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Memorandum of the Society for Threatened People on the Issue of Lead Poisoning of Roma in IDP Camps in Kosovo

Bolzano / Bozen, 1. february 2005

In 1999, on behalf of the Society for Threatened People (STP), a team was sent to and established in Kosovo in order to investigate on the situation of human rights among the local Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptian" minorities. Since then, our team has been documenting in detailed reports the deplorable conditions in which these people have to live. Specifically, the SFTP is most alarmed by the issue of lead poisoning threatening the health and the lives of Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptian" settled on Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. After the war in Kosovo in 1999, 130,000 of the formerly 150,000 Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptians" present in Kosovo were violently chased away from their homes as returning Albanians destroyed 14,000 of 19,000 of their houses and razed to the ground 75 of their neighbourhoods and villages. As a result of this tragedy, while an overwhelming majority of Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptians" fled Kosovo, IDP camps had to be set up in order to accomodate those who did not flee Kosovo but suddenly found themselves homeless. Indeed, as of today, only 200 of the 130,00 houses have been rebuilt.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its implementing partner, the Action by Churches working Together (ACT) took it upon themselves to build four IDP camps in Northern Kosovo, namely in Cesmin Lug, Zitkovac, Leposavic, and Kablar. Despite several warnings from various experts, including some from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UNHCR and ACT established the camps on highly toxic wasteland: The hills surrounding the camps consist of the mining residues from a disused smelting factory and generate toxic dust that constantly spreads across the IDP camps. According to the WHO, as a result of the camps' proximity to the old smelting factory, 88% of the camps' district area is considered unsafe for human habitation because its soil contains 4 to 7 times more lead than what is dangerous for the human health.

Consequently, the 744 Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptians" established in Cesmin Lug, Zitkovac, Leposavic, and Kablar inevitably absorb hazardous amounts of lead, whether through inhalation, ingestion, or from the placenta to the foetus. In 2004, the WHO carried out an environmental health risk assessment for lead and heavy metal contamination in the camps' region. The most alarming results of the WHO's assessment were found among children from 24 to 36 months old. Young children were selected as the assessement's target group because they have been conceived at least three months after the smelter's closure in July 2000, because it is easier to identify where they play, sleep and what they eat as they are still dependent on their mothers, and because they fall into the priority target groups for lead exposure impact. 58 out of 150 children belonging to this age range and living in Cesmin Lug and Zitkovac camps were sampled. 34 of them were found to have over 9.99 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Since the WHO sets the acceptable level for lead in blood to 10 micrograms per deciliter, this result implies that 58.6 percent of the children have above accceptable levels. Among these 34 contaminated children, 12 were found to have exceptionally high levels - namely above 45 micrograms per deciliter, while 6 were found to be possibly within the range described by the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) as constituting a medical emergency - namely above 65 micrograms per deciliter.

These statistics corroborate the state of emergency threatening the Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptian" population settled on the camps. Indeed, lead is a dangerous aggressor to the nervous system and, in case of exposure, degrades it fatally. Children are the first to be affected by lead in blood: They consequently suffer from developmental potential losses, from brain seizures, and fall in and out of coma. But adults are also highly at risk: Experts from the ATSDR and the WHO have shown that long-term exposure decreases the performance of the nervous system insomuch that an increase in the amount of lead in blood from 10 to 12 micrograms per deciliter causes a decrease of 2.6 IQ points and that high-exposure may severly damage the brain and kidneys, cause miscarriage for pregnant women, and harm the organs responsible for sperm production.

Experts from several international health and environmental organizations, well-aware of the menace hovering over the local Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptians", advocated the immediate relocation of the camps' population as an initial urgent step to prevent the loss of the camps' younger generation. Indeed, alternative measures alone cannot eradicate the danger. For instance, medical aid under the form of anti-convulsive medicine could prevent victims from falling into coma and dying. However, so long the victim remains exposed to lead, the level of lead in blood cannot decline and more damages will be done to his or her organs. Similarly, hygiene improvement, which encompasses distributing a variety of hygiene products, providing abundant fresh water, and organizing educational workshops, could curb the intensity of the poisoning. However, a mere decrease in the plight of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDP is by no means sufficient. Therefore, as the US Environmental Protection Agency puts it, "the main treatement for lead-poisoning is to stop the exposure."

And yet, authorities involved with and witness of the plight of these Roma, including the UNHCR, the UNMIK (United Nations Mission to Kosovo), and the local municipalities have only exhibited a bitter unwillingness to take any action: The UNHCR argues that it does not want to move the Roma and Ashkali until a permanent housing solution has been settled; the UNMIK claims it does not have the funds to move the camps; and the Albanian municipalities are simply not inclined to rebuilt the Roma and Ashkali homes that were destroyed in 1999. This grim collection of facts motivates the SFTP's appeal to assure the safety of the Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptians" in the IDP camps of Northern Kosovo and to justly protect their fundamental human right to good health.

The SFTP thereby demands:

We would be, in addition, extremely thankful should you keep us informed on the measures taken to remedy this tragedy.

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