NEWS - Archive April 2010

Headlines 30 April, 2010

COUNCIL OF EUROPE PUSHES BOSNIA TO CHANGE CONSTITUTION

The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, PACE, warned Bosnia on Thursday that it must urgently take measures to change its constitution, notably to end discrimination against minorities, or face serious consequences.

30/4/2010- “Bosnia and Herzegovina must urgently launch an institutionalized process for preparing a comprehensive package of amendments to the Constitution – in particular to end the discrimination in elections to some bodies,” the PACE said in a resolution unanimously approved Thursday. The assembly warned Bosnia that its failure to reform the constitution could lead to a number of measures being taken against it, including suspending its delegation from PACE or suspending its voting rights. Bosnia's constitution, part of the Dayton peace agreement which ended the country’s 1992-95 war, allows only Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs to run for the parliament and the presidency. Under the peace agreement, the country was divided into two highly autonomous parts – Serb dominated Republika Srpska and Bosniak-Croat federation. The two are linked by weak central institutions. Serbs from the Federation and Bosniaks and Croats from Republika Srpska are also banned from running for the posts reserved for their respective ethnic groups in the central institutions. Last December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bosnia’s constitution discriminated against minorities by barring them from running for highest offices based on their ethnic identity, ordering that it be changed.

The binding decision was issued in response to a complaint filed by Dervo Sejdic, an official of an umbrella body for Roma in Bosnia, and Jakob Finci, Bosnia's ambassador to Switzerland and the leader of the country's Jewish community. The international community has pushed Bosnia to adopt necessary changes before it officially calls general elections planned for October 5, but the country’s bickering ethnic leaders have failed to agree on the model for or the extent of changes. PACE said on Thursday that the adoption of amendments before the calling of the elections on May 5 was “rather unlikely”. It said there was a serious risk that the elections will be held “in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights and its Additional Protocols, as well as of the judgment of the Court.” As a result, the democratic legitimacy of the members of the presidency and deputies in the central parliament will be questioned. However, PACE said that the constitutional reform process must continue after the elections. “If, after the election, there is a continued persistent failure by Bosnia and Herzegovina to honor its obligations and commitments, the Assembly could – as a last resort – recommend the country’s suspension from the Council of Europe,” it said in a statement.
Balkan Insight

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PERMANENT IMPERMANENCE (Macedonia/Kosovo)

After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.
by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani

29/4/2010- The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi’s face even before she starts talking. In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, southward to neighboring Macedonia. Selimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration. At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje – and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn’t been to school in 10 years. So she goes job-hunting for him. “It’s hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal,” she says, on the verge of tears. “If there were jobs here, I’d gladly work myself.” Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict’s oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore “multiethnicity,” to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability. But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow. Today, roughly 1,670 Roma refugees – including a handful of Ashkali and Egyptians (known collectively with the predominant Roma as “RAE”) – remain in Macedonia, frustrated that they’ve languished for 10 years, and counting. Meanwhile, nearly 23,000 more Kosovo RAE are “internally displaced” within Serbia proper, in a country that doesn’t recognize their homeland. And roughly 450 Roma who saw their neighborhood in Mitrovica, the divided city in Kosovo’s north, burned down by Albanians still live across the Ibar River in two toxic UN camps that continue to sicken them. “Without an organized body to defend or represent them, the Roma are now the biggest losers in the present situation,” the nongovernmental Washington Report on Middle East Affairs wrote back in 1999.

The same could be said today, especially for the refugees living in limbo in Macedonia. They still fear Albanian revenge in Kosovo. Today, they’re also leery of privation: even a Kosovo government report in December 2008 stated that 37 percent of RAE – a figure triple that of ethnic Albanians – toil in “extreme poverty,” on $1 per day. Unemployment is 58 percent for RAE, 46 percent for Albanians. So only a few have trickled back. Western nations have essentially shut their doors to them, after accepting tens of thousands early on – some 35,000 in Germany alone. And Macedonia is only now acting, grudgingly it seems, to encourage their local integration. Muharem Gashnani, president of the Committee of Refugees in Macedonia, denounces the entire international community for its lack of political will. “They have no interest in our solution, because our solution is political,” says Gashnani, waving his well-thumbed printout of the 1951 Geneva Conventions and its protections for asylum-seekers like him and his family. “Our situation isn’t dramatic; it’s catastrophic. We will slowly but surely die here.”

Today, though, at least there’s the hint of an option: local integration in Macedonia. When some 360,000 refugees from Kosovo flooded Macedonia a decade ago, the tiny country of 2 million was already one of Europe’s poorest states. Refugees turned the northwest corner of the country into a sea of white-and-blue United Nations tents. Over the years, economic misery took its toll on Macedonian society, as did ethnic tensions with its own large ethnic-Albanian minority. The idea of generously helping refugees, thousands of them unloved “Gypsies,” would have been politically unpopular. These days, though, Macedonia is eager to join any relevant Western institutions, especially the European Union and NATO. So the government – with an ear also to the sensitivities of its restive Albanian minority – followed much of Europe and recognized Kosovo’s independence, a decision that initially angered its old Serbian friends. Beyond the political, Macedonia must also raise legal standards enough to satisfy the West. That includes reform of its asylum policy. The government, a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, is finally ambling toward pleasing foreign partners like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Essential legislation is now in place, like an assurance of equal access to employment and education for refugees. The authorities are also reportedly now processing applications, while rolling out new refugee assistance and integration programs. Still, the UN refugee agency – which as part of its exit strategy last year slashed its staff, to reflect the fact that only a fraction of the original refugees remains – will wait to see if deeds match words, says Vladimir Vasilevski, a spokesman for the UNHCR office in Skopje.

“We’ve been supporting the government to gradually assume its responsibilities,” Vasilevski says. “UNHCR can assist, but not endlessly, to ensure that states comply with their obligations.” Dejan Ivkovski, of Macedonia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, acknowledges that refugees blame the Macedonian government. But for a society that was once saddled with so many refugees, he asks for patience. “We’re taking responsibility, step by step,” he says. In addition to integration and social-protection programs, he says new housing will this year be built for 30 refugee families. “These things are new for us, and new for refugees,” says Ivkovski, who leads the ministry’s efforts on asylum, migration, and humanitarian aid. “If they need help, now they can find an institution that can help. They are now on an equal basis with our citizens.” Back before the conflict, Roma were always a visible presence in Kosovo, a province of 2 million. Estimates then put the population of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians at about 160,000. Activists say the real number may have been much higher because some never registered. Regardless, Western media often overlooked them, focusing on Kosovo’s Serbs and the “90 percent Albanian majority.” As the media also reported in 1999, the Serbs drafted ordinary Roma to dig trenches and bury Albanian corpses. Some Roma even donned uniforms, joined in evicting Albanians, and looted homes. The refugees don’t deny that some did. They counter that they were caught in the middle of a long-standing conflict between Serbs and Albanians. Forced to choose, they say some understandably backed the ruling party. The Albanian response, though, was to blame all Roma.

So the Albanians came after them. Gazman Jashari was 14 when he and his family fled “to save our lives.” His parents had decided not to tell him war loomed, which made the actual bombardment much more shocking. “I didn’t think we’d make it out alive,” he says. The breaking point was when an Albanian tough came knocking on their door. “When he saw that we’re all black, he said, ‘I’ll give you 24 hours to get out,’ ” recalls Jashari, who says they left behind not only their home, but also TV, satellite dish, and electronics. “I never thought I’d be forced to run from my own home.” A Kosovo Romani woman concedes her husband and his brother were part of the Serbian police force. When Albanians returned, they beat the husbands, then forced them to watch as they raped her and her sister-in-law. Today, with three children to care for, she suffers trauma-related seizures. “They took away the best years of my life,” says Lyndita, who was 19 at the time. “They can give me the whole country, and I won’t go back. And no way would I ever take my daughter back there.” If they did go back, a visit to one Kosovo village offers a glimpse of what might await.

In Pomazatin, a settlement of about 100 houses in central Kosovo, residents grow potatoes or tomatoes, work for the local electricity company, or fix up their houses. Albanian Sami Restalica lives beside the weed-invaded ruins of a house that once belonged to one of four local Romani families. The Roma here were blacksmiths, and Restalica says Albanians gave them plenty of work. Relations were neighborly, he says, until battle lines were drawn. “Imagine yourself in our position: you burned down my house, killed my father, raped my mother, beat my brother,” says Restalica, a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whose e-mail address includes “UCK,” the KLA acronym. “The Serbs and Gypsies were together in the same uniform.” He concedes, though, that not all Roma were guilty. “Only this family was clean,” says Restalica, pointing to another burnt-out foundation, diagonal from his. “I was a soldier. I observed, and saw who exactly did what. We don’t think [the Roma will] come back, and we won’t accept it if they do come back, because they have dirty hands.” The phrase “dirty hands” is often thrown around here, but reveals a Catch-22: if a Roma comes back, he may be attacked. But if he stays away, especially so long, former neighbors suspect he does so not out of fear but out of guilt. What if Restalica’s “innocent” neighbor were to return to Pomazatin, where other Albanians believe he’s guilty? “Personally, I don’t think they’d be threatened,” he says. “But I can’t guarantee anything. I can protect them as much as I can. At night, I can’t even protect myself.” A more suspicious Albanian neighbor in the village growls when asked about his former Romani neighbors. Square-jawed with a weathered face, he leans against a cement-mixer and answer questions reluctantly. He doesn’t want to be identified but also speaks about “clean hands” versus “dirty hands.” With any allegedly innocent Roma, he says, “There’s no guarantee they didn’t take part on the Serb side, wearing masks. Even those wearing masks, we knew who they were.” Better to get rid of them all, the man says. “Those who didn’t do crimes got deported as well. Was a good thing, too.”

Despite the refugees’ well-grounded fears of revenge, Macedonia has steadfastly refused to recognize them formally as “refugees,” which would entitle them to greater protections, social assistance, and financial support. That designation is also politically sensitive, as it increases pressure on the international community to provide them with lasting solutions. “You can see the process hasn’t been taken seriously: some decisions were simply copy and paste,where people weren’t processed individually, but collectively, in violation of the Geneva Conventions,” says Dzavit Berisha, a Kosovo refugee who researches the issue for the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. “At the end of the day, if these people are not recognized, they see no future for themselves.” The refugees are far from neglected, however. They’ve survived off UNHCR assistance that helps with their food, housing, health care, and educational needs – a subsistence that 10 years later also breeds concern about dependency. In 2003, as the refugee situation grew more entrenched, UNHCR saw the need for more permanent accommodations. So most RAE refugees moved to private apartments in the Shuto Orizari city-suburb of Skopje. Known as “Shutka,” the community of 17,000 is described as the largest “Roma city” in Eastern Europe, with an elected Romani mayor.

The UNHCR also opened a health clinic in Shutka, a city so poor, the agency weighed that the cost of a single bus ticket might discourage some refugees from visiting a clinic too far away. “We want to make it convenient for them,” says the resident physician, Mira Petrovic, a Macedonian who has worked at the clinic for five years. A fresh coat of egg-shell white paint brightens the small clinic in what is otherwise a dilapidated building, with some of the linoleum torn and windows broken. Two posters on the wall speak volumes about certain problems affecting communal life: one raises awareness about sexual violence, the other about domestic violence. Here, refugees can get everything from baby formula to hearing aids, eyeglasses and crutches. Beyond the free medicine, though, staffers say many clients are learning about their own health for the first time: hypertension, respiratory infections, neurosis, lung cancer, bone cancer. Personal hygiene is another issue: some clients arrive in dirty clothes, with dirty hands and feet. “We cure them with words, too,” says nurse Valentina Boeva, who is also Macedonian. “It’s much better to treat them with words than medicine.” UNHCR points out that the refugees receive better health care than most Roma in Macedonia. Yet that’s not enough to assuage a clientele with more pressing issues on their minds.

Their greatest grievance today is rent they’re obliged to pay to price-gouging owners – themselves Macedonian Roma. Times are tough, with the landlords desperate for income of their own. They’re unsympathetic to the plight of the refugees, who bounce from apartment to apartment. “I’ve carried the same bag for 10 years,” says Ashkali refugee leader Nergim Alija. “Should my child carry the same bag?” Alija, 42, reveals how being a refugee touches every aspect of life, even intimacy. “I’m still a young man: how can I make love to my wife with just one room for my whole family?” he asks. “I don’t even have enough money to buy ice cream for my children. And who wouldn’t want to do that?”

A day with UNHCR staff sheds light on other challenges. At an after-school program in Shutka, refugee children crowd into a cheerful center decorated with their artwork and are helped by young tutors in a range of languages: Romani, Albanian, or Macedonian. UNHCR community-services coordinator Vesna Lujic says it’s here they also get what may be their one square meal of the day: on this occasion, chicken, cucumber, milk, and juice. Outside the center, though, a distraught older Romani woman approaches Lujic and wails about her terrible luck. Preparing to return to Kosovo, she has sold all her possessions for 140 euro. She left it under the bed, but someone slipped in through a window and stole it, plus her gold rings. Vesna hugs her and offers soothing words. “She’s particularly vulnerable,” she explains. Lujic later expresses admiration for her clients. She herself is Serbian, from Serbia proper. She has the unique perspective of having worked with Kosovo Serb refugees in Serbia and Roma refugees here. While similar in many ways, she says she’s observed one essential difference. “The Roma aren’t used to getting much, but they’re also used to demanding what they need,” Lujic says. “They are a resilient nation. They are used to hardship, and I admire how they’re coping. They have a spirit where they can still sing, dance, and laugh about their situation.” It remains to be seen how much longer they’ll have to use these survival skills.

In the Shutka bazaar, a lively but dusty shopping district along the main road, some tattered UNHCR tarpaulins are used to cover the racks and tables of shoes, jeans, and football jerseys. Seburan Asani and his friend sell all sorts of home items, like sponges, batteries, and razor blades. Despite the mirrored sunglasses, he’s easily approachable, with a broad smile. Asani, who fled Kosovo at 19, is now 29 with three kids. His UNHCR assistance includes care packages with diapers. On most days in the market, he says he earns about 5 to 10 euros. “It’s not real work, but a little of this and that,” he says. “Just to stay busy and not be at home.” Asani says he can’t shake the trauma of flight – or that it may happen again. “Maybe tomorrow someone will send me away from here, just tell me to go,” he says, as a half-dozen men gather around, listening in. “I’d like to go back to Kosovo, but don’t want to suffer. Yet here they won’t build us homes or give us jobs. When someone doesn’t have a home, he has nothing.” The worst is being in the dark, he says, not knowing if it will ever end. “I’m so confused here, 10 years without information,” he tells visiting reporters. “When I see people like you with information, I know you know more than I do. So tell me: what will it be for us?”

Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava. He blogs about Central and Eastern Europe at Jordan Ink. Shejla Fidani is a freelance journalist in Macedonia.
Transitions Online

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SERB NEO-NAZI LEADER EXTRADITED FROM GERMANY

29/4/2010- Germany has handed the Serbian leader of a neo-Nazi movement to Belgrade after he fled the country to avoid a prison sentence, justice officials said Thursday. Goran Davidovic, the leader of the Nacionalni Stroj (National Alignment) group, was handed to Serbian authorities at Belgrade airport, state secretary Slobodan Homen told local media. "As soon as the police procedure is finished, he would be transferred to a prison," Homen told Belgrade B92 television. Davidovic, 35, was arrested in February in the southeastern German town of Traunstein on an international arrest warrant issued by the Serbian Justice Ministry for failing to serve a one-year prison term. In 2006, Davidovic, nicknamed "The Fuhrer", was sentenced to jail for spreading religious, national and racial hatred. The verdict was confirmed by Serbia's top legal body, the Supreme Court in 2008. Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, Davidovic fled Serbia and was living in Italy until he was arrested there last April. Italian authorities released him in June pending a decision on an extradition request from Belgrade and Davidovic fled again, this time to Germany. The Nacionalni stroj has its seat in Serbia's Vojvodina district, the most ethnically diverse region of the country. It rails against gypsies, Jews and anti-fascists. After a number of attention-grabbing initiatives in the early years of the decade their public profile waned following Davidovic's 2006 trial.
Expatica News

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CLASHES FEARED AHEAD OF NEO-NAZI AND LEFT-WING LABOR DAY MARCHES (Germany)

Police in cities throughout Germany are gearing up for potentially violent clashes between rival extremists as neo-Nazis and far-left activists prepare to hold rallies as part of the Labor Day holiday on May 1.

30/4/2010- In recent years, May 1, or Labor Day has seen violent clashes between far-right and far-left groups in some of Germany's major cities. This year the skirmishes are expected to intensify as extremist groups step up efforts to coordinate marches and counter-demos in cities like Berlin and Hamburg. "They meet here on May 1 in Berlin and it's like a contest of violence," said Olaf Sundermeyer, who co-authored a book on Germany's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) and is an expert of the neo-Nazi movement. "First of all you have the official political arm of the right-wing movement, the NPD, and then you have the movement that is not organized party-wise," he told Deutsche Welle. "And this movement is not on the rise or decline, but is developing itself from within. It's going to a more radical side and is trying to copy the methods and strategy of the left-wing movement in Germany." Sundermeyer goes on to describe the far-right neo-Nazi movement as filled with "angry, young men." "And everywhere in the world, when angry young men gather together for extreme, fundamentalist ideas you have a lot of violence, a lot of power inside … and they try to channel their anger by following extreme right ideas," he said.

Fighting far-right extremism
This year, far-right extremists have organized marches in Berlin, Hamburg, Rostock and a handful of other cities. However a collection of moderate left-wing groups and political parties has also united behind a common cause: to disrupt the neo-Nazi rallies. As many as 10,000 counter-protesters from the Social Democratic Party, the Left party, the Green party and various trade unions are expected to turn out in Berlin to defy the far-right groups, who are expected to number between 1,000 and 3,000. Sebastian Wehrhahn works with the Mobile Advisory Team Against Right-wing Extremism in Berlin, which will have a presence at the counter-rally on Labor Day. The non-partisan organization monitors the activities of the right-wing scene and encourages people to take part in action against fascist movements. Wehrhahn says organizations such as his has had success in disrupting the activities of neo-Nazi groups in the past. "If we look at Dresden on February 13, we have a very good example of how a collective strategy of all-Democratic actors can lead to the success that the biggest right-wing extremist march in Europe couldn't take place," he told Deutsche Welle. "So we do have examples where alliances like this could make a great impact." Wehrhahn says he expects thousands of people taking to the streets of Berlin on Labor Day, "making a clear point for a democratic and open Berlin against right-wing extremism. And I very much hope not to see neo-Nazis marching through Berlin."

Far-left violence
But many of those who turn out on Saturday will also belong to the far-left scene, which has also been known to resort to violence to get its point across. Last year in the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg more than 400 policemen were injured when left-wing demonstrators threw stones and bottles at them, leading to more than 200 arrests. In Hamburg, a heightened police presence is expected after previous Labor Day clashes between far-left and far-right groups ended in running street battles with police cars being torched and scores of arrests being made. The motto for May 1 demonstrations this year is "End the Crisis - Abolish Capitalism." "We're rallying against this society, which is based on profit, competition and property," said university student Bernd, who is a member of a left-wing group called Anti-Fascist Revolution Action Berlin. "We want a society in which people economize in solidarity and plan their lives together." According to Bernd, the state is inherently violent and therefore demonstrators are free to choose their methods of protest. He said this does not necessitate acts of violence but that he does not distance himself from violent means. "If police are attacked on May 1 then it's because they're standing there as a symbol for the capitalist implementation of competition and ownership," he said. "But the militancy that can be witnessed during May 1 demonstrations is also always a political statement."
The Deutsche Welle

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GERMAN LEADERS CAUTIOUSLY WELCOME CONTROVERSIAL MUSLIM MINISTER

Despite friction over her criticism of crucifixes in schools, Ayguel Oezkan has been sworn in as Lower Saxony's social affairs minister on Tuesday. Political leaders welcomed her appointment, but rejected her comments.

27/4/2010- The state parliament of Lower Saxony swore in Ayguel Oezkan as minister of social affairs for the northern state on Tuesday, making her the first female Muslim minister in Germany. Initially politicians and immigrant community leaders across the political spectrum praised the choice of Oezkan by Lower Saxony State Premier Christian Wulff. However, her comments to weekly German magazine Focus over the weekend criticizing the presence of crucifixes in state schools, ruffled feathers among her fellow conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). "Christian symbols do not belong in state schools," the 38-year-old Oezkan told the magazine. "Schools should be neutral places where children can decide their religious orientation on their own." She also said she thought headscarves did not belong in the classroom. The response from the CDU was quick and clear. "When it comes to religious neutrality, I have a fundamentally different view," said Armin Laschet, the integration minister for North Rhine-Westphalia. "I'll say it very clearly: We're keeping the crosses up in the schools of North Rhine-Westphalia." Oezkan later apologized to her colleagues in Hanover for the friction her comments had caused. "Ms. Oezkan accepts that in Lower Saxony the crucifix is both welcome and desired in schools," Wulff said. "She's following the party line on this. Thus the issue is settled." While Wulff may see the discussion as closed, there are some that wish Oezkan would continue her push for secularism in the public schools. "She had to take it back, but I think she was right," Kenan Kolat, chairman of the TGD, the Turkish Community in Germany.

Integration in action
But Wulff, Kolat, Laschet and other CDU members agree that Oezkan's appointment is a good sign for Germany. Saarland's State Premier Peter Mueller, told the newspaper the Saarbruecker Zeitung that he thought Oezkan was a good choice. "She is a testament to the willingness to integrate of our political system and especially of the CDU," he said. "It's a joy for us," said Kolat, "that in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, 50 years after immigration began, we now have a female minister of Turkish descent." Speaking to Deutschlandfunk public radio, Laschet said that every politician has to correct himself or herself at some point. "The real story is the happiness that a child of an immigrant worker, a tailor, passed her school leaving examinations, studied at a university, passed two judicial state examinations and has, for the first time, landed in a high public office in Germany," he said.

A cabinet shakeup
Oezkan and three other ministers were appointed last week by Wulff in a cabinet reshuffle. All are expected to be approved by the state parliament where a coalition majority of CDU and the Free Democrats rules. Oezkan was born in Hamburg to Turkish immigrants and is a trained lawyer. She has been the CDU's economic policy spokeswoman for the regional parliamentary group in Hamburg.
The Deutsche Welle

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DISPELLING THE MYTH OF 'PARALLEL SOCIETIES' (Germany)

Part 1 Are Berlin's Muslims a Model for Integration?

Far from living in closed-off communities, Muslims in Berlin's Kreuzberg district live in a culturally diverse area. However, a new report finds that they still suffer from high levels of discrimination, particularly within the city's school system.

28/4/2010- Berlin's Kreuzberg district has a reputation for vibrancy, creativity and multiculturalism. Yet in the public imagination there is often a flipside to the area's cultural diversity with a perception that its large Turkish and Muslim populations live in " parallel societies," cut off from their ethnic German and non-Muslim neighbors and enclosed within their own communities. A new report from the Open Society Institute (OSI) takes some steps to dispel this notion. This week, the organization released its "Muslims in Berlin" study -- with Kreuzberg firmly in the spotlight -- and the findings point to a decidedly positive story of integration. The report is part of the organization's "At Home in Europe" project -- which focuses on 11 cities in Europe with sizeable Muslim populations, including Paris, Marseille, London and Amsterdam. The OSI, a non-profit founded by billionaire financier George Soros, aims to protect and improve marginalized communities as part of its stated mission is to work toward "vibrant and tolerant democracies." The OSI's report on Berlin paints a picture of the city's Muslims that runs contrary to many public assumptions. "The district of Kreuzberg is a shining example of different cultures and different values co-existing successfully," project leader Nazia Hussain said ahead of the launch on Tuesday in Berlin. Muslims make up roughly one-third of the population in Kreuzberg. And the report found that most share very similar concerns with their non-Muslim neighbors, that the groups have frequent contact with each other, and that the district experiences a high level of cooperation between local politicians and Muslim organizations. However, members of the Muslim communities do continue to suffer from discrimination despite a plethora of projects and initiatives.

Battling Discrimination
The researchers spent two years interviewing 100 Muslims and 100 non-Muslims on a range of issues. While the majority of the Muslims were of Turkish background, there were also interviewees from Iraq, India, Afghanistan and other countries. The non-Muslims were mostly ethnic Germans, though other nationalities were represented in the group. In addition, the researchers spoke to focus groups and held round-table discussions with local politicians and representatives of Muslim organizations. What emerges in the report is an image of Muslims who are striving to establish good relations with their neighbors and participation in their local community while battling discrimination in the job market and at school because of their religion and ethnic background. Most surprising perhaps is that the day-to-day concerns and problems of Muslims and non-Muslims did not differ greatly. "They found it important that their children gain an education, one that is of a high quality, that the streets are safe, that people get along well with each other and that there is contact with the other communities," Nina Mühe who headed the research project, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The Muslims particularly appreciated that there were not only many Turks or Muslims in Kreuzberg but many other types of people, and that the diversity was seen positively by non-Muslims. While the Muslims interviewed felt welcomed in Kreuzberg, they were often uncomfortable leaving the district, saying they felt more conspicuous for various reasons such as having too many children, or being perceived as too loud, or for wearing a headscarf.

Such concerns are reflected in the number of Muslims who said they identified with Kreuzberg -- 84 percent, compared to 76 percent of non-Muslims. This dipped slightly when it came to the city, with 72 percent of Muslims and non-Muslims alike identifying with Berlin, while only 40 percent of the Muslims and 52 percent of the non-Muslims identified with Germany. Despite the fact that half of the Muslims interviewed had German citizenship, only 11 percent felt that they were perceived as being German by others. Nevertheless, what may surprise those who like to speak of parallel societies when it comes to the issue of Muslims in Europe was the level of contact Muslims and non-Muslims say they have with each other on a daily basis. There was relatively strong interaction between the groups. In particular, 80 percent of Muslims saying they had daily or weekly contact with people from different ethnic and religious groups. "When it comes to Kreuzberg we can refute the idea of a parallel society as it is usually understood," Mühe says. And while the groups said that they did not necessarily feel they shared the same values, there was a high level of trust between the groups and 80 percent of Muslims and 88 percent of non-Muslims said that neighbors were ready to help each other.

Part 2: 'Stigmatization, a Lack of Challenges, Low Expectations'
The report cites the creation of the Islamforum in Berlin 2005 as a positive development in promoting participation in civic life. The forum provides a platform for representatives of Muslim organizations to meet with politicians representing the disctrict and the city on a regular basis. Those interviewed said they saw more possibility of having an influence on the local politics in Kreuzberg than on a city or national level. Yet this isn't just a rosy picture of successful integration. Muslims in Kreuzberg face regular discrimination in their daily lives. Almost four in five of those asked said they had been subjected to at least one incident of racist discrimination in the previous year; and 74 percent had experienced religious discrimination. The most common complaints were related to education and the labor market, as well as the housing market. The first instances of discriminations many Muslim children face is dealing with the prejudices of their own teachers. The system is already stacked against them because many with immigrant backgrounds are brought up in a language other than German. In school, they are often steered toward the Hauptschule, the lowest of the three-tier German schools in an education system based entirely on tracking, rather than the vocationally oriented Realschule or the university preparatory Gymnasium. Mühe says that teachers' negative images of Islam is often projected onto the children, who become victims of "stigmatization, a lack of challenges and low expectations."

Barriers in Education and Jobs
Many of the Muslims interviewed thought that a better mix of Muslim and non-Muslim children would lead to an improvement in education and regretted that ethnic Germans sometimes moved out of the area when their children were of school-going age or chose to send their children to schools outside Kreuzberg. Parents also voiced concerns about the particular discrimination faced by girls who wear headscarves. They expressed a perception that teachers often assumed they were oppressed or less intelligent and that they did not get as much attention as other pupils for that reason. The issue of headscarves also created barriers for Muslim women on the labor market, according to the report. In 2005, the city of Berlin implemented the Neutralitätsgesetz, or Law on Neutrality, which bans the display of religious symbols in schools and other public services. This has effectively led to a ban on the wearing of headscarves by public employees, effectively cutting off many potential career paths to some Muslim women. To add to this, the OSI report found that there was evidence of a knock-on effect, with similar discrimination against women who wear headscarves in the private sector. One of the report's key recommendations is that Berlin politicians take another look at the law in view of its discriminatory affect.

A Positive Example
Another recommendation made in the report is that the city introduce better documentation of cases of discrimination, particularly in schools, so that children have somewhere to turn to if they run into prejudice or negative stereotyping. One criticism of the report is that it chose to focus on Kreuzberg, which has a relatively affluent and tolerant population, compared to other poorer districts in Berlin with large Muslim populations. Neighboring Neukölln to the south and Wedding to the north, for example, are often described as "problem districts" and also have more diverse Muslim communities, compared to the predominantly Turkish population in Kreuzberg. Mühe says that the choice of Kreuzberg was deliberate. "Kreuzberg has many very positive political measures, many positive attitudes, where diversity and the acceptance of diversity are an example for integration." She hopes that the positive experiences there could be applied to other districts and areas in Germany. "Perhaps Kreuzberg could serve as an example for how we view our society. To help us answer the question of what it means to be German, what it means to be a Berliner," Mühe says. "Do I have to be ethnic German or can I be someone with a Turkish background who wears a headscarf and still be a perfectly ordinary German?"
The Spiegel

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RUSSIAN COURT BANS NEO-NAZI ORGANIZATION

27/4/2010- A Moscow court on Tuesday outlawed one of Russia's largest neo-Nazi organizations as extremist, ruling that the philosophies of the Slavic Union resemble the ideology of Adolf Hitler's Germany, the Interfax news agency reported. The ultra-nationalist group said it will fight the ruling. "We will definitely appeal to the Supreme Court," Slavic Union leader Dmitry Demushkin was quoted as saying. Two weeks ago, a municipal court judge known for his work against neo-Nazis was shot dead outside his apartment by a contract killer. Human rights activists have long criticized the brutality of right-wing extremists in Russia. Racial hatred has been blamed for dozens of deaths in the country since the beginning of the year. The victims of the deadly attacks often are immigrants from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The murderers often brag about their brutal acts in the internet.
DPA

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DIVIDED COUNTRY FINDS CONSENSUS ON ISLAMIC VEILS (Belgium)

Belgium's lower house of parliament has approved a radical ban on Islamic face-covering veils. If approved by the Senate, the country would become the first in Europe to prohibit the burqa and niqab. Currently, it seems to be one of the few issues uniting the linguistically divided country.

30/4/2010- Belgium may be in the throws of political disarray, but its squabbling political parties have been able to agree on one thing: The banning of the burqa in public. If the legislation is approved, the Benelux country would become the first in Europe to ban the Islamic face-covering veil. The lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to ban clothes or veils that did not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-body veil, known as the burqa, and the face veil which leaves slits for the eyes, known as the niqab. A cross-party consensus of 136 deputies voted for the measure, with just two abstentions and no opposing votes. The ban still has to be passed by the Senate, which has two weeks to raise any objections. But a final vote on the controversial measure could be delayed until after early elections, which are likely to be held in June. The election is necessary following the collapse of Prime Minister Yves Leterme's government on April 22 over a language dispute between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking parties. Belgium shares the anxieties of many European countries about its Muslim minorities and the issue of national identity. The wearing of traditional conservative Islamic dress is regarded by many Belgians as a refusal to assimilate into Western society. "It's not about introducing any form of discrimination," Daniel Bacquelaine, the head of the Francophone liberal Reformist Movement (MR) party and instigator of the bill said on Thursday. He told lawmakers that the ban was against clothing "aimed at stopping people from being identified." Exceptions are to be made for motorbike couriers and fire fighters, and may possibly be lifted during the country's carnival season, when people often wear masks. Wearing the niqab or burqa in public streets and parks, sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" could lead to fines of €15-25 ($20-33) and imprisonment for up to seven days. The burqa, often worn in Afghanistan, is not a common site in Belgium.

France to Follow Suit?
Ahead of the vote Isabelle Praile, vice president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, warned that the ban could set a dangerous precedent. "Today it's the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be the Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini-skirts," she told the Agence France Presse news agency. She said that the wearing of the full-face veil is part of "individual freedoms" protected by Belgian, European and international rights laws. Muslims only account for 3 percent of Belgium's population. Her concerns about the ban were shared by a member of another religious community in Belgium. Catholic Bishop Guy Harpigny asked if the state had the right "to regulate the symbols of personal beliefs?" If the bill is approved, Belgium would be the first country to impose the burqa ban, but it is unlikely to be the last. Fiercely secular France is on the cusp of introducing a ban of the face-covering veil, which President Nicolas Sarkozy has said is an affront to the country's values and denigrates women. The cabinet is set to approve a ban in public spaces and state institutions on May 19 and the National Assembly will then debate the legislation in July. In January, Denmark's center-right government called the burqa and niqab out of step with Danish values. However, it held off imposing a ban after finding that only two or three women in the entire country actually wore the burqa and only around 200 wear niqabs -- out of a population of 5.5 million.
The Spiegel

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BELGIAN LAWMAKERS PASS BURKA BAN

29/4/2010- Belgium's lower house of parliament has voted for a law that would ban women from wearing the full Islamic face veil in public. The law would ban any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street. No-one voted against it. The law now goes to the Senate, where it may face challenges over its wording, which may delay it. If passed, the ban would be the first move of its kind in Europe. Only around 30 women wear this kind of veil in Belgium, out of a Muslim population of around half a million. The BBC's Dominic Hughes in Brussels says MPs backed the legislation on the grounds of security, to allow police to identify people. Other MPs said that the full face veil was a symbol of the oppression of women, our correspondent says.

Senate approval
Thursday's vote was almost unanimous with 134 MPs in support of the law and two abstentions. It is expected to pass through the Senate without being blocked, with initial reports saying it could come into law as early as June or July. But the Liberals and Christian Democrats - both represented in the Senate - say they will question the phrasing of the law, which could cause delays. It will also take longer to become law if elections are called, as parliament would have to be dissolved. The Belgium government collapsed last week. The Muslim Executive of Belgium has criticised the move, saying it would lead to women who do wear the full veil to be trapped in their homes. Amnesty International said a ban would set a "dangerous precedent". In a statement, the human rights group said it would "violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or niqab as an expression of their identity and beliefs". The ban would be imposed in all buildings or grounds that are "meant for public use or to provide services", including streets, parks and sports grounds. Exceptions could be made for certain festivals. Those who break the law could face a fine of 15-25 euros (£13-£27) or a seven-day jail sentence.
BBC News

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FAR-RIGHT PARTY CALLS FOR 'DISSOLUTION' OF BELGIUM

27/4/2010- Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang on Tuesday called for the "dissolution" of Belgium, as King Albert II sought to patch up a breakdown between Flemish and French-speaking coalition partners. "The profound political crisis Belgium has run into clearly proves the Belgian model is a complete failure," said a statement from Filip Dewinter, chairman of the far-right Vlaams Belang in the Flemish parliament. "The disease is Belgium and the only remedy is Flemish independence," he added, saying his party had introduced a bill in the Flemish legislature -- one of three in the federal kingdom of Belgium -- to prepare negotiations for Flanders to become "the successor state" to Belgium. He said Flanders, the larger and more prosperous Dutch-speaking partner in a country constructed by European superpowers in 1830, would "remain a partner" in the European Union and the NATO military alliance. Militants from the party created a stir in the Belgian federal parliament on Thursday when the long-running political crisis first hit a new peak after King Albert accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Yves Leterme. They sang the Flemish regional anthem in the assembly, wearing badges with "Split Belgium" written on them. Belgium's government collapsed last week when a coalition party pulled out in protest at the slow pace of negotiations on devolving more federal powers to the Dutch- and French-speaking regions, which have long been at odds. Opinion polls show that most people from the relatively prosperous Flanders region do not want to break away from poorer Wallonia. Belgium's third region is the officially bilingual Brussels capital area.
AFP

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