Germany’s a Dream for Serbia’s Roma Returnees

Momir Turudic Belgrade, Berlin and Bujanovac

Thousands of young Roma who have spent years in Germany find it impossible to adapt when they’re forced to come back to a land that is no longer home.

In a cafe in Bujanovac, an impoverished town in southern Serbia close to the Kosovo border, a group of young Roma chat away in German.

All were born or spent many years in Germany, after their families moved there in the nineties, and have since returned to Serbia. Some came back voluntarily, others under pressure.

Enis Demirovic, 19, remembers how shocked he felt on his return. “I cried for days,” he says. “I couldn’t accept that I’d lost everything; this was a completely different world.”

Enis looks ‘fancy’. He has blonde tufts in his hair and sports a large earring. “Everybody used to say, ‘Hey, check out this gypsy, who does he think he is?’,” he adds. “Back in Germany, nobody asked who I was, or had a problem with my looks.”

Enis attended primary school in Wuppertal, but quit education after returning to Serbia, as most returnee children have. “I couldn’t even speak the language and I was afraid of everything,” he recalls.

Sitting in the cafe with his friends, Enis seems relaxed. But there are no smiles at the construction site where he unloads bags of cement.

The site is in the Roma part of town, lined with poor, dilapidated houses. Most returnees end up in settlements and houses like these, not just those in Bujanovac.

Enis says nobody in his family has a steady job, but they refuse to beg for work. “I’m not so sad any longer, but I’m only really happy when I think of Germany. Sometimes I dream in German. I dream of going back.”    

Thousands of young Roma who have returned, or been returned, to Serbia tell a similar story.

Leaving behind Germany’s good schools and comfortable apartments, and often barely remembering the language of their homeland, their lives are isolated and sometimes hopeless. For some, criminal activities are the only way out. For others, it ends in suicide.

Agreement on returnees

A uniform readmission agreement between Serbia and the European Union came into force on January 1, 2008. Execution of this agreement was a precondition for Serbia’s admission to a visa-free regime with EU Schengen-zone countries.

Although the government has strategies to assist such people, and many NGOs run short-term aid projects, there are not enough funds to support long-term rehabilitation.

Return Voluntarily – or Else!

Several hundred thousand people left Serbia in the 1990s, fleeing poverty and wars, and most ended up in EU countries.

Many applied for asylum, and even those who were rejected were not forced to return to Serbia on account of the country’s political instability and the sanctions in place against the Milosevic regime.

After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5, 2000, however, the situation changed. Over the next few years, Serbia signed readmission agreements with the majority of EU countries, assenting to receive those Serbian citizens who did not meet the criteria to extend their stay overseas.

Zoran Panjkovic, from the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, estimates that about 25,000 returnees have been forced to come back to Serbia, while about twice as many have returned voluntarily.

The number of those yet to be returned to Serbia is unknown. In 2003, the Council of Europe estimated the figure could be between 50,000 and 100,000 but, over the last few years, figures as high as 150,000 have also been used.

Around 70 per cent of those who have returned so far have come back from Germany, with most of the rest returning from Scandinavia, Switzerland, The Netherlands and other Western European countries. Between 60 and 70 per cent were Roma, according to estimates.

Enis’ family returned voluntarily. However, had they refused, they risked deportation, which would have entailed serious consequences. To start with, they would not have been allowed entry to any EU country in future. Further, they would have forfeited most of their belongings in Germany.

That is precisely what happened to Enis’ friend in Bujanovac, Natalija Elezovic, who is 16-years-old. The German police knocked on the door of her Frankfurt apartment one morning in 2004.

“I had got up to prepare for school, but they said we had to leave,” she recalls. “Three hours later, we were on a flight to Serbia.”

Then aged 11, she says she “did not understand at first that it was for good. But when we arrived in Serbia, in Bujanovac, I realised that there was no going back.”

Pavao Hudik, a psychologist from Südost-Europa Kultur e.V., a Berlin organisation aiding refugees from the former Yugoslavia, says most of these young returnees leave behind societies in which they have become well integrated.

“What is officially called ‘return’ they see as exile,” he says. “Serbia, or any other country in the Balkans, is a foreign country to them.”

Roma settlements

According to Marija Denic, coordinator of the Center for the Rights of Roma Women, 80 per cent of returnees live in informal Roma settlements. There are 600 such settlements in Serbia.

New Lives in Old Slums

“Duldung” is a German word that causes discomfort amongst returnees, especially those who have yet to leave but must do so in the next few years.

“It can be translated as ‘toleration’; the state tolerating you until you leave,” explains Sanela Selimagic, a project assistant in the Returnee Counseling Center of the International Organization for Migration, IOM, in Berlin.

Someone with duldung status is not allowed to work or go to university. “To upgrade from duldung to ‘normal’ status, it is necessary to learn the language or show a will to integrate – and many opportunities for this exist,” Sanela adds.

However, many refugee families do not take advantage of these opportunities, feeling content with the welfare cheques they receive. “They expect that their status will be extended indefinitely because their children were born and go to school in Germany,” Sanela says.

“But the laws are becoming stricter. The economic crisis is affecting everybody and welfare payments are being cut down, as is their right to stay,” she continues. “In the end, they are forced to leave.”

This is the fate now awaiting Ceca, Anka and Vesna Nikolic. These three Roma girls are sitting on a bench in the Preussen Park in Berlin, listening to Serbian folk music and Madonna on their CD players.

In the July heat, the park is permeated by the scent of Asian cuisine. People play cards or eat on blankets spread out on the ground. Couples walk around, holding hands.

As the school year has ended, Anka and Ceca, who just finished fifth grade, are on vacation. But they are worried. The grandmother with whom they live has decided to take them back to Serbia.

“We will go there, we have to,” Ceca says. “But we are a bit afraid. Everything over there is so... strange.”

At 17, Vesna has already been told by her family in Serbia that they have found a boy for her to marry. She dislikes the idea because she would like to continue with her education.

All three speak with foreboding about the small house in Zrenjanin, in northern Serbia, which they will share with three other families – a far cry from the two-room welfare apartment in Berlin, where they have lived with their grandmother.

They might consider themselves lucky when it comes to accommodation, however. Two years ago, 40-year-old ‘Hasan’ (not his real name) had to swap his comfortable apartment in Berlin for the dingy Roma community in Mirijevsko Brdo in Belgrade.

The whole settlement, where many of the shabby houses are made of bricks, metal sheets and cardboard, has only one asphalt street. The rest of the alleys are dirt tracks.

Hasan lives in one of these houses with his 15-year-old son, ‘Aron’ and his brother’s family of eight. The wind brings the smell of the dumps that surround the settlement into the house.

“I miss Berlin, but it’s much worse for Aron,” Hasan says. “Before we came here he had no idea that places like this existed.”

Sitting next to his father, Aron keeps silent most of the time. “His Serbian is not good, and he is also a bit ashamed of being here,” Hasan adds. “But his German is perfect.”

Goodbye to School

Aron completed six school grades in Germany but is not attending school in Belgrade. When Hasan asked around about enrolling for his son, he was told that Aron would first have to learn Serbian.

“They also told me I would have to have his school certificates from Germany translated and then validated,” Hasan adds. “It was too expensive, I had no money and no time.”

These days, Aron helps his father sell old stuff in a nearby market. “What can we do?” Hasan asks. “He will get used to it; other children in this settlement live the same life.”

More than 70 per cent of Roma children in Serbia never complete primary level education.

According to the Office for Readmission, which operates within Serbia's Ministry for Human Rights, more than 90 per cent of returnee children attended schools in the countries they used to live in.

Research conducted by an NGO, Grupa 484, in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula, focusing on 64 returnee families, found that 62 per cent of the surveyed children did not continue schooling after they returned to Serbia.

The number of those who enrolled in schools but later gave up attending classes is unknown.  

Natalija Elezovic is one of those who refused to give up. Over a couple of months following her return, she learned to speak, read and write Serbian and enrolled in a school in Bujanovac.

She found the school system strange because, unlike Germany, children in Serbian schools have to learn a lot by rote. There are no practical classes, no swimming lessons and no domestic sciences, such as sewing.

“I wanted to go on, to do something with my life, and people supported me,” Natalija says.

She finished primary school with excellent grades and is now in the second year of secondary school. She wants to study medicine and get a good job. But even though she has got used to Serbia, Natalija still talks of Germany as the homeland to which she would like to return.

The obstacles preventing returnees from getting used to their new environment are not just language questions, housing and school issues, but differing customs.

“I was almost knocked down by a car when I was crossing a street in Belgrade,” recalls ‘Milan’, a 20-year-old returnee who had not been aware of the tendency of Serbian drivers to completely ignore zebra crossings.

“In Germany, every car stops to let pedestrians cross the road. Here, a policeman who was standing nearby, shouted ‘get out of the way, you fool! Why didn’t you let the car pass by?’,” he recalls, laughing.

But he seldom laughs otherwise. His brother killed himself two years after returning from Germany. He was only 16.

“You go out with friends, you go to school, everything seems normal, and then in a split second, everything is gone and you end up here. Some people crack,” Milan says in a low voice.

“Many people in this settlement are from Germany. In the beginning, we would meet and talk about Germany and how to get back. But in time we got used to this.

The girls marry and have children, the boys start selling something or find some unskilled work. But my brother couldn’t get over it.”

Marija Denic, coordinator of the Center for Roma Women's Rights, an NGO based in the southern Serbian town of Nis, says that many young Roma returnees suffer from acute depression. “They isolate themselves, alone or in small groups, and talk only about going back,” she says.

Zorica Zivojinovic, programme coordinator for Grupa 484, says “months and years” of direct work is usually needed to help such youngsters adjust. Such efforts would cost a lot of money.

We Belong Nowhere

The German and Serbian states, as well as many NGOs from both countries, provide some help for returnees through various projects, but these are restricted in duration due to limited funding. Only a small number of returnees seem aware that such projects even exist.

Germany and Serbia cooperate over returns only up to the point of returnees arriving back in Serbia. There are no further exchanges of information and no shared database.

Serbia has no central database of returnees either. Consequently, no information on available help can be disseminated to them all. It is up to most returnees to find out how and where to seek assistance – a task they have to juggle with trying to find jobs and accommodation.

Zoran Panjkovic, from Serbia’s human rights ministry, says the government is trying to help returnees and their children. Examples of such assistance include the simplification of the school enrolment procedure for children, tax exemption for the validation of documents required to claim welfare and the organisation of language classes for returnee children.

However, the key issue is money, much more of which is needed to run long-term reintegration programmes. Unfortunately, governments in transitional countries such as Serbia say they do not have the funds to solve the problems of their existing Roma communities, let alone help newcomers.

EU funds allocated for reintegrating returnees have not yet arrived because Serbia has not completed countrywide research studies estimating welfare needs or the cost of housing, schooling and other issues, Panjkovic says.  

Returnees feel abandoned by two homelands, neither of which seems to care what happens to them. “The most difficult thing is to realise that the state you consider as yours can’t wait to get rid of you,” Milan says. “And the state to which you’ve returned has only one message, ‘Why are you here? We don’t need you!’

Nobody wants us and we belong nowhere,” he concludes.


Elisabeth Riesel, a lawyer counselling refugees at the Heilig-Kreuz church in Kreuzberg, Berlin, since 1991, says that, under German law, those whose stays have not been extended and whose appeals have been rejected will receive a police notification stating that they may be deported once the deadline for voluntary departure has expired. If they do not leave by this date, police are entitled to deport them. While the process may take just a few hours, returnees may be held for several days in a detention unit pending deportation, until all necessary documentation is prepared or a larger group of deportees can be assembled.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Fellow Bio


Momir Turudic

Momir Turudic from Belgrade, Serbia, is a journalist with several prestigious awards for covering Roma issues. He currently works as a journalist for Serbian weekly Vreme


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