UNHCR helps Roma group find a new home in Montenegro

A group of 27 uprooted Roma families spent years living in a squalid riverside settlement in the Montenegrin town of Berane. UNHCR and local authorities have found a solution for them.

The new settlement takes shape in Berane.   © UNHCR/M.Boskovic

BERANE, Montenegro, October 16 (UNHCR) - The settlement on the banks of the Lim River in the northern Montenegrin town of Berane was barely fit for habitation, but it was the only place that a group of 27 uprooted Roma families could call home.

"Riverside" was one of many formal and informal settlements set up around Montenegro to house ethnic Serbs as well as members of the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian minorities who fled their homes in neighbouring Kosovo in 1999 and 2000. The difference was that it was the sole one built on private property.

This meant trouble as the years went by and there seemed no prospect of the 27 Roma families going back to Kosovo. After an initial three years free of charge from 2000, the landlords started demanding rent for the land and its dilapidated accommodation buildings.

They obtained court eviction orders in mid-2005 and the residents spent some time living in a meadow until UNHCR gathered funds so that they could return to their homes. The Roma still lived under the constant threat of eviction.

But the engagement of the municipal leadership and the Montenegrin Bureau for Care for Refugees, together with funding from the European Union and UNHCR, means the Riverside saga will have a happy ending.

The Berane authorities, with local support, have set aside a plot of land in another part of the town to accommodate the 154 affected people. UNHCR implementing partner HELP Germany has begun building single-storey houses on the site and the Roma families are expected to move in by December. Some are helping construct the homes.

"This is the happiest day of my life since we escaped from Kosovo," said Sadrija Salja, a Riverside community leader, on the day that the construction work began at the new site earlier this month.

"This project is a further confirmation that when local authorities offer genuine and durable solutions for refugees or displaced persons, international funding can be mobilized," said Udo Janz, deputy director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, who visited the Riverside settlement in September.

He would have found it a sight for sore eyes. The settlement of wooden cottages was constructed by the humanitarian organization World Vision International in 2000. But the elements and time have done their damage and the site is liable to flooding. Hygiene conditions left a lot to be desired.

Barely habitable: the Riverside settlement in Berane.  © UNHCR/Dz.Demic

The Roma will be better off in the new municipal-owned homes, which they will live in rent-free for at least 15 years. And they will be moving in with the blessing of their neighbours. Their community is well integrated in Berane. They are engaged in recycling waste and communal cleaning, while their children attend local schools.

Montenegro is home to some 24,000 people uprooted from Kosovo, including about 4,500 of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian ethnicity. The vast majority live in dilapidated shelters and sub-standard conditions.

By Gordana Popovic in Berane, Montenegro