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Macedonia: Refugees Face Deportation

Thousands of Roma could be forcibly returned to Kosovo if, as seem likely, they turn down the offer of asylum in Macedonia.
By Nikolaus Steinberg

Roma refugees who fled from Kosovo to Macedonia during the 1999 conflict are not expected to take up Skopje's offer of political asylum because many are under the false impression that they will be resettled in the West.

The community could now face deportation back to Kosovo, despite international concerns for their safety.

A new European Union-backed asylum package offered by the authorities - which gives the Roma benefits equal to those enjoyed by Macedonian citizens - now looks set to be ignored because some community leaders appear to have rejected it and encouraged their members to hold out for a new life in the West.

The government's deal would give every refugee the right to work, access to the health and education system and state unemployment benefits of around 50 euro a month.

But with only days to go before the November 6 deadline to apply for the deal, IWPR has learned that many of the 2,600 Kosovar Roma in Macedonia have little or no idea of what is being offered and mistakenly believe they could apply for asylum in an EU country or the United States.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Macedonian government and a network of local and international non-governmental organisations share responsibility for both informing the Roma of their options and helping them with the asylum application process.

However, NGO spokespersons say the task has been difficult as many refugees are spread across Skopje. Macedonian lawyers involved in the campaign say they have had to drive around the city tracking down Roma families now living in private accommodation.

At the same time, local and international Roma leaders have encouraged the refugees to snub the government offer and hold out for asylum in the West - although their chances of achieving the latter are almost non-existent.

Should they persevere with this vain hope, the Roma risk being deported back to Kosovo, despite United Nations warnings that it remains unsafe for them.

Macedonian interior ministry spokesperson Mirjana Konteska told IWPR that refugees who refuse the asylum deal "will be treated as aliens and sent back to the countries they came from. Our policemen will find them, if not today or tomorrow, then the day after".

This is not the first time that Roma leaders have gone against the international community's advice.

In June, they backed more than 700 refugees in their attempt to cross the border into Greece, even though they new there was little chance of them being allowed to stay.

Nicolae Gheorghe, advisor on Roma issues at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told IWPR, "The leaders were well aware that the refugees would not be admitted.

"It was a protest and the leaders wanted an international audience to pay attention to their plight - but many refugees did believe they would be admitted, and many still do."

The move may have drastically backfired. Since the standoff on the Greek border, the EU has put pressure on Macedonia to grant the Roma refugees formal status, which would make them ineligible to apply for asylum elsewhere. Having now done so, Skopje will have little sympathy for any Roma who reject the offer.

To date, only 120 refugees have applied. As well as confusion over what the process entails, many are suspicious of the authorities' intentions.

Others fear that they will lose their passports and papers if they accept asylum in Macedonia and mistakenly believe that they won't be able to go home when Kosovo's security situation improves.

Reflecting these concerns, Bajram Berisha, a 20-year-old Roma father of four, said, "If I give them my papers, my family will be trapped here and we won't ever be able to go back to Kosovo."

Skopje has already signalled its willingness to deport refugees, sending three Roma back to Kosovo last month after they were caught with fake travel papers.

Isaac Robinson, a lawyer with the Norwegian Refugee Council, NRC, one of the main non-governmental organisations involved in the asylum process, said the forcible return of the Roma is now clearly on the cards unless they take up the government's offer.

"When you deport three people at the same time as you are building an asylum process, the message you are communicating to refugees is very clear - accept our offer or you will be sent back," he said.

Marija Bosse, president of a Roma community centre in Shutka, agreed that it was now clear that the dream of a life in the West was unrealistic. She argued the refugees should understand that the asylum offer is not only acceptable, but that it is their only viable option, "It's a good deal - they will get the same care as Macedonian citizens."

The conflicting advice has left many Roma unsure of their next move.

Hassan, a resident of the Katlanovo refugee camp, said he and his family had not yet come to a decision. "We are afraid to go back home but we still do not see any future in Macedonia," he said.

Others say that given the choice between deportation to Kosovo and a life in Macedonia, they'll simply pay a trafficker to take them to the West.

One refugee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "The traffickers want 10,000 euro for passage into Switzerland. I don't know where I'll get the money from, but I may have to try if there is no other way."

Nikolaus Steinberg is an independent researcher on ethnic conflict.

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