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Serbia-Kosovo Talks Must Not Forget the Roma

Published in: BalkanInsight

Officials from Serbia and Kosovo met in Brussels last week for a second round of negotiations aimed at establishing a formal relationship. Because of the potential for the talks to be politically fraught, negotiators have agreed to limit themselves to three seemingly less controversial topics: the rule of law, regional cooperation, and freedom of movement.

But while Serbia and Kosovo negotiate these subjects, they should spend some time discussing one of Kosovo's most intractable human rights issues: the plight of displaced Roma families trapped in lead- contaminated camps in the divided city of Mitrovica.

The Roma families were displaced during and after the war, and their mahalla (neighbourhood) in the southern part of Mitrovica was destroyed. They were resettled in an area heavily contaminated with lead and told they would only be there for a few months. Some have been stuck there for more than a decade.

As a 2009 Human Rights Watch report documented, people living in the camps, especially children, have suffered severe health consequences from persistent lead exposure. The situation was described by the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, in 2006 as "one of the worst health crises that we have in this part of Europe."

Following extensive pressure from human rights, Roma rights and civil society organizations and growing international condemnation, major progress toward closing the camps was made in 2010.

The most heavily contaminated camp, Cesmin Lug, was closed and demolished in late 2010 and the majority of the inhabitants of that camp and a second lead-contaminated camp at Osterode were relocated to reconstructed homes in a mahalla, through an EU- and USAID-funded project.

While there is still much to be done to ensure medical testing and treatment for all residents and to help with reintegration and livelihoods, moving them away from the worst lead contamination was an important first step.

But there are still about 20 families in Osterode. They are unwilling to return to the mahalla in Albanian-controlled south Mitrovica, fearing for their security, their livelihoods, or both. So they are trapped in a camp that is literally poisoning them, and without a solution for these families, it will be impossible to close the camp.

Roma are a vulnerable minority across the Western Balkans, where they face persistent discrimination in many areas of life. This includes forced evictions in Serbia, segregated education in Croatia, exclusion from political office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and lack of access to basic services in Kosovo.

The long-held prejudices against Roma will not evaporate with a few negotiations in Brussels. But there is an answer for the displaced Roma families in the lead-contaminated Osterode camp, if Serbia and Kosovo can agree on it.

The remaining Roma families at Osterode could be permanently relocated to Serb-controlled north Mitrovica or to municipalities in northern Kosovo. Funding is not an impediment (through the EU and USAID projects) and the families have said they would move to north Mitrovica. All that is needed is land on which to build them homes.

To date, however, the EU, the US and the authorities in Pristina have been reluctant to pursue such a solution. Western officials fear that negotiating with the de facto Serbian local authorities in north Mitrovica and the three other northern municipalities might confer legitimacy on them, undermining Kosovo's territorial integrity.

Kosovo and Serbian negotiators have an opportunity at the talks to overcome this problem. Kosovo authorities can agree to stand behind efforts by international officials to negotiate with the Serbian authorities in northern Kosovo to provide land for these trapped families.

The government of Serbia can encourage these Kosovo Serb authorities to respond favorably to those requests. It should assure Kosovo that it will not seek to use such requests from international officials for the purpose of political advantage or to undermine Kosovo's autonomy.

If the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo are about solving problems with straightforward solutions, there is no excuse to not take on this issue. If Serbia and Kosovo do so, they will demonstrate that their cooperation can bring tangible benefits to the most vulnerable people within their borders.

Amanda McRae is the Western Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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