UNHCR Briefing Notes: FYR of Macedonia, UK/asylum seekers, Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone
1. Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia/Serbia
UNHCR is alarmed by the upsurge of violence this week that threatens to plunge the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) into civil war. Heavy fighting broke out on Thursday in the largely ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo despite the anticipated signing of a peace agreement next week. Incidents of kidnapping and harassment are being reported every day. UNHCR calls on all armed forces in FYROM to refrain from deliberate attacks on civilians, especially those in a conflict zone.
On Wednesday night, UNHCR received a desperate evacuation request from some 40 ethnic Macedonians in Lesok, a village two kilometres northeast of Tetovo. They are mainly elderly people who remained in the village, caught in escalating conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and state security forces. But humanitarian agencies have had no access to the villages near Tetovo since the killings earlier during the day of 10 policemen in an ambush on the main road between Skopje and Tetovo.
Angry ethnic Macedonians took the streets on Wednesday night after the rebel ambush, destroying ethnic Albanian- or Moslem-owned shops in Skopje and Prilep, hometown of the slain policemen south of the capital. UNHCR is concerned that the violence may trigger new displacement of ethnic Albanians from Prilep and its surrounding villages.
UNHCR also warns against the use of humanitarian access as a political tool. In the past couple of weeks there has been a series of retaliatory blockades as the government or NGOs organised humanitarian convoys to either ethnic Macedonian or ethnic Albanian villages. Also, access to electricity and water is increasingly becoming a bargaining chip in some of the affected villages around Tetovo and Kumanovo.
As a result of renewed violence, there has been a sharp decline in the number of returns of refugees from Kosovo to FYROM over the past several days. Returns on Wednesday totalled 373 and arrivals in Kosovo numbered 113. On Thursday as at 2 p.m. there were 123 returnees and 36 new refugees. Around 25,000 returns have been recorded since last month and 53,000 remain in Kosovo.
2. United Kingdom/attacks on asylum seekers
UNHCR is deeply concerned about the outbreak of vicious attacks on asylum-seekers in the UK over the past week. A 22-year-old Turkish Kurd asylum-seeker, Firsat Yildiz, was murdered in Glasgow last Sunday; an Iranian asylum-seeker on the same housing estate was stabbed on Tuesday night; and another asylum-seeker was stabbed in the throat, also on Tuesday, in the English city of Hull. UNHCR would like to offer its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Firsat Yildiz.
Three such attacks in the space of three days is a very alarming development, but in UNHCR's view was sadly predictable given the climate of vilification of asylum-seekers that has taken hold in the UK in recent years. In some mass circulation newspapers, asylum-seekers are continually branded a problem, statistics are being twisted and negative stories are being endlessly highlighted. This often-deliberate attempt to tarnish the name of an entire group has been so successful that the words "asylum-seeker" and "refugee" have even become a term of abuse in school playgrounds.
Recently the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, wrote the following in an editorial: "Asylum-seekers make a perfect target for people who want to invoke the age-old prejudice against foreigners. Asylum-seekers can't answer back. 'Illegal'; 'bogus'; 'flood'; 'fraudulent'; 'criminal'; 'scrounger'; 'trafficking' - all are words commonly paired with the term 'asylum-seeker'. Such words drip into the public consciousness until they become self-fulfilling -- the 'public opinion' they help shape stimulates the formulation of increasingly restrictive and harsher policies."
They also fuel a climate of vitriol that all too easily turns into violence. Once again, UNHCR urges politicians and some sections of the media to deal responsibly with the issue.
3. Congo (DRC)
UNHCR in the Bas-Congo region of the Democratic Republic of Congo is rushing emergency relief supplies to more than 6,000 new Angolan refugees who have fled attacks by rebel UNITA forces.
Refugees told UNHCR workers that a UNITA attack on the Angolan town of Beu and surrounding villages on August 3 drove thousands of people from their homes. The town of Beu is situated some 20 km away from the Congolese border in Angola's northern Zaire province. Four successive waves of arrivals were recorded in bordering DRC villages. Some injured Angolan soldiers have arrived among the refugees and they are being taken care of by DRC authorities. Fears are that a further 3,000 refugees could be on their way to cross the border.
UNHCR's early medical assessment of the group showed that about 5% of children under five suffered from malnutrition. Some injuries have also been initially reported. Medical workers say that damp and relatively cool weather poses the risk of malaria and respiratory problems.
The Congolese authorities have asked UNHCR to relocate the refugees away form the border as soon as possible. They have identified three villages inside the country where the refugees could be given shelter and arable land.
4. Sierra Leone
UNHCR has issued a joint communiqué with Sierra Leone's government requesting returnees who have been residing in Freetown's three transit centres to vacate the premises. The transit centres are presently sheltering more than 8,000 returnees who came back to Sierra Leone in November 2000, following fighting and insecurity in Guinea's refugee camps. Most of the returnees currently in the transit centres are of the Kono ethnic tribe and they originate from an unsafe area of Sierra Leone.
UNHCR has been organising regular convoys from the three transit centres, Jui, Waterloo and Lumpa, to some of our resettlement sites and hosting community projects in the East and South of Sierra Leone, but most returnees have been reluctant to move, arguing they cannot return to their home area. A new site will open next week at Taiama, in the southern Moyamba district, to accommodate these returnees as close as possible to their home area. Transfers will be done on a voluntary basis but refugees who decline will eventually have to find alternative accommodation.
The transit centres are not designed for long-term settlement and the conditions are not optimal for a proper assistance there. In addition, these transit centres will be needed again soon to accommodate more returnees when UNHCR starts facilitating returns from camps in Guinea to Sierra Leone, via Conakry.
UNHCR is currently assisting a total of 56,373 Sierra Leoneans who have returned from Guinea since September last year. Out of this total, only 4,323 were able to return to their home in safe areas. The rest is being accommodated and assisted in temporary resettlement sites and hosting community projects until their area is declared safe for a permanent return.
This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.