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Kosovo's Roma on the margins

Morgan Meaker
February 17, 2018

For Roma in Europe's youngest state, discrimination and a lack of opportunity have created a sense of hopelessness and driven many to look for work abroad. Morgan Meaker reports from the western Balkans.

A lone figure walks toward the Konik refugee camp in Montenegro
Image: DW/M. Meaker

When Roma refugees Ganish Gashi and his friends arrived in Montenegro's Konik camp in 1999, they had no idea they would still be here 19 years later.

On the outskirts of Montenegro's capital Podgorica, 2,000 people from Kosovo's Roma minority still live in exile after fleeing conflict in the 1990s. The Council of Europe has called this place a ghetto, labelling living conditions as remote and substandard.

Houses funded by the European Union frame a wasteland where children and stray dogs move through rubbish carpeting the ground. Behind Gashi, low clouds over the mountains signal rain for another day with no work and nothing to do.

Read more: From Yugoslav wars to an ever-tense peace

Although no formal data exists, unemployment is high and poverty is rampant. "The kids need to eat, but we have big difficulties providing for them," says Gashi, explaining he doesn't receive social welfare. "We are unemployed because of our ethnicity; no one wants to hire Roma."

Life here is hard, but these refugees refuse to go home. For Gashi, going back to Kosovo is not an option. "It's even worse there," he says.

The violence these families fled two decades ago is over now. But for Kosovo's Roma — one of the country's largest minority groups, thought to have migrated to Europe from India over 1,000 years ago – political insecurity has been replaced with harsh economic exclusion.

Roma activist Serdjan Baftijari stands near a dilapidated house in Konik camp, Montenegro
Roma live in a wasteland of rubbish in Konik camp outside of Montenegro's capital PodgoricaImage: DW/M. Meaker

Unemployment is estimated to be at least 60 percent, double the rate of the general population, although other minority groups, the Ashkalis and Balkan Egyptians, face similar numbers. Bleak economic conditions and intense nepotism mix with ethnic discrimination to keep these communities on the margins – driving many to seek opportunity abroad.

For those who leave, there is little incentive to return. According to the European Roma Rights Center, more than 100,000 Roma were displaced after the conflict, with the majority yet to come home – fewer than 16,000 live in Kosovo today.

Wary of independence

This week, the country's 10-year independence anniversary marks a disappointing milestone for the Roma community who feel marginalized in Europe's youngest state.

Read more: Czech Roma reclaim Holocaust site from pig farmers

When the country declared independence in 2008, Roma residents in the town of Gracanica were gripped by a sense of foreboding.

"We were feeling unsure and unsafe," says Gazmen Salijevic, who works at the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) and has lived in Gracanica all his life. "Most minorities were not ready to be a part of independent Kosovo." 

Konik camp in Montenegro
The Council of Europe has warned of ghettoizationImage: DW/M. Meaker

They worried independence would welcome a new era of violence. During the 1998 conflict, Albanians suspected the Roma of taking the Serbian side. As a result, Roma families became the target of revenge attacks – between 1999 and 2001 they were beaten, kidnapped and their houses set alight.

For 48-hours in 2004, violence again swept the country and the main minority groups all suffered attacks and displacement.

Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundation's Roma Initiatives Office, sees disproportionate unemployment rates as a hangover from these tensions. "For those who remained in Kosovo, prejudices of the majority population and hostility dating from the time of the conflict hinder efforts to integrate into mainstream society and to find employment," he told DW in an email.

To Germany and back

Without work, small crowds of Roma and Egyptian men stand around in the smog that has settled like a grey mist over the town of Plemetina, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Kosovar capital Pristina.

Sudokran Korcolli lives in a small house overlooking the town's power plant. Unemployed, he struggles to feed his pregnant wife and their four children.

Korcolli misses the life he had in Macedonia, where he lived as a refugee for 19 years before being threatened with deportation in 2017. Living on the outskirts of Macedonia's capital Skopje, he had regular work as a taxi driver.

"But I wouldn't want to go back if I had a job here," he says.

Sudokran Korcolli
Sudokran Korcolli has lived as a refugee for almost two decadesImage: DW/M. Meaker

Kosovo has the western Balkan's highest unemployment rate and without work, there is little to stop Roma returnees, such as Korcolli, from leaving again.

Many Kosovo Roma end up locked in a cycle of deportations and returns. Isak Skenderi, of the NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian, says he often sees people try to emigrate to Germany, even after the country has deported them.

"The shorter time they spent in Germany, the more likely they are going to stay in Kosovo and not try to go back again," he says.

But many European countries, including Germany, have classified Kosovo as a safe country of origin – meaning people can be deported much faster when their asylum applications are rejected. For years, human rights organizations have argued against these accelerated processes, saying they do not consider the level of social exclusion and extreme poverty Roma communities face.

Read more: German government tight-lipped on threat of Islamic extremism in the Balkans

In his Gracanica office, Skenderi agrees that the security situation has improved, but, he says, his community still suffers. "There are other types of security," says the executive director. "There is security of well-being. We face serious economic issues."

Gloomy outlook

The small proportion of Roma who have jobs are still consumed by the hopelessness that has spread throughout the community. Hisen Gashnjani manages the country's only boutique hotel, Hotel Gracanica.

Since 2008, he has watched his friends and family wrestle with a lack of opportunity. "Before the war, in the Pristina region, there used to be a mine, transport companies and factories," says Gashnjani, in the hotel's dining room. "Back then everyone had the opportunity to apply, but now, unless you've got family connections, there's no hope. It's getting worse."

He's watched his brothers leave for Germany and Macedonia, only to be deported a few years later.

"If I didn't work, then I definitely wouldn't stay in Kosovo," he says. "Living off social welfare, you can't educate your kids, you can't do anything."

Kosovo's gloomy economic outlook will taint Saturday's anniversary celebrations for all Kosovars. But the country's Roma will be wondering if they can bear another decade of this hopelessness.

Ramush Haradinaj on Conflict Zone