The Roma community’s decade-long exposure to lead contamination in northern Kosovo is one example of the European Community’s (EC) reluctance to expose and rectify the persistent human rights issues that Roma face.

During the 1999 bombing of Kosovo, the Roma lived in Serb-majority areas in the Metrovica region of northern Kosovo. Due to their linguistic ties, the Roma were perceived as Serbian corroborators and were targets of retaliatory Albanian violence, leading to their expulsion from the region. One of these raids destroyed the Roma Mahalla (“neighborhood” in Turkish) in Mitrovica, the largest Roma community in the former Yugoslavia. As a result, a total of 8,000 people were internally displaced.

While many fled to neighboring countries like Serbia and Montenegro, others were temporarily relocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to camps in the Mitrovica region, where they lived in makeshift tents, huts, and metal containers. The World Health Organization (WHO) advised the UNHCR against building these camps because toxic lead waste in the surrounding area made the land unsafe for human habitation. Despite these warnings, the UNHCR allowed Roma families to live in these camps, where they have been ever since.

Minimal access to clean water, inadequate diet, and little to no electricity have significantly accelerated the lead contamination levels for the Roma living in the camps. According to medical studies conducted by Human Rights Watch, lead exposure can damage internal organs and the nervous system, stunt growth, and lead to behavioral problems. It can also negatively affect fetal brain development, causing disabilities and mental retardation. WHO-sponsored medical treatment for poisoned Roma children was discontinued in 2007 because the children had to be relocated away from the camps and given an adequate diet to be effectively cured.

There are three main solutions proposed for displaced Roma in northern Kosovo. The first is to rebuild the Mahalla settlement. Although many international actors prefer this option, it finds disfavor with the residents of the camps because they would lose access to Serbian welfare and health benefits. The second option preferred by the majority of the camp residents requires resettlement north of the Ibar River. There is, however, no land presently available for such an undertaking. The third option is to relocate the residents to other countries. This idea seems unrealistic mainly because Western European countries are reluctant to take in Roma from Eastern Europe. As one EC official stated, “there is no appetite in Europe for more asylum seekers from that region.”

The Roma’s continued plight in Kosovo is due in part to the failure for one institution to assume leadership and responsibility for negotiating and implementing an urgent evacuation and medical treatment plan. The UNHCR initially managed the camps, followed by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and, since January 2009, a local NGO called the Kosovo Agency for Advocacy and Development (KAAD). Camp residents view the management change from UNMIK to KAAD as a sign that the international community is washing its hands of this burden.

Roma rights activists continue their efforts to obtain justice. In July 2008, human rights activist Diane Post helped an international law firm file a complaint on behalf of the Roma families with the Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) for violations of the right to life, protection against inhumane and degrading treatment, and the right to a fair trial. The case is currently pending.

The treatment of the displaced Roma in Kosovo is an ongoing human rights violation. The Roma are no strangers to oppression, but their ongoing lead poisoning in Kosovo is especially appalling because international actors and humanitarian aid organizations are complicit. The UN created the camps and should therefore shoulder the responsibility for this group and work to alleviate its hardship. Czech President and human rights campaigner Vaclav Havel once said, “The fate of the Roma would be a litmus test for Europe’s new democracies.” Based on this account of the Roma in Kosovo, it seems that Europe has yet to meet Havel’s test.