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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 18:57 GMT
Roma return to Serbian neglect

By Matthew Price
BBC, Belgrade

It is midwinter in Serbia. The cold makes life harder for everyone. Especially those with little.

On the outskirts of Belgrade there's a small, but tidy home. Inside, an old woman is stoking the fire.

In Germany we had it all - here Roma are treated like an underclass
Roma father
Next to her there are two boys. One is eight, the other is 10.

They seem happy enough. They're giggling as they put on their coats to go to school. Then I ask them whether they like going to class.

"I want to meet the children here, but people don't want to mix with me. They want to fight."

The boys' parents don't want me to tell you their names. They're worried about possible recriminations. And life is already hard enough.

They are Roma, or gipsies. They moved to Germany a few years ago. They say to seek a better life. They couldn't get permission to stay.

One day at 4am the police came, took them to the airport, and put them on a plane back to Serbia.

"I want to go back to Germany," the 10-year-old tells me.

"I have friends there, they play with me, they come to see me and I go to their homes."

In the tiny kitchen, I speak to the boys' father. A polite, intelligent man, who says try as he might, he can not get a job here in Serbia.

"In Germany we had it all. Here Roma are treated like an underclass."

That's the kind of thing you hear from many Roma in Serbia.

No support

Roma first came to the region from India in the 12th Century. They have often suffered discrimination. That in turn appears to have made many reluctant to co-operate with state authorities.

There appear to be no reception or resettlement programmes in place
Council of Europe
When the former Yugoslavia fell apart during the wars of the 1990s, many fled to escape the fighting and poverty.

Some have returned voluntarily. Others are now being forced to come back. This is what a report by the Council of Europe recently had to say:

"Forcible return programmes of Roma... are being concluded and one between Germany and Serbia and Montenegro has already begun."

The report goes on: "There appear to be no reception or resettlement programmes in place in Serbia and Montenegro and Roma, who often experience severe racial discrimination, would be likely to return to a life of poverty."

"Those without identity documents may be denied access to... education, housing and health care."

And there are plenty coming back.

It's estimated that 50,000 are due to be returned from Germany alone. Every Wednesday a plane flies in, returning more.

Family separated

The question though is where they should now live. The Yugoslavia they left has disintegrated.

Roma for instance who once lived in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo can't return.

Their property has been destroyed and they face discrimination.

Then there's the problem of mixed marriages. Milan Antonijevic, a human rights campaigner, told me about the case of one married couple returning from Germany.

"One of them has citizenship of Macedonia, one of them citizenship of Serbia and Montenegro, and at the airport in Germany they were separated," he said.

"The child was given to one of them. It is the case of very severe violation of human rights."

I headed to the huge Communist-era government building in New Belgrade. An old-style art deco lift with gold trim took me up to the fifth floor.

Action plan

Down the faceless corridors there's a new secretariat, specifically for Roma.

This at least is progress. The rights of Roma, like other minority groups have been largely ignored in the past.

Already Belgrade has asked the German government to slow the current rate of return - to no avail
"Our most important task is to prepare a strategy for the integration of the Roma people," the top civil servant here, Vladimir Djuric, told me.

"We're preparing an action plan which should then be adopted by the government. It's basically a set of recommendations for improving the position of Roma in society here."

It will not be an easy task. Serbia has other problems, and little money, and Roma are not top priority.

Already Belgrade has asked the German government to slow the current rate of return. To no avail.

I ask Mr Djuric whether Roma face discrimination here.

"Legally speaking it's not formal discrimination, but a social problem," he says. "Their rights are fully recognised, but not fully implemented."

Chill wind

That's not how the Roma see it.

We tried to ask for help, but we were told the government doesn't have money now
Roma father
"When we were about to leave Germany they told us we'd have help from the government here, but we got nothing," the boys' father tells me.

"We tried to ask for help, but we were told the government doesn't have money now. 'Call us in two or three months,' they said.

"I did, and they said again: 'Call us in a couple of months.'"

There's a chill wind when I leave the house. Down the street there are less fortunate Roma. Children playing on dirt roads. Tin roofs. It doesn't look like modern Europe.

It's places like this where the continent's asylum measures hit hardest.

Western governments clearly have to deal with asylum seekers and refugees somehow.

Agreements to send people back to their place of origin are one way of doing that.

But in Serbia's case at least, the country they are being sent back to is not yet ready for their return.

What is your reaction to the above piece? Do you know of any similar stories of minority groups or migrants?

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received:

Where are people's so called human rights in Europe? It's all a mockery. On paper everything looks good but the fact remains that in practice European human rights records aren't any better than third world countries.
Raef, USA

I would like to respond to Raef from the US. How dare you say Europe's HR record is like the third world. Things may not be great all over Europe and indeed there are issues that need to be dealt with. What offends me about what you said is that you don't mention the abuses in your own country. Wake up and realise that immigrants as well as American citizens suffer terrible HR abuses in this land of the free. Every country has a lot to work on in terms of HR.
Nadia, USA

It seems to always be the case that everyone is discriminated against in Yugoslavia except Serbs according to the media. I worked for three years in the region. I am not of Balkan descent. My experience there is that Europeans and Americans in general have found their scapegoat for their own failings and have assisted in the destruction of a great country. That which used to be called Yugoslavia.
Bob, New York, USA

These decisions are always hard to make and will never please everyone, but what of Germany's economy? When is a line drawn to say that Germans with no jobs and living in poverty are to come first? Charity can only be sustained to a point, when a country can no longer afford it.
Frazer Sloan, UK/Hungary

The NGO that I work for has a capacity building program in place to provide training and certain types of economic assistance to Roma in rural municipalities. During a few visits to semi-urban and rural Roma settlements, I noticed a startling disparity between the economic conditions in different settlements. In some places, Roma people who have worked abroad use the money they earned to build lavish houses while their less fortunate neighbours live in tin shacks.

These large and ornate houses are not usually the place for day-to-day living, but rather used as monuments. In our experience, the Roma do not provide assistance to each other and are not well organized - this makes it all the more difficult for them to be recognised by the government and obtain the assistance that most of them desperately need. Our program attempts to organise them into community groups that can approach their local government and petition for the services that are their legal right to receive. This has been a very difficult task, and it seems that until the Roma form a cohesive minority they won't make any progress.
E Shafer, Belgrade, Serbia

In Austria asylum seekers get their help almost exclusively from church organisations. Governmental institutions try to make their lives hard, so that leaving the country is inevitable for many of them. No money, no work permission, no social or healthcare: their lives can be very miserable in such a wealthy country. And all this happens according to the law!
Lourenco Cesar Finatti, St Pölten, Austria

The problem of Roma, or gypsies, is an ongoing problem in Serbia and Montenegro. It has always been, and it most likely will be in future, and it has never been really dealt with. People in the Balkans, including myself, will have to, at some point, face many problems and issues that have been long avoided. And almost all of those issues have to do with nationality, ethnicity, as well as racial and physical discrimination. I just hope that someone will realise the power of the media and use it to help people face these very important issues.
Svetlana Miljkovic, Orono, USA

Unfortunately, Europe can't seem to put its old world style of thinking behind it and accept that all humans should be equal under law and in society. One needs to look no further than the United States and what the polarisation between whites and non-whites has done to its sociological climate. Holding on to these outdated strands of ethnic pride will forever keep Europe divided and unable to function as a rational and compassionate society.
Chuck Cornell, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Although, all are equal on paper in the ex-Yugoslavian regions, in practicality the Roma people are taboo, impoverished slum dwellers commonly associated with begging and petty crime. It is a serious social problem that is often dealt with by "sweeping it under the rug" rather than finding a lasting solution. Though regional governments are partially to blame, the West is not blameless either. I worked at an immigration detention centre in Toronto and here too those less fortunate seeking better lives in Western countries are more often than not issued with a deportation order before being given any consideration. The EU should especially consider this festering problem in the ex-Yugoslavian regions. It is not likely to vanish anytime soon.
Aleks, Toronto, Canada

Gypsies are the only ethnic minority in Europe who never claimed an independent country for themselves. They have lived in Europe since the 15th century. With their presence all over the world they prove to us that it is possible to live together without borders (isn't that a real European dream?) They really do deserve to be recognised as true European citizens.
Paolo Cristiano, Rome, Italy

Reading this article makes me realise that a huge injustice has been done to Serbia. The nation of Serbia and Montenegro has become a new home for several hundred thousand people originating from Croatia, Bosnia, and now the province of Kosovo. As if strengthening democracy, carrying out economic reforms, reconstruction, establishing the rule of law, and improving diplomatic relations isn't enough, Serbia has to be further burdened by newly displaced Kosovo refugees coming from influential countries such as Germany. It is very disappointing that Canada and the EU have turned a blind eye to this issue. Western nations should at least finance some government organisations to help these refugees, in order give them perspective and opportunities for the future.
Jose, Ottawa, Camada

Though the plight of the Roma is sad, Germany did what it had to do. In Los Angeles we are overrun with illegal and legal immigrants all with stories of hardship. As a result our schools are overcrowded, our streets are jammed, and our government has record deficits. Sometimes the right decision is the hardest to make.
Brian Martinez, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Deported Roma may return to UK
24 Sep 03  |  Magazine
In pictures: Roma on the road
17 Jul 03  |  Photo Gallery
Slovakia's beleaguered Gypsies
14 May 03  |  Europe
UN warns of Roma plight
16 Jan 03  |  Europe

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