More than one decade after the Balkan wars concluded, Kosovars uprooted by fighting then continue to face serious challenges in returning home and local integration, a United Nations human rights expert said today.
“All persons who were internally displaced from or within Kosovo have the right to return but are also entitled to integrate wherever they currently are,” said Walter Kälin, the Secretary-General’s Representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), after wrapping up a week-long trip which took him to Belgrade, Pristina and other cities.
His mission to the region, he stressed, was in line with Security Council resolution 1244, which reaffirms Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and also gave the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) administrative authority. Further, he underscored that any reference to Kosovo – whether to its territory, institutions or population – is to be understood to be in accordance with the UN’s position of strict neutrality on its status.
While welcoming authorities’ expressed commitment to help IDPs, regardless of their ethnicity, return, Mr. Kälin saw entrenched patterns of discrimination, lack of access to employment, few schools for minorities and difficulties in repossessing property, among other obstacles to return.
Nearly 800 IDP families have registered to return to or within Kosovo this year, marking “an important test case,” he said, with the programme’s outcome showing whether authorities are willing to accept and facilitate returns.
Since his last visit to the then Serbia and Montenegro in 2005, he said that he has seen marked improvements in the local integration of the displaced.
For example, in a “positive” and “clear step forward,” the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees and others have helped IDPs leave “dreadful” collective centres and move into their own homes, the Representative said.
But he cautioned that bureaucratic barriers could impede the access of IDPs – the vast majority of whom are of Serb ethnicity – to public services.
“If you want to give internally displaced persons a realistic chance to return one day, you have to first allow them to re-establish a normal life,” he emphasized.
Mr. Kälin in also voiced his concern over the situation of IDPs of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian ethnicity, who have “been living on the margins of society even before they were displaced.”
Many of their children do not attend schools and they also cannot access housing, social and health state benefits because they lack recognized addresses, he said, calling on authorities to treat them as any other IDPs.
He said he was alarmed that hundreds of Roma IDPs are still living in Cesmin Lug Camp, where they had been placed by the UN one decade ago, and the adjacent Osterode barracks in Mitrovica.
“These people live in the immediate vicinity of toxic waste that poisons their blood with lead,” especially the children, the expert said.
“This is a humanitarian emergency and a very serious human rights issue. The lives and health of these sick children must not be abused for political purposes.”