27 June 2005
Secretary General's Representative Urges Flexible Solutions to Internal Displacement in Serbia and Montenegro
(Reissued as received.)
GENEVA, 24 June (UN Information Service) -- The Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Walter Kälin, issued the following statement today:
“Integration and return are not mutually exclusive but complementary, and there is an urgent need to find durable solutions for the most vulnerable among the displaced persons”. This is the key message of the Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Prof. Dr. Walter Kälin, who just concluded an official visit to Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo, from 16 to 24 June 2005 at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro.
In Belgrade, the Representative met with the Minister for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia and Montenegro, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the President of the Coordination Centre of Serbia and Montenegro and the Republic of Serbia for Kosovo and Metohija, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia, the Commissioner for Refugees of the Republic of Serbia, the Deputy Mayor of Belgrade, as well as international agencies, the representatives of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and non-governmental organizations. He also met with persons displaced from Kosovo at collective centres and informal settlements in the vicinities of Belgrade and Kraljevo.
Meetings and visits in Kosovo included talks with the President and Prime Minister, senior officials of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), United Nations agencies and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Kosovar and municipal authorities, displaced persons in camps in northern Mitrovica, Zitkovac and Obilic and returnees in rebuilt houses in Svinjare, as well as with international and national non-governmental organizations. Finally, a short visit to Montenegro allowed him to meet with the Minister for Labour and Social Welfare of Montenegro, the Commissioner for Displaced Persons, the Ombudsperson and other governmental officials, as well as international agencies, representatives of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, representatives of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and persons displaced in camps in Konik. Wherever he went, the Representative showed appreciation for the huge efforts of the population and the authorities to welcome and host the more than 200,000 persons displaced form Kosovo.
Concerning the Republic of Serbia, the Representative pointed out that the overall situation of the IDPs is increasingly hard. He especially highlighted the difficult conditions for the 6,800 IDPs still living in collective centres. “No more money has been invested in their maintenance for the past three years”, he said. Many buildings are ramshackle and no longer offer acceptable living conditions. Unrecognized settlements have sprung up where displaced Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are living in abject misery.
On the work of the Commissioner for Refugees, he praised his initiative to better assist the displaced persons. “The lack of clear mandate of the Commissioner for these people has left several gaps when it comes to protecting their human rights”, he nevertheless noted. Of particular worry was the difficulty for many displaced persons to regularize their situation either due to a lack of proof of origin or of legal address. The Representative, although aware that the documentation and administrative requirements are complicated and burdensome for all citizens of Serbia, stressed that for people who were already at a disadvantage due to their displacement, these obstacles could become insurmountable and further prejudice their access to health care and other State services they had been receiving and are still entitled to. He encouraged the authorities to speed up their efforts to simplify their administrative processes and to do it in a way that would respond to the particular difficulties of non-documented persons, among them, many Roma and members of other marginalized communities.
Concerning Kosovo, the Representative felt that the situation seems to have improved insofar as the number of violent inter-ethnic incidents has reportedly dropped over the last months. Nevertheless, many displaced persons within Kosovo, as well as returnees, told him of their fears due to a persistent low-level harassment, which is targeted at them, and further fed their fear for their safety. Additional major obstacles for them were their curtailed freedom of movement and the lack of employment opportunities. The Representative underlined that the overall number of returns by members of minorities remained very low. He encouraged the Kosovar and international authorities to address these obstacles vigorously.
“Particularly deplorable is the fact that considerable numbers of IDPs are forced to continue their dismal lives in camps and elsewhere because there is no donor money available to implement their return”, the Representative said, addressing the situation of those displaced persons who were willing to return. Meetings with various UN agencies and with the authorities in Mitrovica and in Obilic showed this disquieting situation very clearly.
He also expressed his concern that there is no clear responsibility assigned to UNMIK or the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government in Kosovo for those who remain in displacement inside Kosovo, and many are largely neglected. He underlined that the focus of the relevant authorities has exclusively been on return, thus, disregarding those who are still displaced within Kosovo. This is especially true for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian IDPs who, together with the other non-Serb minorities, feel caught between the two main ethnic communities in Kosovo.
As regards the Roma population affected by lead poisoning in camps in northern Mitrovica, the Representative appealed to the international community to immediately evacuate them to non-contaminated areas and to provide the necessary resources for this without delay. “This situation is an emergency. A failure to act now would amount to a violation of the right of the affected children to have their health and physical integrity protected”, he said.
Concerning the Republic of Montenegro, the Representative was impressed with the work undertaken by the Montenegrin authorities to manage the refugee and IDP influx they had had. Nevertheless, he was worried by the fact that as non-citizens of Montenegro, internally displaced persons were disadvantaged if not by law so in fact in areas such as work or access to property and business licenses. He welcomed the new Refugee and IDP Strategy which foresees the return of the displaced persons, their integration in Montenegro or resettlement to third countries as the three options for durable solutions. He stressed that according to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, internally displaced persons have the right to choose freely between these options. “If they opt for return, it must be voluntary, in safety and sustainable”, he said.
Problems common to all parts of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro include the fact that the closure of collective centres, in practice, means that besides members of marginalized communities the persons remaining there are the most vulnerable of all: elderly, ill, disabled, severely traumatized individuals, female-headed households and families of missing persons, although it may seem the only humane option. “The time has come to find a dignified solution for these extremely vulnerable populations who will neither return nor be able to live on their own, by setting up appropriate institutions. The authorities must be supported by the international community in this endeavour”.
“To allow internally displaced persons to live and lead a normal life and return are not mutually exclusive options, but actually reinforce each other”, he said. “Well integrated people are more likely to lead productive lives, which, in turn, will give them the strength and the impetus to return to their places of origin, once the time is right.” The Representative reminded all concerned that experience from other contexts has shown that the quicker displaced persons are integrated back into productive lives, the more likely they are able to exercise a free choice which can mean return, even if it means facing new challenges.
“It is difficult to predict at this time what the future of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro is. Changes in status of Kosovo and independence for Montenegro, however, would cause new problems for the displaced, in particular regarding their citizenship rights”, the Representative warned. Together with issues such as property or pension rights they must be addressed carefully and comprehensively to ensure that no displaced person looses his or her present rights.
Finally, the Representative took note of the concerns expressed to him by many interlocutors that the massive return of former refugees or rejected asylum-seekers from certain Western European countries would add to the burden caused by internal displacement in the different parts of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, particularly if they were not able to return to their homes. He appealed to the governments concerned to implement such returns cautiously. He further urged them to refrain from returning members of threatened communities and particularly vulnerable persons to situations where they would risk becoming internally displaced persons without the necessary assistance and protection of their rights.
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