Several hundred Kosovar Roma refugees are spending their third week living in the open at the Macedonian-Greek border. Saying they see no future for themselves in Macedonia, they are determined to seek a fresh beginning in a Western country. But Macedonian authorities have not allowed them to leave -- and no Western country has yet offered to take them in.
Prague, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The nearly 700 Roma arrived at the border earlier this month to ask Greek authorities to grant them political asylum, or let them move on to another Western country.
The Romany refugees fled Kosovo after the 1999 NATO campaign in the Serbian province, fearing reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians who accused them of collaborating with Serbian forces during former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority. They say the West is now responsible for their fate -- since it was a Western war that drove them away from their homes.
Macedonian authorities stopped their convoy of buses at Medjitlija, some 210 kilometers south of the capital Skopje, saying they could not allow the Roma to leave the country as they had no passports or other valid travel documents.
The refugees -- including children -- refused to turn around and set up an improvised camp at Medjitlija.
The Roma have been living in Macedonia for the past four years, surviving on humanitarian aid. But the aid came to an end, and earlier this year, authorities closed down their refugee camp in the Skopje neighborhood Shuto Orizari, citing deteriorating sanitary conditions.
Ahmet Naser of the Skopje-based Republican Organization for the Protection of Roma Rights told RFE/RL that the Romany refugees simply see no future for themselves in Macedonia because of the country's poor economic situation.
"They see no conditions for their future life here. Also, their [current living] conditions in Shuto Orizari are disastrous. Where they have now been offered places to live, the residents themselves are in no condition to accept them as refugees in their homes," Naser said.
The United Nations refugee agency offered the Roma financial aid and help in finding them a place to live with local residents. The Roma refused the offer, saying the help would soon come to an end and that the authorities wanted simply to disperse them. They also refused the authorities' offer to request that they receive asylum in Macedonia.
Goran Momirovski, a spokesman for the UNHCR mission in Skopje, said that before thinking of moving someplace else, the Roma must first clarify their legal status.
"According to the [existing] Macedonian legislation, these people are at the moment with illegal residence in Macedonia because they have refused to sign the documents that allow them to be treated as refugees, so we treat them as humanitarian assistance persons. And we should mention that according to national legislation in Macedonia they should have passports, travel documents if they want to go in some other countries. So practically, this issue should be resolved first by the refugees themselves," Momirovski said.
As for resettlement in a Western country, that -- at least for now -- seems an unrealistic option. Momirovski told RFE/RL that according to the agency, the only solution for the Romany refugees is to accept the UNHCR offer.
"About the possibility of solving the situation, we at UNHCR can see only one option so far, which means that the refugees should go back to Skopje and accept the offer by UNHCR which contains material and financial assistance for their accommodation in private houses, private accommodation, which is so far the only solution they have," Momirovski said.
Kosovo, meanwhile, is only a few hours' drive away. But the Romany refugees say they fear harassment by their former ethnic Albanian neighbors.
"They have currently no wish to return for a number of reasons," Naser of the Organization for the Protection of Roma Rights said. "In the first place because they are afraid, secondly because their houses have been razed to the ground and third, because they have no confidence in the international organizations which are there. Currently they are not willing to return to Kosovo. As for the future, this is an open question."
But for now, the question on everybody's mind is: how long can the hundreds of Roma stay on at Medjitlija, living in vinyl tents -- and in legal limbo? Spokesman Momirovski said the UNHCR is trying to prevent a possible use of force by authorities -- but does not exclude that happening.
"In all these days of crisis at Medjitlija we have insisted in our talks with the government that force against the refugees should not be used, so we will continue in a way to protect the refugees and to push the government not to use force. But of course we cannot make pressure on the government not to implement the law on movement and residence of aliens, which is the law under which the refugees will be treated. And if the refugees continue to refuse our protection, which is the case now, then the government has the full right to react according to the national legislation," Momirovski said.
There are concerns, meanwhile, that unless the situation is resolved quickly, another several hundred Kosovar Roma refugees could soon join those already at Medjitlija. There have been several Kosovar Roma protests -- the latest one yesterday -- in front of EU headquarters and Western diplomatic missions in Skopje. So far, there has been no Greek or EU decision on the refugees' fate.