By Daniel Howden and Eva Kuehnen
Germany is deporting tens of thousands of Roma refugees to Kosovo despite clear threats to their safety and dire warnings from human rights groups that they will face "massive discrimination" on arrival.
The first of hundreds of planeloads of deportees will arrive at the Slatina airport in Kosovo today, blazing a trail for up to 50,000 people who are to be sent back.
Leaked documents obtained by The Independent reveal that the German government took the controversial decision to eject thousands of Roma refugees and other minorities in November of last year, regardless of the risks they may face on returning home.
At a meeting of German state legislators, officials made it clear to central government that the Roma were unwanted and should be deported as soon as possible, starting with those costing the state money in welfare payments.
The confidential paper shows that a majority of state leaders "call on the interior ministry to enforce the quickest possible return of the refugees [to Kosovo]... It would therefore be in the interest of the public authorities, which are in a tense situation " to prioritise the return of those who receive social welfare." Once back in Kosovo the refugees can expect no aid either from Germany or the United Nations, which administers the province.
Claude Cahn from the European Roma Rights Centre said the main motive for the mass deportation was racism against Gypsies: "They don"t want Gypsies, it"s as simple as that. These people face massive discrimination, limits on their freedom of movement and residence rights."
"German authorities have targeted the Roma on a racial basis," he added.
Roma, commonly referred to as Gypsies, were among those hardest hit when the long-term tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians spilled over into open war six years ago. Tens of thousands of Roma and other minorities joined waves of ethnic Serbs and Albanians in fleeing the province.
Over the past five years since the end of hostilities and the imposition of the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik), many ethnic Albanians, minority Egyptians and Ashkalis have been able to return home and reintegrate into their communities.
The same situation does not apply to returning Roma. Discriminated against and unwanted by either ethnic group, the Roma have endured a difficult existence on the fringe of Kosovo society. During the war they were accused by many Albanians of collaborating with the Serbs and became the target of ethnic violence. Many thousands of Roma were forced to flee, either into Serb enclaves in the north or into Serbia proper.
Hopes that relations had improved were dashed in March last year as thousands of ethnic Albanians rioted across Kosovo following the alleged killing of a teenager. More than 4,000 people were forced from their homes and 19 people were killed in four days of fighting that targeted Roma and Serbs. As with so many violent episodes in the province"s past, the spark to ignite the fighting came from the combustible northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica.
The conditions that await the returnees from Germany are clear from the situation in that divided town, once home to the province"s largest Roma community. According to a Yugoslav census carried out in 1991 in Mitrovica, the Mahala ghetto was home to 8,516 Roma. Today, the area on the south bank of the river is a spectre of the formerly bustling community. All that remains of hundreds of family houses are the concrete joists. The few hundred Roma who remained live in "terrible conditions" in a camp in the Serb enclave on the north side of the river. The bridge that links the town is heavily barricaded and patrolled by K-For troops. It is unsafe for members of either the Serb, Albanian or Roma communities to cross the water.
At a donors" conference last week in Pristina, none of the foreign consulates or international organisations were willing to contribute to rebuilding the Mahala, an official source, who attended the meetings, said.