Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview with Ashkali Member of Kosovo Parliament

I spent an hour with the Ashkali member of Parliament, Etem Arifi yesterday to gain his perspective on the situation in Kosovo as relates to RAE communities. He was accompanied by Qazim Rahmani who serves as a political advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare here in Kosovo.

Their point of view, not surprisingly, is grim. They covered the Action Plan put in place to aid RAE communities integrate into greater Kosovar society ("a civil society creation that didn't go through the Assembly"), the institutions responsible for the deplorable conditions returned RAE are living in, the actual act of returning RAE individuals to Kosovo in the first place, the bureaucracy surrounding assistance due those returned from Germany and from elsewhere, and talked of their dismay over the lack of response and even respect from the Office of the Prime Minister.

They discussed one case where a returned individual submitted their request for social assistance to a municipal office, but those who must decide on this individual's eligibility meet once every three months. Both men expressed outrage at this and said they are trying to address the process by which individuals receive social assistance with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They are recommending that the board that assesses these cases meet once a month in order to deliver much-needed social assistance to returned individuals more urgently.

They also discussed what I have heard here several times now: that Kosovo is accepting forced returns from Germany simply in the interest of Kosovo, for the country wishes to be seen as an equal partner in Europe so it can expedite the recognition process stemming from its 2008 declaration of independance. The problem with that is that Kosovo does not currently have the capacity to handle forced returns, both in financial terms and in governmental structural terms. So returns are left with what I have seen over the past week in the field: lack of sustainable accomodation, lack of food security, lack of employment opportunities, lack of health care, and a lack of equal integration with others. Perhaps the strongest comment he made was that he sees RAE communities in Kosovo as "victims" of Kosovo's state-building initiatives: "They don't give priority to RAE, they want to make the Kosovo state equal to Europe."

With regard to Germany, they said they are trying to arrange a meeting with Angela Merkel in an effort to address the forced returns from that country, both in terms of the actual act of returning people, but also the way in which the act is carried out by the civil police there.

The men cited a recent UNICEF report that states from 2001-2010, 1,483 cases of forced returns have occured, where 85% of the children returned have not been able to attend school here. The obstacles are huge: language barrier, lack of integration in Kosovar society, and the "school ambience" is different in Kosovo versus what the children experienced in Germany. Children also suffer due to lack of available sports activity and culture, features they were able to experience in German society according to Mr. Rahmani.

Both men predicted that "Kosovo will get worse" for RAE communities. Without support, RAE communities will experience difficulties their whole life. "People will suffer always...without education, all doors are closed for that person."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

RAE Field Interviews

Last week I visited several Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian (RAE) settlements in Kosovo, with an additional one scheduled for tomorrow. It goes without saying that the poverty, hopelessness, and perhaps most glaringly, the helplessness, that permeates these settlements is palpable. And to think that many of these communities are "settled," rather than in camps, which does exist just outside Prishtina in one known instance, is only more shocking; how much more severe is the problem elsewhere in Europe? We know from NGOs and the like that the problem is indeed severe, and perhaps most alarmingly, progress is slow, if there is any progress at all.

In two instances, the people we talked to didn't look any different from what people in NYC look like. The way they were dressed and the tone of their skin color would allow them to fit in on a Manhattan street, putting aside the obvious issue of language. But this is what I thought as I looked at them - they don't look any different from the melting pot that is NYC and here, they are pushed to the margins of society, with little hope for a better future.

I am seeing several areas where help can be offered based on the interviews granted. First and foremost, because we are meeting with people who were forcibly returned from Germany, and in one case, from Switzerland, I am discovering that the return process is entirely broken. Perhaps it was never whole in the first place. There is a clear opportunity to improve the process from when each returned individual/family gets off the plane in Prishtina. Some people get a little help from URA, but it appears to be inconsistent in terms of what is offered, if anything is offered at all. Plus, it is clear that the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) needs to play a more active role in aiding those who are forcibly returned. Many speak of need for accomodation, food assistance, and of course, employment. My hope is to arrange a meeting with URA and with the MIA to speak more about what each party does for these people once they land in Kosovo. But most importantly, if MIA is seen as the anchor for these returnees, we need to understand why it seems that they are not holding themselves to the 2009-2015 Action Plan put forth by the Kosovar government, if we are to believe what these people who we interview have said.

Another obvious area to improve forced returns is to make clear to them what documents they need to turn in to each Municipal Officer, officials in each municipality who are charged with sending in a request to the MIA to help these individuals make it once they return to Kosovo. I learned that, for example, in Ferizaj, that the Officer cannot submit requests because the person making the request cannot provide all the needed documents.

This is yet another problem, where if someone was born in Kosovo before the '99 conflict, their birth certificate probably no longer exists. If that is the case, then they cannot provide that to the officer, who then cannot submit a request for assistance to the MIA. I also learned that for those families who have a young child who was born in Germany, because the German police do not give more than 10 minutes for the family to leave their homes, nor do they provide a warning letter for fear the family might "escape," these people leave Germany without their children's birth certificates and other important documents.

Putting the difficulty of obtaining one's own documents aside, to mitigate the confusion for what each person must submit to the municipal officer, we believe a one-sheet should be produced and provided to each returnee once they land in Prishtina in the future. Minimally, they will have a document that provides them with some direction in terms of how to ask for help from the Kosovar government.

This all boils down to bureaucracy, of course. But perhaps what is so alarming is how the German civil police approach these people in Germany. They send no warning letter in most cases; they show up at odd hours, such as 4am or 5am, since at these times it is assumed everyone in the household is home; and, they enter the home and give the people 10 minutes to get their stuff and they take them to the airport. Sounds a lot like the Nazis from the Holocaust, where Jews were given no time to grab their belongings. Except, instead of going to the airport to be sent back to wherever they came from, they were sent to a ghetto or a concentration camp or a death camp. It's a shame to hear such things about Germany, a fine country and a fine people; a society that has gone out of its way to accept responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime.

There's still more information I would like to collect, first through a meeting with URA, then through a meeting with the MIA, something I'm told might be difficult to get, and, a hopeful meeting with the Roma member of Parliament, another meeting I'm told might be difficult to arrange, but there is no harm in trying. From there, I hope to create a proposal or two and hopefully have something published in a newspaper here. But first things first, I have to schedule the meetings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mitrovica Roma Settlement and Education

I had my first opportunity to visit a Roma settlement today, this one in Mitrovica, the divided city where one side of the bridge is home to Albanians, while the other side is home to Serbs, with the bridge itself guarded by heavily armed men keeping watch.

This particular settlement is made up of Roma who for the past 10 years were 'housed' in camps where lead poisoning was a common problem. The Roma population was only recently moved to what are now more modern housing units (it's all relative, I realize).

The settlement now includes a Learning Center, implemented by the Roma and Ashkalia Documentation Centre (RADC), the NGO I am currently working with during my stay in Kosovo with funding contributed by Soros. The Learning Center is equipped with what could be considered modern classrooms, perhaps 4-6 of them, with modern furniture and several fully outfitted HP computers. Sitting in one of the classrooms, I can see drawings on the wall done by the children, with one of drawings saying "Enjoying English."

We had a meeting with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which is asking the RADC to take over its educational activities it has been managing. There is currently close to 150 Roma children attending the Center, with another 50 or so to be included once the DRC completes it transfer of its educational activities over to the RADC. The children are taught by locals who don't necessarily have a diploma, although that is said to be changing slowly.

While I did not have my camera with me, as we walked the grounds I felt that even if I had one, it would be an injustice to take photos. Roma settlements are not tourist attractions; while they consist of sights I may never see living in the US (although I understand Native American reservations are in very bad shape), trying to capture their despair on camera amounts to poverty porn in my mind.

Next week, we have scheduled 4 visits to the field to interview several Roma families around the country for monitoring and evaluation purposes. I imagine it would be a prime opportunity to capture the situation in images, but it is something I will first ask permission for rather than assuming it's okay to snap pictures.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Forced Repatriation of RAE Communities

In Kosovo today, the Kosovo Center for Gender Studies hosted a conference on the forced repatriation of women Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Forced returns, many of which are occuring from Germany recently, creates difficulties that are nearly unparalleled. Most RAE leave Kosovo for better opportunities elsewhere, selling their belongings to finance the move, only to find themselves forcefully moved later on. What's more, a UNICEF representative highlighted a very powerful point: those RAE children who were born in a place like Germany and spend some 12 years there only know Germany. They speak German, they think German, et al. To be forced to move to Kosovo, without any recourse, creates such hardship that the cycle of poverty becomes impossible to break.

The UNICEF gentleman also talked about the "revolving door" phenomenon, which is where a family will be forcefully moved to Kosovo, will find no opportunities to build a life because the government has failed to account for their arrival; the family will then move again to places like Serbia, Romania, or to another western European country to find opportunity only to find themselves in an endless cycle of forced relocation and perpetual poverty.

Many of those in attendance were from civil society and understandably were passionate about the topic. When s rep from the Ministry of Education presented, the discussion period took on a tone of heavy-handedness, as many in civil society expressed frustration over the ministry's policies and inability to meet the needs of Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian individuals, both those that live here and those that are forcefully returned. The ministry is taking steps to introduce Roma language teachers in an effort to integrate Roma children better into the education system. The UNICEF rep complemented Kosovo on those efforts, but warned that that will not solve the issues experienced by the RAE community in gaining an even-handed education in Kosovo, one that will propel young Roma to university levels and to a place where the cycle of poverty can cease.

On a related topic, it was a pleasure listening to people passionate about a topic that is about real life issues. The discussions were not based in theory - they were based in on-the-ground facts, backed up with data and anecdotes. To see these civil society workers express their outrage at the difficulties they experience everyday in their efforts to help these minority groups was wonderful. It was very different from sitting in a marketing conference, or, in my even younger days, sitting in music industry conferences, where the issues at hand were and are meaningless, and tend to be grounded in theory. It's refreshing to experience people discussing the welfare of other people, especially those who come from a different place.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Transitional Justice in Frmr Yugoslavia

I had the opportunity to meet with the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) today in Belgrade, Serbia. Since 1992, when it was founded, and when Yugoslavia was beginning to fall apart in what would be about a decade of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing culminating in NATO's mission in Kosovo, the HLC has been working to drive truth and reconciliation efforts. As I learned in my transitional justice class, truth and reconciliation is a core mechanism for post-conflict societies and a mechanism that has not been pursued formally by the parties involved in the conflict. The HLC has been on a much needed mission to change that with great successes.

For sure there's the ICTY, which like the Rwanda tribunal, was set up as a precursor to the ICC and continues to operate, as demonstrated by the recent arrest of Mladic. But what I have learned over the past day or so in Belgrade is that Serbia, the aggressor in the Yugoslav wars during the '90's, is not and has not done anything on a societal-wide basis to account for its actions during the wars with its neighbors. Prior to the meeting with HLC, I met with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, who confirmed that in today's Serbs schools, youngsters do not learn about Milsovic, Srebrenica, Kosovo, etc, a seemingly first step towards taking responsibility for one's tragic past. Unlike Germany, which is perhaps the model for how best to address a society's fractured past, Serbia does not see its past in a negative light. In fact, it believes it was in the right to carry out the conflict, that it did no wrong, and that all actions were justified. The political will to challenge this belief does not exist, and clearly, the people of Serbia do not believe there's any need to put pressure on their politicians to take a formal approach at addressing the country's recent past.

I asked the woman if the EU would use TJ as an additional condition for Serbia to achieve membership in the EU and she said that would not happen. With the arrest of Mladic, the question of whether or not the issues surrounding Kosovo would hamper Serbia's rise to EU membership seems unanswered at the present time. Outside of that, for the EU to accept other nations, it would seem logical that the EU would apply some pressure to instill in Serbia the need to recognize its past wrongs and strive to build an informed population about the need for tolerance of minorities. While Serbia will have to meet a number of requirements to achieve their goal of membership, if the West sees itelf as the carrier of all values and a home for the oppressed to seek shelter, then accepting a country into a framework brought about as a result of WWII would be acceptable under one condition: that the country in question embraces such values and open its doors to all, including Muslim, Roma, Jews, and others who originate from a different ethnic/racial/religious background.