24 houses were built, while three were renovated. There are some 54 families, out of which 27 families and 27 individuals from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community in the housing scheme,” the ministry’s press office said.

“Some 284 requests for food and sanitary aid were approved for the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community,” it added.

But Gjylfidane Qurkolli said that she had not received what the ministry claims it is offering to returnees.

“When I returned, I was not offered a house, but had go back to my father’s house. What I received was food and nappies for my youngest son, but after three months, they stopped this aid,” she said.

A source in the interior ministry told BIRN the ministry spent over two million euro of its three million euro budget on reintegrating returnees in 2012 but made “discriminatory divisions” between Albanians and Roma in the distribution of specific aid.

“Double standards have been used amongst Albanians and Roma in several issues related to the reintegration process,” the source said on condition of anonymity.

“Such divisions are mainly seen in the access to social aid and in the education programme. While returned Albanian children are accepted into school without any procedures, the schools ask Roma children for birth certificates, which most of them don’t have,” he explained.

Unwanted in the EU – and in the Balkans

Kosovo Roma evicted in Belgrade. Photo: Beta

The 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo caused thousands of Roma to flee to neighbouring countries.

Estimates put the number of Roma, Askhali and Egyptian refugees from Kosovo in Serbia at somewhere between 22,000 and 40,000. Their plight was highlighted last year by a mass eviction of a Roma settlement in Belgrade.

In Montenegro, they number around 3,000 - many of them living in grim conditions without identity documents allowing them to get work, healthcare or education - while in Macedonia there are some 1,100.

At the beginning of September, the Macedonian government sent letters out to refugees urging them to “regularise” their situation or leave the country.

The letter sent out to some families asked them to “voluntarily leave Macedonia in the course of the next four months, by January 10, 2014 at the latest, on a border crossing of your own choosing, whether with Kosovo or with Serbia”.

“We inform you that after the passing of the deadline, your stay in the country will be considered illegal and measures will be taken according to law,” the letter warned.

Karin Waringo, the president of Chachipe, a Roma rights campaign group, warned that “if the Macedonian government fulfills the threat which is implicit in this letter, they risk being deported on the verge of the New Year 2014”.

She told BIRN that “these returns cannot be considered as voluntary returns since the people were not left with any other option”.

A dilemma for Leonarda

Leonarda Dibrani could be considered the lucky one. After being detained by French police during a school trip earlier this month and deported from France, she has been told by the authorities in Paris that she can return and continue her studies there.

But although French President Francois Hollande said that the 15-year-old whose case sparked worldwide interest can go back, at least temporarily, her family cannot.

So whatever is decided for Leonarda’s future, her five siblings will have to continue living a house in the mainly Albanian-populated Ilirida quarter of the city of Mitrovica, some 40 kilometres from the capital of Kosovo – a country where they were not born and which they do not see as their homeland.

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