Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Kosovo’s Roma speak either Serbian or Romany as their first language. Most are Christian Orthodox, but some are Muslim. They are a dispersed group, with a significant number remaining displaced after the violence of 1999 and 2004, mainly in camps in Kosovo and Serbia. The European Roma Rights Centre has estimated the pre-1999 Roma population at 120,000. In the 2011 census, which excluded North Kosovo, estimated a total of 8,824, though 2010 OSCE estimates suggested that there were around 34,000 Roma people residing in Kosovo.
Until the 1990s, Kosovo’s Roma were a very diverse group: they spoke Romany, Albanian or Serbo-Croat, and were Muslim or Orthodox Christians. From the 1990s, however, Roma have divided into three self-identifying groups, Roma, Ashkali or Ashkaeli and Egyptians. Ashkali and Egyptians largely speak Albanian as a first language and commonly live with Albanians in urban areas and villages. The latter differ from the former in that they consider their ancestry to be traced to Egypt. Those identifying as Roma generally speak Romany or Serbian and tend to live in mixed Serb/Roma or single ethnic villages and enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.
The Roma came to the Balkans in the 13th century. In Kosovo, they settled early, but were viewed as second-class citizens and faced rampant exclusion. During World War II, they were persecuted and many were killed. Although they still faced discrimination, the Roma fared better during Tito’s Yugoslavia than either before or after.
In the early 1990s, when many Albanians were dismissed from their jobs, Roma took some of their positions. Roma were used by the Serbian authorities to bury the dead during the 1999 war, and are seen by many Albanians as collaborators with Milosevic’s regime. For this reason, they faced attack by ethnic Albanian militants during and following the 1998-1999 war. In 1999 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians – as many as 100,000 by the end of the conflict – were forced to flee the Mahalla in Mitrovica, where they lived, amidst a campaign of intimidation and arson by Albanian extremists. The victims were then resettled in UN camps, which were highly contaminated. A large number of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians were encamped in Serb-controlled northern Kosovo, near the Trepca lead mine, where many, including children, suffered from severe lead poisoning. Despite being aware of the public health emergency since 2000, UNMIK was slow to relocate Roma from these camps despite alarming reports by the World Health Organization, other international institutions and non-governmental organizations. More than a decade after displacement during the ethnic conflict, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians continued to face difficulties returning to their traditional Mahalla (quarter) in Mitrovica.
Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo today are still mired in poverty, lack physical security and freedom of movement. In their makeshift settlements, they lack access to education and public services, including health care, justice, and employment. Unemployment is also a pressing problem for these three communities, with some estimates suggesting levels of more than 90 per cent. For Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in general, and women in particular, low basic education and high levels of illiteracy also continue to be a problem, compounded by poverty, a lack of resources and long-held cultural views on the role of women. They also face particular disadvantages as they lack political influence and do not, unlike Kosovo’s Serbs, have the backing of a kin state. Poverty amongst this group is widespread. Though Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians have a total of four reserved seats in the Kosovo Assembly, they remain excluded from real participation in political life and discussions on the future status of Kosovo.
According to some estimates, as many as 100,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians were displaced during the period of the conflict. Returns have been obstructed as there is no clear framework for resettlement, no housing to replace destroyed homes, and no reintegration policies. Even though in 2013 the Municipal Offices for Communities and Return were established to help in creating the conditions for sustainable return of refugees, displaced persons and repatriated persons, those who have been repatriated are still struggling to access employment, education and health care. Many displaced Roma living outside Kosovo are reluctant now to return due to poor security, poor living conditions and fear of ethnic conflict; according to UN data, 8.8 per cent of displaced Roma surveyed in 2010 expressed themselves unwilling to return to Kosovo, a figure that had fallen to just 2.4 per cent by 2014
In May 2017, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) called on the UN to issue a public apology, individual compensation and medical treatment for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community members who suffered lead poisoning while residing in displacement camps situated on contaminated land. Though the UN subsequently announced the creation of a trust fund to carry out community-based assistance projects, civil rights groups have argued that this does not go far enough to address the situation of the victims and have called for compensation and immediate medical treatment for those affected.
Inadequate housing is one of the major issues facing Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, with many segregated in informal settlements that jeopardize their health and well-being while also reinforcing their social exclusion. There have been a number of recent initiatives to target marginalized communities, both under the auspices of the EU (for example, the 2005-2015 Decade of Roma Inclusion) and by Kosovan authorities themselves. For example, in March 2015 the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare gave a green light for a project to support Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Mitrovica, with support from the Swedish Agency for International Development, to improve job skills and access to the labour market.
Their situation is further complicated by lack of personal documentation: the documents of many community members were destroyed during the conflict or are not recognized by local authorities since Kosovar and Serbian administrations both require their own documents before allowing access to public services. Research by the ERRC in 2017 has shown that, despite efforts to support Roma inclusion, many community members still face problems obtaining fundamental rights such as healthcare and social assistance.
Access to education continues to be a major problem, with low attendance, high drop-out rates, limited participation in higher education (especially among girls) and a lack of study materials in their native languages. In addition, many Roma children are enrolled in schools using the curriculum funded by the Republic of Serbia, even though many students may not even able to speak or understand the Serbian language well enough to attend classes. Many children are also discriminated against based on cultural stereotypes and prejudices.
Updated March 2018
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