Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kosovo: Repatriating Europe’s Most Vulnerable Population

Ramiz Bardosana had been living in Germany since 1991. His children were in school and he was a model citizen, never causing trouble for the German government or with the law. But he was there on Duldung status, temporary “Tolerated” permission to live in that country subject to renewal every three months. On April 12, 2011, he was forcibly returned to Kosovo.

 “The police arrived at seven in the morning without advanced warning. I was given no time to collect my belongings; I didn’t even take my jacket. I was forcibly returned to Kosovo, given eighty euro on the plane, thirty for me, fifty for my daughter,” Mr. Bardosana told me as we sat on his front porch in Gjakovë, surrounded by his family.

 To come in close contact with the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) communities in Kosovo, to witness their living conditions and to hear their stories of desperation, is to remind us of what we are capable of doing to each other. Indeed, the human race continues to find ways to subjugate populations simply for being who they are.

I’ve been fortunate to meet with several members of the RAE communities during my brief time in Kosovo this summer and have learned first-hand the difficulties they face. 

But it’s not just the adults who are suffering under the government of Kosovo’s Readmission Agreements, bilateral arrangements that regulate the repatriation process for those who have failed to achieve citizenship elsewhere in Europe. RAE children, born and socially integrated in Germany, fluent in the German language, have been forcibly returned only to encounter a fierce language barrier, social exclusion, and an end to their schooling.

 “My daughter was in primary school, my son in the ninth grade. They both speak German. My son can understand some Albanian, but he can’t speak it,” said Mr. Bardosana when I asked about his children who have not been able to attend school in Kosovo.

 Mr. Bardosana and his family live with his brother and his family, only one example of the crowded living conditions forcibly returned RAE must cope with in Kosovo. Many returnees sold their property to finance their emigration to places like Germany. To be forcibly returned to Kosovo means having to stay with a relative, an unsustainable proposition for many.

 “We are six people living in a small house without a toilet. We have to heat bottles of water to wash ourselves,” said Shpëtim Boneshta, a Roma gentleman struggling in Gjakovë.

Were you all forcibly returned? I asked.

 “No,” replies Mr. Boneshta, “my wife returned voluntarily because of a statement made by the former Roma member of Parliament. He said voluntary returns would receive benefits. It’s been more than two years and she has received nothing.”

Mr. Radoviq, center, suffers from paranoid psychosis
 In Pejë, Pastrit Radoviq, who like Mr. Bardosana was returned on April 12, 2011, suffers from paranoid psychosis, a condition diagnosed by a German doctor who prescribed medication. “The German police arrived at four in the morning on April 12 of this year. I received no warning letter. After arriving in Kosovo, I went to a doctor who wouldn’t treat me because he said my surname sounds Serbian. I can’t get the medication I need to manage this illness,” said Mr. Radoviq.

Many of those returned, unemployed with very little hope of finding work, are not receiving any social assistance from the government. In an interview with Etem Arifi, the Ashkali representative in Parliament, and Qazim Rahmani, political advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, I was told that a gathering of a board of directors within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, charged to reach a decision on social assistance requests for forcibly returned RAE, meets once every three months, denying a family in urgent need of assistance with the help they so desperately require to manage their day-to-day lives.

“We are a minority here. We are oppressed and left aside. The government of Kosovo does not give priority to RAE because they want to make the Kosovo state equal to Europe,” Mr. Rahmani said.

 But Islam Caka, director of the Department of Asylum, Citizens and Migration and a member of the Board of Repatriation within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, disputes the claim that the board of directors meets once every three months.

“If the request is complete, the review of the file does not take much time. Board meetings can be held at any time and immediate actions can be taken,” Mr. Caka said.

There are some returning from Germany who are eligible to receive limited financial assistance, but it is not coming from the government of Kosovo. The URA 2 project, an arm of the German government, offers those returning from select regions of Germany pre-determined financial assistance once they arrive in Pristina.

“Everyone is eligible for social counseling no matter where they are returning from in Germany. Those who return voluntarily receive a little more assistance than those who are deported. Otherwise, there is a budget per person for those who are returned from four specific regions in Germany. Why only those regions is a political decision for which I am not able to speak to,” said Birgit Budde, residential adviser in the Pristina-based URA office.

With the advent of the Action Plan of the Republic of Kosovo for the Implementation of the Strategy for the Integration of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities, 2009-2015, signed on March 2, 2010 by Prime Minister Thaqi, those in civil society who work to advance the interests of RAE communities are eager to see the words on paper become reality across Kosovo. But the field interviews with those who have been forcibly returned indicate a process rife with bureaucracy, little communication between ministries or between the ministries and municipalities, and little to no sustainable support, monetary or otherwise, from the government of Kosovo once URA assistance has been used in full.

“Kosovo does not have the funds to support returns,” says Shpresa Agushi, who runs her own NGO advocating for Roma rights, “Housing and unemployment are major issues and we are not seeing any big changes.”

 Xhevahire Dervishi-Rexhepi is the municipal community officer in Ferizaj. When a returned member of the RAE community approaches her office for help, she is responsible for collecting the required documents from the individual so she can send a social assistance request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

“I cannot send a request to the Ministry without all the required documents. I am committed to supporting the people who seek help, but without civil registration and legal documents such as birth certificates or documentation of land ownership, I can only hold the request until the individual provides full documentation,” Ms. Dervishi-Rexhepi said after we met with several Roma individuals whose requests for help have gone unanswered in Ferizaj.

 When asked about the repatriation process as a whole, Mr. Caka stressed that while the government does face some challenges, he believes the Action Plan is being implemented successfully.

“Presently, the weakest link in the process is at the municipal level. We need to intervene there and make some improvements. With that said, we recognize that we are responsible for the citizens of Kosovo; we treat each citizen equally. The mechanism is in place to reintegrate these people quickly because we do not want a passive population,” Mr. Caka said.

As Mr. Caka rightfully pointed out, the government of Kosovo is the first and only government in Europe to put a plan in place to address the inclusion of RAE communities. It is significant given that the issues that RAE face in Europe are not new. Take for instance the Decade of RAE Inclusion, 2005-2015, a well-intentioned but under-funded initiative with close to a dozen countries participating. While not a signatory to the Decade, the government of Kosovo, armed with the determination to create a state where visions of prosperity and democracy are not just buzzwords but principles to live by, can seize this opportunity to become the model for how best to integrate its most vulnerable populations.

Indeed, the Action Plan’s goals and objectives are lofty and could be transformative if implemented and carried out carefully. Civil society commends the government of Kosovo for envisioning and drafting the Plan in the hopes of creating a fairer, all-inclusive society. With that said, despite Mr. Caka’s assertion that a mechanism is in place, my interviews suggest there are two gaping holes in the repatriation process that could be addressed immediately with only a small measure of political will and monetary expenditure.

 First, upon landing in Kosovo, returnees should be handed a one-sheet in their native language; it should list all the civil registration and legal documents required by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to process a request for social assistance. This would mitigate, if not eliminate, any surprises in relation to the Ministry’s requirements, thereby expediting the request and getting it into the proper hands sooner.

Second, we call upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs to re-examine their current processes and allocate the necessary funds in order to implement a comprehensive, turn-key repatriation process, beginning from the moment the family lands at the airport. Each family or individual should be met by a knowledgeable representative who can provide guidance on the repatriation process, alert the family to the documents they will need to file for assistance, and who could make themselves available for additional consultation in the future should the family need additional assistance. The representative should also conduct field visits on a quarterly basis during the initial year the family is returned to Kosovo to determine their progress and make recommendations where applicable.

I am not naïve. I know Kosovo is dealing with many complex challenges, the issue of RAE communities only one of them. But I call on those who are in a position to make a positive difference to do just that. I urge you to take this opportunity to show the rest of Europe that the government and the people of Kosovo can bring about transformative change where everyone living within its borders, regardless of ethnicity, can contribute to the country’s growth and create opportunities to build their own individual prosperity.

As Ms. Agushi correctly sees it, “We are citizens of Kosovo. We should be seen first as Kosovars, not as Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian.”

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