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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Students from the Refugee Legal Clinic: Impressions from Field Visits

The students of the Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade who attend the Refugee Legal Clinic participate in the visits of Praxis legal mobile teams to the collective centres for refugees from the former Yugoslavia and internally displaced persons from Kosovo and to the Roma settlements with both domicile and displaced Roma residents. The field visits have enabled the students to familiarise themselves with a numerous problems of refugees, internally displaced persons and Roma, difficult living conditions, often on the margins of society, legal issues and barriers faced in the exercise of basic human rights.

These are their impressions...

The room ... in which we were sitting was of medium size and tight, full of children, but warm and cosy... We went there to collect documentation required for obtaining personal documents. As far as I could see, they are not well informed about how to exercise their rights. And I have to say that I even got the impression that they were not motivated to exercise these rights, as if they were not aware of the importance of having personal documents... "When we wanted to register the last child, my husband got ill and for that reason we did not". Two years have passed since then. There was also a woman who gave birth in a German town and when she got out of the hospital she did not do the necessary paperwork, she did not go to the German Embassy in Belgrade for financial reasons, and did not even know that she could ask for help in the Embassy, even though there were several people from the same settlement who had collected necessary documentation in this way.

However, I spoke with a woman who had been properly registered, possessed personal documents and whose children went to school. She also faced other type of problems. Neither she nor her husband could find a suitable job, and since they were of working age, they did not receive any social assistance. Their children were discriminated against at school, not by other children, but by the teachers themselves. She turned to the school principal, who, as she claimed, asked her not to take any further actions. She said that she felt a certain fear in conversation with the teachers, the principal and people in other places where she had to go to request, ask or look for something...

Tijana Jelenkovic - Settlement “Sarplaninska” in Mladenovac visited on 30 November 2009

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As I could notice, mainly Roma people live in that street. The houses have minimum, only most essential living conditions (water and electricity).

As regards their problem with access to personal documents, I think this is a consequence of their lack of knowledge about the very procedure of issuing documents. For example, one woman, who is married and has six children, asked for help in making a request for the registration of one of her children into birth registry books... The youngest child has not been registered into birth registry books for two years already. The reason was the expired father’s ID card at the time of the child's birth. The child’s father was afraid that he would have to go to jail if it had been found out... (?!)...

They have health cards.... In general, they can exercise the right to social protection. In fact, four children (in the above-mentioned case) receive the child allowance. However, they do not receive any other form of social assistance – their request was rejected with the explanation that one of the parents was employed - the father, and received the salary in the amount of 15,000 dinars. It is debatable whether it is enough for a family of eight. The biggest problem faced by the Roma is unemployment. Although they have a work booklet, they usually do not have a satisfactory degree, and there is a certain amount of discrimination, which further complicates their work search. All the Roma children whose parents we interviewed were enrolled in school and attended classes regularly. One girl had a problem with other pupils - they laughed and teased her for being a Roma. However, her father informed the teacher and the principal, and the problem was solved. Generally, the children do not have any problems with the Serbian language; the school even has a Roma assistant and they have necessary school equipment.

In my opinion, the Roma should be informed about their rights as much as possible and they should be primarily instructed on how to exercise these rights, because there lies the essence of the problem...

Biljana Badza - Settlement “Sarplaninska” in Mladenovac visited on 30 November 2009

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First of all, I have to commend the Praxis team that does a very good job and performs this work with a lot of enthusiasm, although it is not an easy task. I like the way of involving students in field work, as well as communication with students and approach by their mentors. From this point of view, I can conclude that only in such an experiential way we can feel the weight of the problems faced by the members of Roma minority and identify the way of approaching these issues, both legal and social ones.

…Upon crossing the threshold of the house where we interviewed people, we noticed that the household members lived in poverty due to the inability to find a job in the area and the town of Pozarevac. They have neither identity cards nor work booklets, and most of them do not know the procedure for obtaining these documents...
Most members of the Roma minority in this region were displaced from Kosovo where, as they say, they had much better conditions for life and work before 1999 than now in Serbia. Since they are not able to find a job, they are forced to seek social benefits from the state. However, they have been deprived of such assistance under the pretext that they are able to work. Hence, they have no choice but to suffer hunger, cold and dirt. They heat their rooms with the branches collected in the nearby forest, which is a private property, but the owner has allowed them to do so. The Red Cross gives them a quarter of bread per child and they receive the child allowance.

They do not send their children to school because they do not have money for books and clothes, and they are especially embarrassed (according to the words of the children's mother when asked why her children did not go to school) for their children being barefoot and dirty because they have no resources for hygiene products. Their children would be different from other kids at school.

All those who are registered into birth registry books have health insurance and get medications when they get sick.

Finally, I see the solution to these people’s legal problems only in counselling them on how to get the documents they need, but unfortunately it does not solve the whole bundle of interconnected problems. They need socialisation, education, normal living conditions and awareness raising; it is a huge social problem that must be addressed – it seems that the state is rather inert when it comes to this issue. I would add that citizens should be more aware of the problems of Roma in order to eventually stop discriminating and marginalising them!

Jelena Kalicanin - Roma settlement in Stari Kostolac visited on 11 February 2010
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What we have seen during the visit is a small part of the problem that has to be tackled by our society and institutions, and it is the inability of a certain social group which is, to put it mildly, on the margins of our society, to exercise its basic human rights.

The situation that we saw is far below the lower limit of subsistence minimum.   

The household we visited counts twenty-one members who live in only three rooms. Destitution, scarcity of resources and income determine, to a great extent, the quality of their lives. The members of this household are mainly recognised as persons before the law; they are registered into birth registry books, have registered permanent or temporary residence, possess identity cards, personal citizen’s unique identification number, which they achieved with a great help of the Praxis team. However, there are still those in this settlement who absolutely need this kind of assistance...

The internally displaced persons have IDP cards. Many of them have left behind them, in Kosovo, their property and a better life. They do not even think of returning there.

They exercise the right to health care, which means that they have health cards and they are entitled to some free medications, which is very important because of their difficult living conditions.

Only few people in this Roma settlement have attended school. The school-aged children do not attend primary school for various reasons, mostly financial, health, but discrimination is also one of the problems in certain cases.

Only those who fulfil necessary requirements, and they are in minority, receive social assistance and child allowance. They do not know anything about the right to social housing. The Red Cross donates a quarter of bread per child...

They said that they had never been directly discriminated against, but it is difficult to prove in individual cases. However, the position of Roma in our society is the best evidence that discrimination exists to a certain extent.

By joining the Praxis mobile team in their field work, I got the opportunity to meet life, issues and people who are on the margins of our society, and I am convinced that this and similar programmes will help our society to make significant steps towards the successful resolution of this issue.

Maja Grbic - Roma settlement in Stari Kostolac visited on 11 February 2010

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When we arrived, at least a dozen of Roma were at the entrance... I thought they gathered there because Praxis was coming. However, through the interview that I conducted with an older Roma woman, I learned that about twenty people lived in that house, which is not larger than 60 square meters. At first glance, the living conditions are not so bad ... After only half an hour I was absolutely freezing in the house where the family members were almost barefoot.

From the legal point of view, I have met the "legally invisible" persons, who have been living for the past 10 years as internally displaced without any personal documents and without a solution on the horizon. Without personal documents, they do not exercise their basic human rights - to get employed, to visit a medical doctor or to conclude marriage.

Since a large number of children are not registered into birth registry books, a vicious circle is created. Unawareness leads to even bigger problems... when I asked that older Roma woman about her personal documents, she said she had them all, but in fact, she did not even have an ID care. Consequently, she was not able to access basic rights.

Dunja Vajman - Roma settlement in Stari Kostolac visited on 11 February 2010

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When I was informed that we were going to a collective centre for refugees, I thought there were mostly displaced persons from Kosovo. Today, nobody talks any more about the refugees from the former Yugoslavia. This topic is mentioned only on the Refugee Day, but the general public is quite unaware about the number of these people and their living conditions. Myself included. Somehow, my personal and other people’s experiences show that refugees have been resourceful and managed to get accommodation and provide for themselves.
When we got there, we went into the kitchen where meals are distributed (a minimum provided by the state, as I found out later)... a cold and empty kitchen. We find out that, in fact, no one even knows we are there ... although there are posters announcing our arrival. Upon arrival, we met the manager who just waved at us and left. And it has left the impression that the leading people of these institutions are slowly giving up, that they are fed up.

After half an hour, people started appearing, not because of us but to take their meals, poured to them from the buckets, and they were asking us who we were by the way. When we mentioned legal aid, they began to sit down and ask questions...related to the years of service for retirement... property in Croatia, citizenship...

I have learned that the refugee status provides only the right to health care, accommodation in collective centres and one meal a day... No social protection, no allowances, not even for the families with many children or elderly people who cannot find a job and thus earn a living. If they apply for citizenship, they lose the refugee status. On one hand, by applying for citizenship they would be equal to other citizens of Serbia, while on the other hand they would lose this modest accommodation and food, left to the mercy of the streets... The solution? They stay where they are and survive as they can.

...From the perspective of the future lawyer, ...I understand that legal solutions are rigid and out-dated...

Dunja Vajman - Collective Centre “PIM Standard” in Krnjaca, Palilula visited on 16 February 2010

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... I would like to stress the reaction of the residents of the collective centre. In fact, at first they obviously distrusted us probably thinking: "They are all the same." However, as soon as one person got the courage to approach us and say his problem, after which an adequate and feasible legal advice followed, almost every present person approached and asked for advice. I'm glad because we showed that someone was really there for them, even if in this way. I have also realised that they do not ask for much more, just someone to listen to them and help if possible.

As a student of the Refugee Legal Clinic, I have got better insight into the problems faced by refugees and internally displaced persons and their living conditions...

Nevena Markovic - Collective Centre “Varna” in Sabac visited on 23 March 2010

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The collective centre is located in a somewhat unusual building that from the certain distance resembles a medieval fortress. Unfortunately, it looks like one only from afar. Once a magnificent building that belonged to the Karadjordjevic family before the nationalisation today can “boast” with the broken windows and crumbling facades, and the fact that it is a home to the displaced persons from Kosovo. The first thing that came to my mind when we found ourselves in front of the collective centre was: do these people have no right to a more dignified facade? More beautiful environment would not solve their problems, but it would certainly help them bear up in the situations that are often hopeless.

Most of the people that the Praxis lawyers met were already familiar cases. They welcomed us ready with the copies of necessary documents - mainly for the purpose of obtaining new identity cards or documents to enrol their children in school. While the lawyers were collecting documents and talking with clients, my three colleagues and I interviewed people who were waiting with the documents or simply watching curiously.

Those were mostly persons who came to Belgrade fleeing from Djakovica, Kosovo. It means that they have lived in the collective centre for 11 years. In contrast to the collective centre in Krnjaca which I visited in February and where there are mainly old and sick people, and the refugees who do not renounce their Croatian citizenship because they would be left on the street without the collective centre, in Raca there were families and young people who were well informed about the documents they needed. Almost all of them have ID cards, their temporary residence was registered at the address of the collective centre, they have health cards and some of them want to obtain a new passport to visit the children abroad. But the biggest problem and most difficult to solve is the one related to the property of displaced persons from Kosovo.

What left the strongest impression on me was the conversation with a man who fled from Kosovo in 1999. He has lived in the collective centre for 11 years with his wife and as many as four children. He used to be employed in Djakovica and he receives temporary compensation on that basis. In Kosovo, he left the house of 280 square meters, which is not destroyed but occupied. The Kosovo Property Agency has been dealing with his request inefficiently, and the Albanian tenants have not been paying rent for over a year. When I asked him a question about possible housing programmes that he could apply for, he told me rather bitterly that "he does not believe in it any more." In fact, the humanitarian programme that consists of allocating rural estates and construction material is intended only for those IDPs whose property was destroyed, not occupied. I guess the assumption is that a person whose property is "only" occupied still possesses it. Unfortunately, it is far from the truth in reality. It is true that the interviewed man with four children (all of them attending school regularly) admitted that he would gladly agree to have his house in Kosovo burned to be able to get accommodation for his family.

The housing programme that disappointed the interviewed man indicates that the resources are always and inevitably limited. However, it might be useful to ask ourselves the following questions: where should we draw a line? Who should be denied the right to help, who in reality remains below that line? In this case, these are the people who still have property in Kosovo. Although they do not have any benefit from that property, what we do have is a good excuse not to help them.
Finally, the visit to the Collective Centre in Raca was not only instructive in terms of the legal problems of internally displaced persons, but also a bright and cheerful experience with people who, in spite of their adverse living conditions, have the strength to laugh with us.

Sonja Gitaric - Collective Centre “Karadjordjev dom” in Raca visited on 15 April 2010

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We had a lot of work in the Collective Centre “ORA Sartid”, which is the point of this practice, and it was really interesting. We started with interviews by using a set of prepared questions. The situation regarding access rights is somewhat better. Most often they have an ID card issued in Kosovo with the address of permanent residence in Kosovo. All of them also have so the so-called green card which is the proof of registered temporary residence in Serbia. As regards health care, no one uses any more health care certificates and now they all have health cards.

A birth certificate was the most requested document. Some of them had it, but the majority of certificates lacked a citizen’s unique identification number.
Second, when we arrived, many people gathered around us and the Praxis lawyers were overloaded, so that the four of us students were happy to "jump in" and help with filling in the requests, which was our great pleasure and great experience.

During the interviews and filling in the requests, we were able to advise people about the rights they could exercise, especially in the field of social welfare and education, but the people showed little interest in most forms of assistance. This also refers to the integration programme: they expressed their frustration about the conditions and mostly about the amount of around 7000 euros, which was offered to them to buy a house. They claim that they cannot find anything acceptable for that money, although there are those who are already in the project, which means that although they are in the collective centre, their financial status differs a lot, but they are reluctant to talk about it. We understood that situation on the basis of their response to the question "Do you own a real estate in Kosovo and do you plan to sell it?" They usually just waved the hand until we insisted a bit and learned that their brother or father had a house down there but ... they did not.

Most of the advice that we, the students, gave to the IDPs were based on the information provided to us by the Praxis lawyers.

Igor Dencic - Collective Centre “ORA Sartid” in Smederevo visited on 22 April 2010

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The Collective Centre “ORA Sartid” accommodates over 400 persons, internally displaced persons (who are majority) and refugees. During the visit, we had the opportunity to see the problems they face...

One of the basic problems is related to documentation, which is the basis for the exercise of human and civil rights. The largest number of people requested help for the obtaining of most important documents, such as birth and citizenship certificates, in order to be able to exercise certain social rights, including the right to child allowance. What is most important is that almost all of these persons have registered permanent or temporary residence, and they possess identity cards and citizen’s unique personal number. However, they faced problems with subsequent registration.

They have access to the right to free health care; they have health cards for which they had to have registered residence (green card) and citizen’s unique personal number.

The families who meet the requirements are entitled to child allowance. As regards education, all children attend school but the assistance in obtaining books and school supplies is either partial or does not exist, the latter being more often the case. A small number of children have the right to student scholarships and loans (depending on achieved grades).

A large number of people are unemployed or work on the black market. Specifically, I have talked to the lady whose husband works in construction, but he has not been registered and does not have a work booklet. Those who have a work booklet are registered with the National Employment Service as unemployed. They are entitled to temporary social assistance.

They possess IDP cards and ID cards. They are not interested in returning. Those who owned real estate property sold it, but there are still a number of those who have not.

They are acquainted with the social housing programmes, particularly with the competition for rural estates; many of them applied and many of them believe that the assistance for the purchase of rural households is insufficient.

Maja Grbic - Collective Centre “ORA Sartid” in Smederevo visited on 22 April 2010

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The task of the students was to interview refugees and displaced persons, but there was a lot of work and we helped by filling in the requests for obtaining documents. While people were waiting in line, I had a brief conversation with two older women. It was really sad to see that a small number of these people knew what rights they had and even if they were aware of their rights, they did not known how to realise them. Many of them did not make requests for social assistance or child allowance although they really needed any help they could get. I have also found out that the assistance for buying a house is too small; it is usually the amount of around 7000 euros for purchasing rural households, and the condition is that the building is habitable, which is very hard to find. One of the requirements is also that people are not employed because otherwise they are not considered vulnerable despite living in collective centres, which in my opinion is horrible and everyone should be allowed to obtain such assistance if they find a house at that price… I was surprised by the number of people who were waiting for assistance; I did not know that there were so many people in the collective centre.

Maja Strbac - Collective Centre “ORA Sartid” in Smederevo visited on 22 April 2010

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Some 130 families live in the Roma settlement Mali Leskovac. Each family has at least seven and often more than ten members. More than half of them are displaced from Kosovo, mainly from Klina and Djakovica. The Roma settlement consists of the houses scattered on the hill of Mirjevo: those at the foot are of acceptable quality, with nice and clean yards, while those located high on the slope are made almost of cardboard. Even the vulnerable social groups like the Roma are subject to inevitable disparities; obviously, no social group is homogeneous and each case should be considered in a given context. We have seen that vulnerability can manifest in many different ways - it was enough to climb a few meters up the hill of Mirjevo.

The persons who waited for us with their requests for registration into registry books and other similar problems were already the clients of Praxis and the lawyers were familiar with their cases. A particularly difficult case was that of a young man who had no documents, had no IDP card and who needed an ID card because he had just come of age. As he admitted to us, he was afraid that the police would ask him to present the documents he did not have. In his case, it is necessary to conduct a complicated procedure of re-registration into registry books dislocated from Kosovo to Kraljevo.

While the lawyers were dealing with clients, I used the opportunity to talk to a woman who had already completed her conversation with the lawyers. She addressed Praxis in her husband’s name. He needed a new ID card, but could not be present because he had to work. She has four children, a 4-year old girl, other two school-age children (for whom she receives social assistance), and the oldest son, who is 15. Two children attend primary school Filip Visnjic and the oldest son goes to night school, which is organised in the premises of the primary school. In fact, since he did not attend primary school, her son spends an hour a day at night school - along with the adult Roma who also compensate for what they have missed a long time ago. I wanted to know if that type of education was "effective" and whether she believed that her son would enrol secondary school one day. She just shook her head faint-heartedly and said: "No use when he doesn’t want to learn!" In addition, she claims that there is no discrimination against her children in primary school. In the classroom there is only one more Roma child and she says they never experienced inconveniences for being Roma. I suppose she meant the outburst of violence and gross insults, but perhaps more subtle and less obvious forms of discrimination do exist. This woman was born in Smederevo, but her husband was born in Klina and came from Kosovo just before the riots in 1999. The house that her husband's brother and her husband left behind is still in Kosovo, but they show no interest in that property. Her husband is permanently employed with the City Waste Disposal, while she has neither been employed nor has she contacted the National Employment Service since the birth of her youngest child. We advised her to address the National Employment Service because they might find her a job, but she was determined to stay home with her children.

Unlike the collective centres that can (reasonably) be gloomy and depressed, the Roma have specific optimism even though they face the same problems. Although optimism is healthy and admirable, I think that in combination with cheerful and careless nature of Roma people it sometimes prevents them from making an effort to improve their living environment and their lives. In this sense, I believe that it is especially important to educate young Roma and raise awareness about the importance of education - only then they will not end up in night school, like the son of the women I spoke to, because of unfinished primary school.

Sonja Gitaric - Roma settlement “Mali Leskovac” in the Municipality of Palilula visited on 10 May 2010

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The settlement itself seems to be divided into two parts. The meeting was scheduled in the part of the settlement where the living conditions were satisfactory. The houses were spacious, made of solid material and nice yards. The hosts welcomed us warmly and our clients did not have major legal problems. The vast majority possessed personal documents and their children were mainly registered at birth. They go to school and have no problems with other students or teachers. They follow the lessons in the Serbian language without difficulties. However, the clients complained about the impoliteness of the employees in the Municipality of Palilula and the Social Welfare Centre. They did not understand which documents were required or how to obtain them. Many of them knew about the Praxis office, either they had visited it earlier or heard about it...

The other part of the settlement left a much bigger impression on me. Living conditions and hygiene are very low; the "houses" are made of sheet metal, plastic and cardboard, scattered around without any order. There were children of about the same age everywhere around...dirty and dressed in old torn clothes. Almost all women were pregnant! There was a fire in almost every courtyard where they were preparing food since that part of the settlement had no electricity. They do not use dustbins and there was a lot of garbage on the heap in every courtyard. There were also wash-basins with dirty water and clothes in it. An older woman was selling candies on a cardboard in the street. We could not get through the whole street in the car because in the end, right next to some houses, there was a landfill spreading as far as the eyes can see! The kids were playing barefoot there without being criticised by anyone.

As regards the legal aspect, almost all settlement residents had personal documents and the children were usually registered at birth. Those who did not possess documents were in the process of collecting necessary documentation.

Tijana Jelenkovic - Roma settlement “Mali Leskovac” in the Municipality of Palilula visited on 10 May 2010
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We all tend to blame them and, believing to be "experts", we condemn their way of life in advance, but until we feel, at least for a moment, the atmosphere of their life, we cannot be aware what these living conditions really are. All of us had passed right next to their settlements a countless number of times, but entering them is something completely different.

The term unsanitary is an understatement for the conditions in which they live... even though I tried to smile at the sight of most amazing objects made of metal and wood in these households, it is impossible to remain indifferent without wondering what the solution might be. However, the efforts of Praxis to help them with personal documents is only one of the very good ways to assist them in integrating and achieving the status equal to other citizens of Serbia. A great number of them were, at least at first glance, interested in receiving assistance, but when we approached them we could notice their inevitable “attributes” - dishonesty and desire to hide at least something, not knowing that the whole effort was just for their own good.

Most of those who approached us and explained their problem were instructed to come to the Praxis office with necessary documents if they had them and I sincerely hope that they will do it.

Nevena Markovic - Roma settlement “Belvil” in New Belgrade visited on 27 May 2010

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The visit that left the strongest impression. The first impression is certainly a contradiction - Belvil (the new elite residential quarter), a recently built hotel and the adjacent Roma settlements.

There are more settlements and the first one that we visited is different because it has electricity (I do not know for sure how they are connected). It is located beneath the overpass and it is anything but a settlement ... I would say it is a big landfill... In my opinion, such conditions constitute the violation of fundamental human rights. In addition to taking electricity (as they manage on an individual basis), they do not have water but have to walk to the local tap water, while the sewage is non-existent.

I was surprised by the fact that the group interviewed by the mobile team knew a lot about their lack of documentation and it seemed to me that most of them expressed their wish to become socially visible for the state as soon as possible. They are mostly displaced persons from Kosovo, but there are also the families that used to live under the Gazela bridge.

After this visit, I became more aware of this problem, because earlier I used to see this scene only by watching a few-minute footage on the news. I have seen in the field how huge that problem is and realised that the state must commit to solving it! It must not ignore it or take radical measures to gain the sympathies of the people, such as sudden dislocation of such persons without enabling them to exercise their basic right to become citizens of this country.

Dunja Vajman - Roma settlement “Belvil” in New Belgrade visited on 27 May 2010

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