Pack your stuff and get out: "Voluntary" returns of Roma people to Kosovo
Visit any Roma mahala or social housing complex in Kosovo and you can be sure to meet several young people who will start speaking fluent German with you - or English, or Swedish. Whether their clothes are clean and ironed, or so dirty and neglected that they themselves are ashamed of it, their conversations reveal their life experiences and the perspective they have gained, a perspective somehow out of sync with the environment and world in which you are meeting them. They all share the same view of life in Kosovo: "This is not life! I cannot remain here." Each of them says this with the same bitter, determined, proud expression on his or her face. Kosovo is not their homeland.
The German-Kosovan agreement
In April 2010, Germany and Kosovo signed an agreement to repatriate 14 000 refugees from Germany to Kosovo, which pledged to take back people who had traveled to Germany during the wars of the 1990s and had never managed to acquire residency there. The vast majority of refugees whom the deportation or displacement from Germany concerned were Roma people (10 000 of them).
This agreement allegedly meets all of the international standards for the treatment of refugees and takes all humanitarian aspects into account, but despite such claims, international organizations concerned with the issues of human rights, migration and refugees (including the Council of Europe) have labeled the current situation unbearable. They base that evaluation on the personal testimonies of the deportees, whether they be several cases of the German authorities committing brutality against refugees during their displacement or the living standards of the refugees after their return to Kosovo. The country is absolutely unprepared to receive and subsequently integrate them, it lacks financial and organizational capacity. The majority of deported Roma people do not enjoy basic rights in Kosovo such as access to education, employment or health care.
Seven months after these agreements were concluded with Kosovo, the Conference of State-Level Interior Ministers in Germany issued a recommendation that the repatriations be restricted to a minimum number of deportees and approved the option for providing these families with residence permits for humanitarian reasons. However, it is up to state-level authorities and local authorities to decide to take advantage of this option. In reality, only a negligible percentage of Roma refugees have succeeded in acquiring residency.
An estimated one-third of the Roma people who were deported from various countries back to Kosovo were returned on a basis of violent, forced deportation. International organizations recommend supporting only voluntary returns.
Residence permits - to be "tolerated" is no victory
During the 1990s, many EU Member States introduced various forms of short-term protection for refugees from the Balkan wars. This protection insured their entitlement to a range of fundamental rights in the host countries. Various national governments then adopted various tools for awarding this protection, establishing various standards for providing such protection and various kinds of access to the fundamental rights.
In Germany, most Roma from Kosovo were living there with the long-term status of a "tolerated individual", which does not ensure the right to legal residency. This is simply a form of suspended deportation, a permit that says "you can remain here for the time being". The "tolerated" are not full members of society and face many restrictions in access to employment, freedom of movement, and social care.
For those who are living in Germany long-term, there is the option of legalizing their residency under certain conditions. A person can acquire a residence permit who has lived in the country for a minimum of eight years, or six if he or she has children. At the same time the person must be able to take care of him or herself and his or her family without depending on social benefits, may not have a criminal record (with a few exceptions), must speak German sufficiently well, and must live in accommodation that conforms to certain standards. His or her children must fulfill their mandatory school attendance.
Only a negligible percentage of Roma people from Kosovo have managed to meet these conditions. The smallest "sin" disqualifies one from a competition in which the main prize is permanent residency in Germany. Even if this concerns temporary dependency on the German social welfare system or losing work through no fault of your own, everything counts.
The nightmare of the "tolerated" Roma person from Kosovo
"Voluntary returns should occur on the basis of truly free and informed decisions." - United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Local authorities are the ones in Germany who decide whom to deport. Deportation should only concern refugees who are unable to prove they have sufficiently integrated. Unfortunately, sometimes even the greatest efforts at integration will not satisfy these authorities.
How does it all work? First you receive a letter calling you to submit proof of your sufficient effort to integrate into Germany society. This starts the phase of "stamp collecting" – even if your are studying, working, or intensively looking for work, the stamps are never enough, or they aren't the right ones. If the proof of integration does not seem sufficient to the local administration, they announce that you are in the country without a legal basis and call on you to leave. During negotiations in person with the authorities, this call also happens to be a warning of the possibility that police will forcibly deport you without notice if you don't leave the country on your own. This admonition has evidently convinced many people to "voluntarily" leave the country.
No small amount of Roma returnees claim to have never received a letter calling on them to leave the country. In short, one morning the police unexpectedly broke into their apartment and took them to the airport. Forced deportations usually occur during the night and early morning hours so police can be sure the entire family is home. Detainees get only a few minutes to pack the most necessary items. Moreover, many of these forced deportations can become "voluntary" if people sign the documents given them before they are taken to the airport. Their signatures confirm they are leaving the country voluntarily.
Many such "voluntary" returns occur under pressure. This can result in the distortion of statistics on the numbers of forcibly deported refugees, which seem rather low compared to the multiple testimonies of forced deportation from those who have been repatriated. Official statistics claim that during the first six months after the signing of the agreement between Germany and the Republic of Kosovo (roughly from April - October 2010), only 87 refugees from all of Germany were forcibly displaced. However, the sheer numbers of deported Roma people contradict these statistics.
Kosovo: Under construction!
It is often claimed that these agreements to repatriate refugees to Kosovo were signed under political pressure from the host countries and that Kosovo is actually not capable of fulfilling such international treaties. In these repatriation cases it is clear the country does not have sufficient financial or organizational capacity, and very often there is no political will on the part of either municipalities or national bodies to ensure the reintegration of refugees into society. The county is not even capable of providing them sufficient living conditions.
One of the obstacles to improving the situation is the very weak connection between the government and the municipalities. Even though the Government of the Republic of Kosovo has adopted a strategy for reintegration refugees that sets forth the responsibilities and roles played by the local authorities and various ministries, the government has taken no further steps to inform the relevant institutions of those responsibilities. Municipalities, on the other hand, keep records of all the refugees living on their territories but do not share this data with the relevant ministries or other higher bodies. The situation remains stuck in place. Returnees are therefore subjected to an economic and social decline which is hard to manage.
Financial aid to the deported? That depends!
There are programs through which Western European countries are providing refugees with a certain form of aid after their return to Kosovo. However, according to the findings of Amnesty International, assistance is often provided randomly. Most refugees received either little or no assistance after returning to Kosovo. On the other hand, four German states (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia) provide their deportees with financial and other practical assistance ( with housing, seeking work, and sometimes aid in start their own businesses) for a period of six months after they have returned. However, according to Amnesty International, this project only covers a few cases and is not providing a permanent solution.
"If something doesn't change, I'll kill myself." Amir, 23, was deported from Bavaria about a year ago. All of his family members, including his girlfriend and their infant daughter, are still there. He announces the likelihood of suicide with such resignation and truthfulness that all one can do in response is to nod with concern. "I cannot return to Germany for a minimum of five years. I have been banned!" Each of his words seems so irreversibly absolute as to be overwhelming. "These guys don't have the slightest idea what life is. This is not life. The children loiter around the building all day because they can't go to school. The men don't have work and will evidently never find any. This is not life!" he says of the friends who live with him in social housing on the outskirts of Plemetina. Unlike Amir, his friends have never known what it is like to live in a Western European country. Until now they have spent almost their entire lives in refugee camps or recently in social housing. They cannot overcome the obstacles around them. It doesn't matter whether a person is capable or not. It doesn't matter how much he or she wants to overcome the obstacles. Here in the country of "Out of Service", only a handful of people escape the lethargy.
The majority of Roma people from Kosovo in Germany have lived there for more than 10 years. They consider it their homeland, they established a foothold there through hard work, overcoming discrimination. It was not easy to integrate there. Children who grew up in Germany or were born there know no other home. Suddenly they are faced the obligation of leaving the country. There are currently approximately 5 000 Roma children and young people who could be deported from Germany next.
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