AI Index: EUR 70/011/2005
13 July 2005
AI Index: EUR 70/011/2005 (Public)
News Service No: 189
13 July 2005
Kosovo: Protect the right to health and life

The health of hundreds of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptiani currently living in camps built on a former lead-smelting site in Kosovo is under serious threat. High levels of lead have been registered in the blood of many of the 531 adults and children who have been living in three camps on the site of the former Trepca Mines Company in Zvecan Municipality near Mitrovica since 1999, when they were forced to leave their homes during the Kosovo conflict.

In a letter to the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG), Amnesty International presses for immediate action to address the continuing serious violation of the right to health of the three minority groups. Failure to act may lead to a violation of the right to life guaranteed under international human rights law.

"The high concentration of lead in the air and soils of the site and high blood lead levels in the local population were well known from studies conducted in the pre-conflict period of 1999. UNMIK has been aware of the threat to the health of the inhabitants of these camps from at least 2000. Yet, nothing has been done to relocate them," Sian Jones, researcher on Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo) at Amnesty International, said.

In reports dated July and October 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Pristina found that almost a third of the children examined had unacceptable levels of lead in their blood: 12 of them were found to have exceptionally high levels. The WHO stated that "...the Roma case is urgent. Children's lives and development potentials are at risk".

Severe lead exposure may lead in adults to increased blood pressure and decreased functions of the kidneys and central nervous system. In children, high level of exposure may lead to convulsions, coma and even death; even lower levels of exposure are associated with decreased intelligence, growth and hearing.

The risk to the health of the inhabitants is ongoing and cumulative. Yet, in the case of lead-poisoning the removal of children from the source can reduce the lead level in their blood by almost as 50 per cent within weeks.

WHO has recommended relocation of the camps.

"As the responsible authorities, UNMIK and the PISG must immediately adopt measures to remove the inhabitants of the camps from danger, and subsequently to address the unacceptable levels of pollution affecting the wider community," Sian Jones said.

"A continuing failure to act will render UNMIK and the PISG in violation of their obligations to respect and protect the right to health in failing to take all necessary measures to safeguard the population within their jurisdiction, or to discharge their core obligations under international treaties incorporated into applicable law in Kosovo."

Amnesty International is aware that within the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptiani communities people are concerned about being resettled yet again without being able to return to their pre-war homes. The organization is also aware that many of them have not been fully informed of the extent of the danger to which they are exposed.

Amnesty International urges UNMIK and the PISG to:
take immediate action to evacuate the three camps to safe shelters, ensuring the community's participation in the decision-making;
monitor their health and address the effects of lead poisoning focusing in the first instance on children and pregnant women;
ensure that the relocation should not compromise the right of the residents of the camps to return ultimately to their pre-war homes;
ensure that the relocation be carried out in a manner that respects the rights to life, dignity, liberty and security of those affected;
ensure that after their resettlement the members of the communities are able to enjoy their right to seek freely opportunities for employment.

Amnesty International also urged UNMIK and the PISG to subsequently address the unacceptable levels of pollution affecting the wider community in Zvecan and Mitrovica.

 Host of Problems Impede Return
of Internally Displaced Persons in Kosovo
Internally displaced persons in Kosovo continue to face major problems impeding their return to their pre-conflict homes, a UN envoy said after visiting the region.
(UN News Centre, UN Office at Geneva - 24/06/05; Refugees International - 15/06/05; BBC - 13/06/05)
Earlier this month, both the BBC and Refugees International reported on hundreds of Roma --many of them children -- living in refugee camps in Kosovo. [AFP]
While the situation in Kosovo appears to have improved, the number of minority returns remains very low, the UN Secretary General's Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) said Friday (24 June) following a visit to the region.
During his three-day tour of Kosovo, Walter Kalin was told that there had been fewer interethnic incidents over the past few months. But IDPs and returnees said they were still concerned about their own safety. One reason they cited was persistent low-level harassment. Other major problems include curtailed freedom of movement, lack of employment opportunities and insufficient funding, according to the UN representative.
Kalin further appealed to the international community to take urgent action to evacuate scores of Roma people affected by lead poisoning in camps in northern Mitrovica. "This situation is an emergency," he said. "A failure to act now would amount to a violation of the right of the affected children to have their health and physical integrity protected."
Earlier this month, the BBC and Refugees International (RI) reported on the case of hundreds of Roma living in refugee camps in Kosovo, in the vicinity of a lead smelter in Mitrovica. Although the facility is no longer in use, the area is likely contaminated with extremely high levels of poisonous lead.
The Office of the UNHCR reportedly set up the makeshift camps in 1999 as a temporary shelter for Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDPs who fled their homes in southern Mitrovica. Although the initial intentions were for the displaced people to spend no more than 90 days in the wooden huts, they have not been moved.
Zitkovac, one of three camps in the area, is said to be the worst affected. Containing mostly children, its wooden huts are close to the old smelter and within several hundred metres of a toxic slag heap, the BBC reported.
According to WHO, which describes the situation as an environmental disaster, at least one child has died from lead poisoning.
"Children between birth and six years old are the most vulnerable as they are in the primary stages of growth and development," the RI said in a report. "Lead poisoning affects the entire body and has severe and permanent health consequences … According to the WHO reports, the most significant and irreversible effect is on IQ levels."
UNMIK officials told the BBC earlier this month that the Roma had been offered temporary accommodation in less contaminated areas but had refused it.

 Roma IDP lead poisoning in North Mitrovica illustrates Roma’s disastrous health and shelter conditions (2005)
to Global IDP

Kosovo: Lead Pollution Requires Immediate Evacuation of Roma Camps
Three camps for Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian (RAE) internally displaced persons in Kosovo are on sites irretrievably polluted with lead and must be evacuated immediately. The World Health Organization and other UN organizations in Kosovo believe that the situation, which affects more than 600 people, constitutes a health emergency and that urgent action is necessary. The leadership of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) acknowledges that delays and lack of leadership have kept the displaced in a dangerous situation. UNMIK has not acted despite the fact that as early as November 2000 its report, “First Phase of Public Health Project on Lead Pollution in Mitrovica Region,” recommended that the Roma camps be relocated and that their residents receive continuous education and support for the eradication of lead poisoning.

The RAE camps were never intended to become semi-permanent settlements in the midst of an environmental disaster area. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) constructed the three internal displacement camps of Chesminluk, Kablare and Ztikovac for the RAE populations who fled from South Mitrovica to North Mitrovica during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. UNHCR built these camps as a temporary solution. At the time UNHCR believed that the RAE displaced would remain for 45 to 90 days, after which they would return to South Mitrovica. Continued inter-ethnic conflict prevented return to South Mitrovica by the RAE population and thus the camps have remained occupied since 1999.
for full report

 The Washington Times
Kosovo Gypsies face lead poisoning

By Bruce I. Konviser
Published July 24, 2005

MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro -- The United Nations authority here acknowledges it has failed to protect hundreds of Gypsies from lead poisoning, but it continues to resist immediate remedies, even though more than two dozen people may have died as a result of the health crisis.

"It is true that the internationals let this go on for too long," said Laurie Wiseberg, the U.N. minority rights adviser in Kosovo, who reports to the head of mission, Soren Jessen-Petersen. "We should not have, and I think Soren Petersen has acknowledged that we haven't moved fast enough on this."

Despite this, the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) continues to resist calls for quick action. Many aid agencies urge the immediate relocation of the Gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called, who were settled in refugee camps at the end of 1999 after Kosovo Albanians razed their homes during a bout of ethnic violence.

The three encampments were supposed to provide temporary shelter, for 45 days at most. But six years later, the displaced still live in the shadow of disused, industrial smelting operations, where, with every gust of wind, the big slag heaps sprinkle lead-laden dust on the camps.

The World Health Organization reported on the crisis last summer and has completed two further studies. An executive summary of the latest report, due out soon, says children, who make up about a third of the 500-plus refugees, are particularly at risk.

-Lead poisoning rises-

Among the WHO's conclusions:

• In the Zitkovac Camp, 23 of 26 children under age 6 had lead levels greater than 65 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the highest level the on-site blood analyzer could register.

• Children suffering from acute lead poisoning, defined as above 70 micrograms per deciliter, don't receive adequate medical care.

• Even the children with the lowest exposure have three times the permissible lead level in their blood, which is 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Dr. Rokho Kim, a WHO epidemiologist, visited the affected camps in February and contributed to the latest report. "Relocation is the only fundamental solution," he said.

Four of Ashima Avdija's eight children are suffering from life-threatening levels of lead poisoning. She wants to leave the Zitkovac Camp as soon as possible.

"The kids vomit, they walk like they're drunk, and they are irritable," said Mrs. Avdija outside her dilapidated home at the camp. "For the kids, it can never be good here."

 Radio Free Europe
Kosovo: Camps For Displaced Roma Poisoned By Toxic Waste

Almost six years after the Kosovo war, hundreds of displaced Roma still live in what they were told would be temporary camps near the Trepca lead mines of Kosovska Mitrovica. Growing evidence shows they are being poisoned by toxic waste from the mines. So far, nobody within the complicated bureaucracies of the UN-administered province appears to be taking responsibility for the situation. RFE/RL correspondents Ron Synovitz and Arbana Vidishiqi report on a crisis with complications that span the boundaries of Kosovo's segregated ethnic Serbian and Albanian communities.

Prague, 15 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Eleven-year-old Julieta Toska has lived more than half of her life in a ramshackle camp with hundreds of other Roma who are still displaced by the 1999 Kosovo war.

The home she knows best is the Zitkovac camp on the outskirts of Zvecan -- a small town near the Trepca lead mines on the Serbian-controlled northern side of Kosovo's Ibar River.

Her family's ancestral home is a few kilometers away on the southern bank of the Ibar River. But Toska has not visited her native Mahala district of Kosovska Mitrovica since it was destroyed in a spree of looting and reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians in June 1999. Extreme poverty defines her daily existence.

"We just got back from Zvecan," she said. "We searched in the garbage bins to find some food. We usually take a bag to find something to eat for my little brother."

Julieta's mother, Xhemile Toska, said the children of the camp suffer from chronic illnesses. "I take my children to the doctor very often. Actually, they are ill most of the time," she said. "They don’t have enough food. They don't have enough clothing. They have nothing."

But the sickness is not just the result of poverty and malnutrition. Growing evidence shows camp residents are being poisoned by toxic waste from the nearby lead mines. Common symptoms include memory loss, convulsions, vomiting, and problems with walking.

"The situation requires urgent action. But for the moment, I do not see any serious measures or steps in this direction." - OSCE's Nowicki
to complete article


 OMBUDSPERSON INSTITUTION in KOSOVO Calls for Immediate Assistance for Roma IDP Settlements

 International Herald Tribune
Kosovo: Poisoned camps for the Gypsies

Kosovo Roma refugees face unspeakable poverty, exposure to toxic metals
AFP, April 11, 2005