Serbian Roma see no way out of misery after German doors slammed shut

It used to be that processing applications for Balkan residents seeking to move to Germany took months, even years.

Not any more. The process moves much faster now. And that's not a good thing in the eyes of many of the Balkan asylum seekers. That's because many of them are being rejected.

Asylum seekers' ethnicity is difficult to ascertain, but it is clear that many from the Balkans were Roma - sometimes referred to as gypsies - the poorest of the poor, universally shunned and isolated. War might have ended in the Balkans more than a decade ago, but many still tried to reach Western Europe in hope of a better life.

But now another flood of migrants - from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan - have forced their way to Western Europe this year. Germany, set to take in 1 million of these people this year, has declared their need the greatest. Countries like Serbia have been declared safe, meaning residents there have no way to seek refugee or asylum seeker status.

The Roma, those already expelled and those who consider leaving, understand that the tide has turned. But that doesn't mean they aren't desperate.

"We had to go. A flood damaged our home, the winter was coming and the children were sick all the time," says Dejan Petrovic, a 38-year old Roma from Kragujevac, Serbia. "So we borrowed money, sat on a bus and asked for asylum in Germany."

That was in September 2014. By mid-December, Dejan, his wife, Zaklina, 29, and two children were already back home, their application rejected and an "expelled" stamp in their passports banning them from entering the European Union for a year.

"Those were the happiest days of our lives, when we were there. People treated us well, we had food every day and, when the children were unwell, a doctor saw them," Zaklina says. "Believe me, I still cry when I remember."

At home, they survive by separating recyclables from garbage, which they then sell.

"We get 15,000 dinars (135 dollars) welfare. Garbage sometimes brings a little, sometimes nothing. But the electric bill is 10,000 every month," says Zaklina. She has a high school diploma, her husband only an eight-year elementary education.

She and Dejan see only one way out of the misery for their family: "We want to go back to Germany."

But they are afraid of being banned. They did not even know how long their entry ban was. After anxiously showing a pile of documents, they were relieved to find out that the first rejection carries only a one-year ban, which has expired.

"We want to go and work, we don't want welfare. We heard welders are wanted in Germany and I applied for a course. But that costs 88,000 dinars and I don't know how to pay for it," Dejan says.

The Petrovics are stuck. So are many others, says Bozidar Nikolic, a schoolteacher and head of the non-governmental, non-profit organization Romanipen (Roma identity). 

"For many Roma to reach Germany was not a matter of collecting a few euros, but of survival," says Nikolic. Now the door is shut, as people cannot risk to spend money on the trip if they are to be returned within weeks.  

"So, if their life comes into jeopardy, where can they go now?", Nikolic asks.

Without concrete figures, the activists can only guess how many went. "It was hundreds each year from Kragujevac, so it must be thousands from Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia," says Bozidar Nikolic's twin brother, Branislav.

Before Yugoslavia disintegrated into war, Kragujevac was a prosperous town owing to the Zastava car industry, which made hundreds of thousands of cars annually for the closed national market.

At that time, Roma worked as blacksmiths or potters.

"The trades are gone and after the impoverishment during the wars and sanctions and the influx of refugees from Kosovo, the Roma are condemned to work in the garbage company, on the graveyard or to individually separate waste," says Branislav.

Since so many are unregistered, they can't even apply for the meagre welfare. Those who return from Germany, voluntarily or forcibly, find it hard to get back into the system, if they were ever in it.

"When they disappear, their payments are stopped, their children are expelled from the school and they lose even the little that they have here," he explains.

But, the brothers suppose that their people are still leaving.

"You just notice that children from a family disappear from school. Chances are, they risked a trip to Europe, feeling that their chances are still better there than here," Branislav says.

"When I asked one of our men why he is taking his family to uncertainty, he just opened his refrigerator. It was totally empty," Branislav says. "What could I tell him then?"

Last update: Thu, 24/12/2015 - 16:37

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