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7 July 2009

“Persons who were internally displaced from and within Kosovo still face serious obstacles to return and local integration”, said Walter Kaelin, Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, after concluding a visit (28 June-4 July) to Belgrade, Pristina and other cities.

“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. A decade after the war, there are still serious obstacles for people to make either option a reality”, Mr. Kaelin stressed at the conclusion of his follow-up on a mission he conducted in 2005 to the then Serbia and Montenegro.

Mr. Kaelin thanked the Government of Serbia, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Kosovo and other international actors as well as the Kosovo authorities for an open and constructive dialogue. He underscored that he had conducted the mission in full respect of Security Council resolution 1244 and wished any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, to be understood in accordance with the United Nations position of strict neutrality on the status of Kosovo.

The Secretary-General’s Representative noted with appreciation that the relevant authorities expressed commitment to facilitate return of all internally displaced persons, regardless of their ethnicity. At the same time, Mr. Kaelin found that entrenched patterns of discrimination, lack of access to employment and livelihoods, too few schools for minorities and difficulties in repossessing property and having houses reconstructed are among the chief obstacles to return.

“Close to 800 families who were internally displaced have registered to return to or within Kosovo this year. This is an important test case. The conduct and outcome of this programme will show whether the relevant authorities, including municipalities in return areas, are willing to accept and facilitate returns”, Mr. Kaelin emphasized. He added that it was important that the municipalities as well as the Kosovo Ministry for Return and Communities received adequate resources, both financial and human, for this purpose.

Mr. Kaelin noted some improvements in the local integration of internally displaced persons: “It is positive, and a clear step forward since my last visit, that authorities like the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees have started programmes to help internally displaced persons leave dreadful collective centres, move to their own houses or flats and build livelihoods.” The United Nations Representative expressed concern, however, that bureaucratic obstacles, in particular cumbersome procedures to get documents, continued to make it unnecessarily difficult for many displaced persons to access 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”, Mr. Kaelin pointed out, noting that few of those still stranded in collective centres had registered for the planned return programme.

By far the largest number of persons who were internally displaced from and within Kosovo are of Serb ethnicity, Mr. Kaelin highlighted, adding that he also met displaced persons of Albanian ethnicity awaiting their return to Northern Kosovo.

Mr. Kaelin expressed particular concern about the situation of internally displaced persons of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian ethnicity. “This is a minority that has been living on the margins of society even before they were displaced. I met displaced Roma who had to stay a decade under terrible conditions in informal settlements, without access to adequate housing and social and health state benefits because they do not have a recognized address. Many of their children are not enrolled in schools.” He called on the authorities to treat these persons as any other internally displaced persons, in full accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The United Nations Special Representative was alarmed that several hundred Roma internally displaced persons were still living in Cesmin Lug Camp, where the United Nations had placed them a decade ago, and the adjacent Osterode barracks in Mitrovica/Mitrovicë: “These people live in the immediate vicinity of toxic waste that poisons their blood with lead since 10 years. Particularly the children are in a critical health condition and need immediate attention.” Mr. Kaelin called on all authorities and actors to cooperate in a pragmatic manner and find without any further delay a durable solution within Kosovo in close consultation with and with the participation of the group. “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,” Mr. Kaelin demanded.

Walter Kaelin, Professor of Law in Bern (Switzerland), has been the Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons since 2004.