Europe’s Shame: Konik Camp for Roma in Montenegro
By Mensur Haliti & Eleanor Kelly
A newly formed Crisis Council made up of Roma residents of Konik Camp in Montenegro is working to chip away at thirteen years of deeply ineffective infrastructure there. Challenging the system in place is difficult and risky. In this interview, Mensur Haliti, originally from Kosovo and now working with the Kosovo Roma Crisis Council, describes how we have got to this point.
What’s happening in Konik camp?
For 13 years the Roma living in the camp at Konik have been displaced. They fled the civil war in Kosovo and are still without a permanent solution or a clear legal status. Upon their arrival in Montenegro during the Kosovo conflict (1999–2000), Roma from Kosovo were granted the status of “displaced persons” since both Kosovo and Montenegro were part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at that time. Despite the subsequent independence of Montenegro in 2006 and of Kosovo in March 2008, Roma from Kosovo still hold the status of displaced persons, depriving them of their basic rights, such as the right to work.
There are many critical obstacles for Roma in Montenegro: there are no provisions for Roma from Kosovo to effectively access public education; the housing situation continues to get worse with people living in tents, containers, and barracks without basic housing infrastructure; there is basic access to healthcare but little else. Roma from Kosovo are not entitled to register with the local employment agency as jobseekers and so are not entitled to use its services. Practically, Roma from Kosovo have no rights in Montenegro to formal employment, forcing them to accept unregistered jobs.
In Konik, all of these issues are at their most acute.
There are three options for the people of Konik. One, full local integration, or in other words, enjoyment of the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as others; two, voluntary and sustainable return to Kosovo, where competent authorities, both Kosovar and Montenegrin, must have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which will allow Roma from Kosovo to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes; or three, moving to third countries.
How is the European Union involved in finding a solution?
The European Union has a vital role in achieving, through the Process of Stabilization and Association, as its name suggests, the elimination of the consequences of the war and the establishment of long-term and sustainable stability in the region.
However, recent policy conditionality by the European Union toward Montenegro regarding Kosovar Roma has been ineffective.
For 2012-13, the European Union has committed tens of millions of Euros for Roma from Kosovo living in Montenegro. But residents of the Konik refugee camp do not expect much from this money. They have seen the same pattern over the last 13 years where lots of money comes in their name, but their situation is getting worse because of the ways this money is spent.
Can you tell me more about the Kosovo Roma Crisis Council, the real leadership, as you describe them, of Konik?
The Crisis Council is made up ten genuinely representative residents of Konik. Their purpose is to generate and articulate the demands of the local residents, both for immediate and more strategic solutions
When I spoke to the Crisis Council they told me they do not need humanitarian aid anymore. They admit that this aid is necessary because of their children, because of the urgent need to survive the winter, but they are sure that humanitarian aid will not provide long-term solutions in Konik. What they need is an organized voice to be able to articulate their demands and organize constant pressure to fight for a better situation in the camp.
Be assured there is plenty of outside effort being put into ensuring that the Council—and the Roma they represent—keep their mouths shut. However, they are still determined to fight—as they said, they don’t have anything to lose. They have already lost everything. Their simple demand in the next period is to participate in decision making in all related bodies and processes which concern them in order to be able to influence all related decisions.
How much closer is the Kosovo Roma Crisis Council to achieving participation in the decisions made about them?
The council has been incredibly active. They have about 1,000 signatures on a petition that they are preparing to submit to the European Commission in Montenegro. They have organized plenty of meetings with residents of the camp, building the leadership and their constituency. They are already getting lots of reaction from the government and broader society. But the Council is also aware of a new reality they will have to deal with. By being involved more and more, capacity issues arise and there is a risk of being silenced by being overwhelmed. The Council must now decide how they retain the ability to be vocal opposition and resist being folded into the existing bureaucracy.
And what do you think the people of Konik need now, more than ever?
Roma in Konik know that international and local organizations as well as the government have been, and are getting, a lot of money for addressing issues concerning them, but in 13 years they have almost never been asked to take an active role in projects undertaken in their name.
Kosovo Roma activists and organizations from the camp have been used by different institutions and international organizations as clients but not as partners. At best, they have been used as field workers and “spies” for central or top-down control and division among the residents of the camp. Presently, no single Kosovo Roma NGO has been a partner of any institution or international organization in Konik.
Because of these reasons, conflict will escalate in Konik as will more and more organized pressure. And this is exactly what they need more than ever—transformational leadership, organized membership and a voice in public life. Konik's Roma should not be kept in silence any more.
Mensur Haliti is division director for the Roma Initiatives Office.
Until May, 2021, Eleanor Kelly was the regional head of communications for the Open Society Foundations.