A long way from home: Roma immigrants and refugees in Europe – UPDATED 11 February 2014


Last week the Dibranis have lost another up-hill battle with the French justice system.

Despite their appeal to the initial ruling and popular support from certain segments of French society, an administrative court in Besancon had maintained the decision regarding their deportation. The judge argued that the initial decision was justified on grounds of the Dibrani family showing a “lack of prospects for economic and social assimilation in France”.

Leonarda Dibrani, now 15 and living with her family in a shelter house in the disputed area of Mitrovica, supported by the Kosovarian authorities, spoke to the press and threatened to commit suicide, saying that “my future came to an end today”, maintaining her view that her home country is France and that she “no longer believes in justice”.

The court’s decision is not final and the Dibrany family can once again appeal the ruling to a higher court. 

Mihai-Alexandru Ilioaia ( 11th of February, 2014)

Deported from France to Kosovo in October, the Dibrani family is now struggling and isolated in a foreign land. They are currently in North Mitrovica on the Albanian territory of the region. The family of six originally left their home in Napoli, Italy 4 years ago and settled in Levier, a small village located in Eastern France. With the exception of the elder Mr Dibrani, none speak any of the official languages of Kosovo, where living conditions for most Roma are simply terrible. Deprived of education and employment and facing daily discrimination, the Dibranis are subject to an experience similar to that of the Hasanis, a family of 10 which has struggled with repatriation in Kosovo for many years now. Their stories are evidence of the destructive European repatriation policies affecting Roma over the last decades.

Leonarda holding her sister.

Leonarda and her sister.

Early last October 12-year-old Leonarda Dibrani was on board a school bus with her classmates when French police officers ordered her off the school bus, for her to be deported to Kosovo with her family later in the day.

The Dibrani’s had entered France in 2009 and were in the process of applying for asylum on the grounds that, as members of the Roma ethnic minority, they faced discrimination. Asylum was denied and the Dibrani’s were expelled as illegal immigrants.

The deportation of Roma has been an everyday practice in France and in other West-European countries in the past few years. The Leonarda Dibrani incident only received attention because of the way the young girl was taken away – in front of her classmates, near her school, despite the fact that French law bans the police from approaching students while they are at or near school. This abuse resulted in street protests, with thousands of high-school students taking to the streets, publicly condemning the procedures. Leonarda’s school also publicly denounced the gratuitously forceful manner in which the situation was handled.

Students taking to the streets of Paris, protesting against the expulsion of Leonarda and her family. Photo: THOMAS SAMSON

Students taking to the streets of Paris, protesting against the expulsion of Leonarda and her family. Photo: THOMAS SAMSON

While particularly egregious, the case of Leonarda Dibrani is not unique. Members of the Roma minority settled in various West European countries are frequently deported to unfamiliar lands, where they have no roots and do not speak the local language. From a wider point of view, the Dibrani case draws attention to the unspeakable conditions most Roma try to escape from, when travelling to other countries in the hope of finding a better life in the West.

To better understand what happens to Leonarda and other migrant Roma, it is necessary to have a picture of Kosovo, which is where they were sent. We must also become acquainted with the immigration policies of the Western European countries.


Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but the world community is still divided on international recognition of the country. The Republic of Kosovo has to date been recognized by 108 countries, including 23 out of 28 EU member states.

In order to gain recognition as a sovereign state Kosovo began to negotiate readmission agreements with several European countries just after declaring its independence.  Kosovo signed its first agreement with Germany (last reviewed in 2010) and later on with many other European countries, including France in 2009.

These bilateral agreements concern mostly persons who fled Kosovo during the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999 or after the violent unrest in 2004 (both resulting in ethnic cleansing). They primarily reside in foreign countries without authorization. Many of the people who fled during the war belong to the Serbian minority of Kosovo, but the majorities are of Roma origin.

Children in Cesmin Lug - Mitrovica. Photo: Romedia Foundation taken from the Mundi Romani episode: 'Trapped: the forgotten story of the Mitrovica Roma'

Children in Cesmin Lug – Mitrovica. Photo: Romedia Foundation taken from the Mundi Romani episode: ‘Trapped: the forgotten story of the Mitrovica Roma’

Kosovo’s Roma

Roma from Kosovo self-identify not only as Roma but also as Ashkali or “Egyptian”. Before 1999 the estimated number of the Roma in Kosovo was between 120,000 and 150,000. Today the figure stands at 35,000. Only a handful of those who fled the country returned voluntarily and, since the war, all Roma in Kosovo are treated as refugees by the authorities. They don’t have proper homes, but live in makeshift settlements and aren’t allowed to return to their pre-war residences. In general, they face extreme poverty and lack access to education, employment, and public services, such as health care and justice. Often they are harassed if they use their mother tongue (Romany or Serbian) in Albanian areas. In short, they suffer the violation of their fundamental rights, an assertion backed by the ample evidence provided by the Cesmin Lug camp. After the NATO bombing concluded, around 8,000 Roma were put into a temporary refugee camp built by the United Nations in Serb-controlled Northern Kosovo, in the neighborhood of Trepca – the country’s largest lead and zinc mine. Most left soon in search for jobs and a brighter future, but 700 souls remained and most of them have been suffering from lead poisoning for many years as a result of the mine’s proximity.

Throughout the years, many international organizations have tried to attract attention to this dangerous situation (including the Romedia Foundation), which produced documentary films that provide a detailed picture of the conditions of Roma living in Cesmin Lug.  In spite of dire urging efforts the relocation of Roma to new settlements is proceeding slowly.

Due to international warnings to respect the fundamental rights of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, the Government of Kosovo developed a “Strategy for the Integration of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities in the Republic of Kosovo” in 2008, for the period of 2009-2015, with the aim of improving conditions for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities by providing them health, education, and social welfare services, and by increasing their political participation and representation in the public sphere. The document also refers to foreign countries which are about to repatriate Roma to Kosovo and asks them to consider the circumstances and living conditions of Roma before deciding to relocate them. The relocating countries are asked to consider whether there is sufficient support for sustainable reintegration.  This focuses attention on Kosovo’s yet undeveloped economic and social conditions, which not only makes it difficult to readmit refugees properly but also demonstrates that it will take a long time to reach the goals described above.

Cesmin Lug - Mitrovica  Photo: Romedia Foundation taken from the Mundi Romani episode: 'Trapped: the forgotten story of the Mitrovica Roma'

Cesmin Lug – Mitrovica
Photo: Romedia Foundation taken from the Mundi Romani episode: ‘Trapped: the forgotten story of the Mitrovica Roma’

Immigration policies in Western Europe – Expulsion of Roma immigrants from France

Current bilateral readmission agreements make clear that Roma refugees from Kosovo present an unwelcome challenge for other European countries, a challenge to which none are eager to rise.  But Kosovar Roma represent only a small percentage of the Roma who migrate to countries with better socio-economic status, seeking a better life.

After countries from the former Socialist Block started to join the European Union, and especially after the admission of Romania and Bulgaria, Western European countries were alarmed by the prospect of massive Roma migration which, they feared, would burden their already strained welfare-systems. Because of this fears, temporary restrictions were imposed on Bulgarian and Romanian workers by some EU member states – including France, Germany and the United Kingdom. In these countries work permits are required, access to social security schemes is blocked, and quotas are set in some sectors. These restrictions are set to expire on January 1, 2014.

Expulsion of Roma immigrants from France

Under French law there are a variety of grounds upon which foreign-born nationals can claim the right to asylum or political refugee status.  The main reason is persecution by a sovereign or non-sovereign authority or, according to the Geneva Convention, refugees status might be given if someone is persecuted due to her/his race, religion, nationality, political views or for belonging to certain social groups. Referring to the French Constitution of 1946, asylum might be granted if someone is persecuted due to actions taken in the service of freedom.

While official French immigration policy is theoretically generous, in practice it has proven highly discriminatory with respect to Roma. Starting in July 2011, the Sarkozy administration began systematically dismantling Roma settlements in France, and deporting residents who lacked work or residency permits from their country of origin. This practice is continued by the current government, whose interior minister, Manuel Valls, made a series of anti-Roma statements in late September 2013, referring to Roma as a population whose lifestyle differed significantly from the French way life. He said that for cultural reasons the occupants of the Roma camps don’t want to integrate into France and that many Roma are involved in crime and prostitution.

Just after the Dibrani incident, public opinion polling confirmed that the French public generally agreed with Valls’ statements and had hostile attitudes toward Roma. According to one poll 93% of French people agree that Roma do not integrate well in France and 77% support the French government’s immigration policies.

Manuel Valls - French Minister of the Interior

Manuel Valls – French Minister of the Interior

Roma from Bulgaria and Romania have the right to enter France without a visa but have to leave after 3 months if they do not find work or obtain residency permits during their stay. This is not different from the way Roma from outside of the EU are treated. To obtain permission to stay legally live and work in the country they first need to get asylum, otherwise they face deportation. Currently there are around 15.000 Roma living in France.

However, hostility towards Roma in France could be a function of Government concern over the inability to cope with the poverty that comes along with Roma immigration, especially at times of strained social service budgets due to the recent financial crisis. Unfortunately instead of reacting according to traditional democratic values, and expel Roma legally from the country, French authorities have turned Roma into the scapegoats for crime and poverty by emphasizing the Roma’s cultural differences  and toying with the stereotypical theory that they are unwilling to integrate into society.

Roma in Europe – the background of the migrations

Roma migrate to Western European countries in the hope of a better life and to escape discrimination and marginalization in their countries of origin. Constant poverty, segregated schools, discrimination in employment and health care, racial hatred and violence, the threat of the strengthening far-right political groups characterize Roma living conditions in Central and East Europe.

However recent incidents like the case of the Dibrani family show that Western European countries are unwilling or unable to guarantee a safe and decent life for Roma.

Cesmin Lug Kosovo

Cesmin Lug – Mitrovica

Kosovo – a temporary home forever?

Leonarda is now living in Mitrovica, Kosovo with her family. Kosovo is a foreign land for the Dibranis, unknown and alien. Except for the father, they don’t speak the language, and they have never lived there. They were taken to Mitrovica because when asking for asylum, Reshat (the father) declared to the French immigration authorities that his family was from Kosovo. Now he has admitted that his wife and children were born in Italy, but the family has no official papers to prove that, and that he lied about the origin of the family in the hope of having better chances to get asylum in France.

Due to protests in France, a few days after the deportation of the family, French president Francois Holland offered Leonarda the opportunity to return to France and finish her studies, but only if she came without her family. The young Roma girl turned down the offer, unwilling to go back alone. Now she is stuck with her family in a city where Roma live in unspeakable social conditions. This sort of “repatriation procedures”  are commonplace and most of the time the world fails to notice when, from one moment to the next, insensitive bureaucratic actions deprive Roma families of the chance to live a decent life. Despite the bi-partisan stipulations regarding the viability of reintegration of repatriated Roma from the “Strategy for the Integration of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities in the Republic of Kosovo”, the Dibrani family was unceremoniously dropped in a North Mitrovica settlement, with no further support or involvement from either local authorities or the French government who deported them.

The Romedia Foundation has the mission to provide alternative information to policy makers about Roma through its documentary films. Their latest production concentrates on a family which has been facing a situation similar to Leonarda’s. This is Romedia’s third documentary that elaborates the story of Roma who live in refugee camps near the Trepca lead and zinc mine. Romedia has been capturing the last five years of the struggles the Hasani family faced in Kosovo, whose life became a nightmare in a few seconds, just like in the case of Leonarda and her family when they were deported to Kosovo.

Nasmija and Sedat in Kosovo

Nasmija and Sedat in Kosovo

In the beginning of the 1990s, part of the Gushani-Hasani family fled to Germany to escape rising tensions and war. Long years passed and the Hasanis became a family with three sons. In 2009 the mother and two of the three brothers were repatriated by force from Germany to Kosovo, leaving the father and the oldest brother behind in Hanover. The two teenage boys Sedat and Nazmija who had never been to Kosovo before joined the rest of the family who lived 16 km away from Mitrovica, an unknown and alienating place, where they don’t even speak the language.

Written by Katalin Bársony, Mária Bogdán and Bálint Németh

Edited by Sinziana Marin