From Exclusion towards Integration of Roma and Egyptians from Konik Refugee Camp in Montenegro

In the Konik refugee camp, located in the city of Podgorica, more than 2,000 people are living in extreme poverty. They moved to Montenegro during the Kosovo conflict and have remained in the camp’s difficult living conditions since 2000. The refugee camp is a ghetto where the residents live in metal containers or barracks built from wood, plastic, and other gathered materials.

In the Konik refugee camp, located in the city of Podgorica, more than 2,000 people are living in extreme poverty. They moved to Montenegro during the Kosovo conflict and have remained in the camp’s difficult living conditions since 2000. The refugee camp is a ghetto where the residents live in metal containers or barracks built from wood, plastic, and other gathered materials. In addition to the social and housing problems, domestic violence, human trafficking, begging, drug abuse and criminality are growing problems in the Konik area. The camp’s residents are legally granted “internally displaced status” and most of do not have permanent residence or citizenship. A majority of them do not have an education and are semi or completely illiterate. As a result, over 90 percent of the Konik camp inhabitants cannot access the social system or obtain work permits. The camp’s adults make a living from seasonal work or ad hoc work in the grey market. The inhabitants of the Konik camp suffer from high levels of discrimination by the majority society who further excludes them by stating that they are not “our domestic Roma, they are not our citizens.”

Roma and Egyptian children attend the segregated school established near the Konik camp 2. However, the children can gain very little as the quality of education and attendance rates are extremely low. The school covers children from first to fourth grades, after which they are supposed to join the main building of the school, which is outside the camp. However, at this point many of the children stop attending school and only a small percent of them pass to the next grade. Data shows that the dropout rate for Roma and Egyptian children who were enrolled in the first grade fell to 35 percent by the end of second grade, to less than half that amount by the end of fourth grade with only 13 percent of children transferring to fifth grade, according to an evaluation of Roma education in Montenegro by Johanna Crighton, a UNICEF Consultant in 2012. Recent events have further altered the situation in the camps when a portion of Konik camp 1 burned down, forcing inhabitants to move from the barracks to metal containers. The fires prompted an increase in attention from the local and international public towards the events in the camps.

The Roma Education Fund has been working in Montenegro since the organization’s establishment in 2005. Our mission is to improve the learning outcomes of Roma children through grant making activities, projects, and policy work. In 2012, the organization joined a consortium established by Help (Help – Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe e.V), which aims to increase the complex integration process of the Konik Camps’ inhabitants. Within the framework of a program entitled Assistance Program for Integration and Return of RAE and other I/DPs residing in the Konik Area, REF designed and implements the educational integration of Roma and Egyptian children living in the Konik Camp in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The European Commission’s Instruments for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) and Montenegrin government funds financially support the program.

The initiative has garnered much support from the Roma parents and local schools, and since September, the first grade of the Konik school has been closed and the Roma children are attending integrated schools. Six primary schools were selected by the Ministry of Education and Roma Education Fund based on the distance from the camp, the percent of Roma children attending the school, and available places. In order to properly integrate the children, there are two or three Roma children in each classroom. Ideally, the segregated branch school will be gradually closed within the next four years and all children from the Konik camp will attend integrated classes starting in 2017. The basic conditions of the desegregation model are based on the REF’s experiences and lessons learned during the organization’s eight years of developing and evaluating local level desegregation models in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.

Before the physical school integration of first graders, the Roma and Egyptian mediators of the program conducted a door-to-door campaign where they visited 670 families to identify all of the first graders, inform the families about the integration process, and provide them information about the program’s activities.  At the end of the campaign in the spring of 2013, the team identified a total of 70 children who needed to be enrolled into first grade starting in September 2013.

In order to prepare for their integration, these 70 children, along with 27 others, were enrolled into Djina Vrbica preschool, which is in close vicinity of the camp. More than one year before the integration, REF opened an additional two preschool groups for children from the camp for a total of150 children participating in preschool education. This is an effective tool to prepare the children for schooling and improve their Montenegrin language skills as well, which is mentioned as one of the primary barriers to school integration.

Hana, aged six, was born and currently lives in the Konik camp. She lives in the Camp 1 on Konik where most of refugees and internally displaced persons from Kosovo live. Her parents as well as other camp residents live in this refugee camp since 2000. She has three female and two male siblings and the family live in squats, without water, electricity, and regular diet. She is a first grade pupil of a “Vuk Karadzic” school and receives much positive feedback from her teachers. She was enrolled in the “Djina Vrbica” kindergarten as a result of REF activities. Upon entering kindergarten, her Montenegrin language skills were not perfect, but she has significantly improved since enrolling.

Hana is a role model to other children and her teachers recognize her as a leader in the classroom. She is very communicative, cheerful and above all, very smart. Despite the fact that she lives in the camp in poor living conditions, Hana regularly attends school and is very motivated to study. I am sure that she is going to be one of the best in her school.

– Serdjan Baftijari, Roma and Egyptian Assistant

In the long term, Roma Education Fund is planning to improve the learning outcomes of Roma and Egyptian children in Montenegro, and plans to further extend its work to the secondary and university level due to the low transition rate of Roma and Egyptian students. The Roma Education Fund has recently opened a new branch office in Podgorica in order to support its work.

Support to income-generation activities

One of the major reasons why Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (RAE) are subjected to extreme poverty and social exclusion is their high unemployment rate, a direct result of the education system. According to the educational status of the head of the household, the situation is the worst among RAE (I)DPs – as many as 69 percent of heads of households have no formal education. Among the domicile RAE population, 38 percent of the heads of the household have no formal education compared to just two percent of the non-RAE population.  To a large degree, the economic activities of these communities are in the informal sector. Although no official data on RAE access to employment exist, a 2011 study for durable solutions  found that only five percent of heads of households are employed, a clear indicator of the difficulties experienced by the RAE in accessing employment opportunities. The unemployed make up a little above three‐quarters of heads of households (78 percent) in the population of RAE (I)DPs.  The three main professional vocations were crafts, repairs, and for over 50 percent of those surveyed, public sanitation and waste management services.

Support of income-generating activities has proven to be one of the best ways to enable vulnerable populations to sustain an acceptable standard of living based on their own resources, focusing on long-term solutions for the beneficiaries. Within this component, Help has provided support to 80 RAE from the Konik settlement that lack the means to develop and implement economic activities to provide regular income for their families. The assistance consists of in-kind grants (equipment and/or materials) with an average value of EUR 1,200 for establishing, improving, or resuming economic activities, basic business and vocational trainings, and professional follow-up and advice. 

In January and February of 2013, Help had organized 11 motivational workshops for approximately 200 persons from the Konik camp. During the workshops, participants were presented with job application forms, instructed on the proper completion of the forms, and advised on obligatory and desirable supporting documents. Additionally, the participants discussed the importance of employment and business planning with an emphasis on the role of women in business and their inclusion in income generating activities Over 370 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian individuals from the camps submitted grant applications to Help. Of these applications, the Directorate for the Development of Small and Medium Enterprises positively reviewed 192 applications.  Together with a representative of the Administration for the Care of Refugees Help conducted interviews with all positively assessed applicants resulting in the award of 38 grants for the first project cycle, 11 of which being awarded to female applicants.

Having in mind their needs, capabilities, education, and handicaps that prevent them from generating income, there was a high demand for cargo bikes in order to transport of goods in open markets and for the collection of recyclable materials. Of the initial 38 approved grants, 15 requested cargo bikes to support business activities. As a result of this finding, Help will organize a workshop in November where camp residents can learn to produce their own cargo bikes – with technical assistance from the Serbian group, Karkatag. Other equipment provided for the support of income-generation activities included welding machines, painting materials, and materials used on construction sites.

The women primarily applied for home activities such as knitting and embroidering, receiving equipment such as sewing machines and materials making jewelry. To support these activities, Help rented a working space in the vicinity of the camp where these women can perform their activities. In order to improve their skills and knowledge,  thus enabling them to improve the quality of their products, Help engaged instructors for sewing and tailoring as well as for the production of jewelry made of glass pearls and polymerized clay.

The grant beneficiaries went through basic business training conducted by the SME Directorate. The training provided introductory information on business administration and management, and the planning and development of entrepreneurial activities. 

Vocational training will be offered in cooperation with the Center for Vocational Education. During the first month, theoretic training will take place in Help’s office and workshop premises. This will be followed by two months of practical training on building sites. The training will be facilitated by a Roma mediator whose engagement has been made possible through the support of the Agency for Employment in Podgorica.

Help plans to continue its focus on assisting women in income-generating activities in the future.

This article was written by Anasztázia Nagy of the Roma Education Fund and Klaus Mock of Help – Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe e.V