Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Marooned in Macedonia

Thousands of Romany refugees eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in Macedonia, unwanted by the West and unable to return to their Kosovo homes
By Zeljko Bajic

Romany refugees in Macedonia are living on borrowed time. On March 21, the government decided to extend their leave to remain in the country by three months. What will happen to them after that is anyone's guess.


One young Romany, expelled by the Albanians after international peacekeepers arrived in Kosovo, said, "We want to go home to Kosovo, and they are only extending our stay. What has the international community done to help us return home?"


United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives are putting increasing pressure on the Macedonian government to grant asylum to the Romanies and the authorities are showing signs of conceding.


But the Romanies are unhappy with this alternative. They have no wish to stay in Macedonia as they see few prospects there. They dream of emigrating to the West, or returning home to Kosovo. But both possibilities seem equally remote.


Macedonia is currently home to 8,500 refugees, most of them Romanies. They have joined an existing ethnic community estimated to number between 60,000 (according to official figures) and 150,000.


The refugees flooded in from different parts of Kosovo last summer, after being expelled by Albanian extremists. They spent the first few months living under canvas in makeshift camps, where they were given basic foodstuffs and primitive medical care.


Although Macedonia has a good track record for its treatment of Romanies, some locals resent the sudden influx of refugees.


Last December, the inhabitants of Stari Dorjan, a small town on the Dorjan Lake, joined forces to picket a children's holiday camp earmarked for Romany refugees. The locals threw up roadblocks around the camp and defied the authorities for several days until their demands were met.


The refugees encountered the same level of hostility from residents in Mavrovi Anovi, a town on the slopes of Mount Mavrovo which is a popular winter resort.


In both cases, the townspeople voiced fears that the Romanies would disrupt the ethnic balance in the area and trigger a rise in crime and prostitution.


As a result, 230 gypsies took refuge in the Stenkovec camp, where they endured sub-zero temperatures without warm clothes or blankets.


A total of around 2,400 Romany refugees have been housed in 10 special centres across Macedonia -- mostly abandoned holiday camps. Most believe that returning to Kosovo would spell certain death.


Rashid Ramadani, a refugee from Gnjilan, comments, "We can't return to Kosovo. The Albanians would kill us. They accuse us of collaborating with the Serbs. There may have been a few individuals who served in Serbian paramilitary units, but you can't hold an entire people responsible for that. We have always lived in peace with our Albanian neighbours."


Ever since the refugees arrived in Macedonia, the government has been insisting they return home, claiming it lacks the facilities to look after them properly. The authorities even entered into negotiations with Belgrade over the return of the Romanies to Serbia which, they say, has a duty to take care of them. These initiatives, however, have since been abandoned.


Despite daily reports of attacks on minority groups in Kosovo, Skoplje insists that it is safe for the Romany refugees to return to the war-torn enclave.


In an interview last weekend with the state radio station, Minister of Internal Affairs Dosta Dimovska said every effort should be made to persuade the refugees that they face no real dangers by returning home.


Meanwhile, the UNHCR is encouraging the Romanies to stay in Macedonia, even if the economically challenged republic has little enough to offer its own subjects, let alone refugees.


Although many still dream of a fresh start in the West, no Western country has yet shown any signs of putting out the welcome mat.


One refugee staying at the children's holiday camp on the Vodno Hill near Skoplje said, "Journalists and aid workers come and visit us every day. Then they leave. We are left with the same problems, with the same memories about what happened to us. Maybe, at the very beginning, there was some desire to help us. I don't know how long this will last but, all the same, we are hoping for a brighter future."


While deciding to extend the refugees' leave to remain, the Macedonian government ruled that the Romanies must vacate the holiday camps by April 1. The decision was most likely prompted by the approach of the tourist season and the need to free up rooms for holiday-makers.


After April 1, the UNHCR together with the ministries of employment and town-planning will be obliged to find alternative accommodation -- probably under canvas.


But those who have been unable to get a place in a hotel or receive help from the Macedonian Red Cross and the UNHCR have been forced to fend for themselves. In most cases, this means renting a room in Skoplje's Shuto Orizari district, the only Romany enclave in Europe.


Nezdet Mustafa, Shuto Orizari mayor and leader of the United Party of Roma, describes the settlement with pride. "This is the only Roma bastion in the world," he says. "We have over 40,000 Romanies living here."


But, even though the settlement has recently been modernised, some areas still lack a proper sanitation system and sewage spills across the streets. About 80 per cent of Shuto Orizari residents are unemployed.


In some cases, as many as 10 people live in a single room. Rents -- which range between 150 and 200 German marks a month -- are prohibitively expensive for unemployed Romany refugees.


Surviving from day to day has become a bitter struggle. Many sell cheap milk, peas, rice and cooking oil from humanitarian aid packages at the Shuto Orizari market, using the income to pay their rent and buy small quantities of fruit, vegetables and meat. Sometimes, they can stretch to cigarettes and alcohol as well.


"We survive somehow", says one refugee. "But Macedonia remains the most tolerant country in Europe as far as Romanies are concerned."


Zeljko Bajic is a regular contributor to IWPR