Al Jazeera published an article by Phoebe Greenwood, working for Save the Children charity, on the plight of the Roma in Montenegro. The article was published as a special report commemorating Refugee Day on June 20. (The photo is of a Roma refugee in Cesmin Lug, Kosovo, December 2007)
The description of the camp is focuses on the plight of Roma refugees from Kosovo, and not about the life of the Roma population within their respective countries in general. For example, in FYR Macedonia, the Roma community within Skopje, the capital, is similarly poor, but not quite to the extent described in Ms Greenwood's report. Many Roma families in Skopje pull their young children out of school, not because they are abused or attacked (although that is certainly the case at times), but because the way of life requires that the children help support the family on the street by peddling goods or begging. There is no desire, at least in Skopje, to join Macedonian society. Indeed, if one tours the Roma compound in Skopje, the poverty is overwhelming - except when one comes upon the local ruler's home which is quite large and expensive.
The result of the resistance to integration leads to frustration among some in the development community. During my time in Skopje, I watched as a UN team enthusiastically began working with the Roma community only to find that their efforts were not similarly enthusiastically embraced unless the local leader approved. Such approval was clearly based on "what do I get out of this?". In private, the team was critical of the Roma community leadership's failure to respond positively and constructively. They wanted to leave.
I am also not surprised at the low attendence and high drop-out rate in school. That was the pattern in Skopje. Unfortunately, I am also skeptical of the sincerity of some of the statements made by some the Roma in Podgorica. I am also curious as to the ownership of the large homes in the background of the photo featured in the article.
The truth of the matter is that the answer to question of "why is no one helping us", is that no one in the Balkans (or in Russia, Ukraine - anywhere) wants to help. Organizatons like Save the Children should be given more resources to assist communities such as this, but no one should expect local governments to help at all. Save the Children and similar charities cannot build infrastructure, houses or change the political climate to the extent required. But they can help to prevent the spread of disease, push for new regulations and enforce existing laws protecting the rights of children.
The Roma have been the target of discrimination in every country in which I have worked. Their way of life does not easily permit absorption into local society. However, the treatment of the Roma - abetted by the policies of local governments as documented in this article - needs to be changed. Telling them to "return where they came from", in this case Kosovo, would solve the problem for officials in Podgorica, but not for the refugees. They cannot stay, but they are probably equally unwelcome in Kosovo. Attitudes will need to change on both sides - and attitudenal changes require generations.