Albania + 3 more

Kosovo Briefing - The Albanian Refugee Crisis

Introduction
The West's cherished aims of keeping alive the Rambouillet peace plan, i.e. achieving autonomy for Kosovo, policed by NATO-led troops, within the Yugoslav Federation, appear dead, along with the brief that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic can be bombed to the negotiating table. On the contrary, NATO's air strikes have increased support amongst Serbs for Milosevic, and any notion of resurrecting an autonomy deal for Kosovo must now be abandoned.

Around 550,000 people, roughly one quarter of Kosovo's pre-conflict population, have abandoned their homes. Some 120,000 have fled to Albania since the start of the NATO airstrikes, further aggravating an already difficult refugee situation there. Prior to this latest wave of refugees, around 20,000 Kosovo Albanians sought refuge in Albania last year. A further 30,000 Kosovo Serbs have also fled north into Serbia proper and on to Belgrade.

With the forced expulsion of so many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, it appears likely that the intended Serb plan is to clear the northern and western areas of Kosovo of ethnic Albanians ahead of an eventual partition of the province. Plans detailing the possible partition of Kosovo have long been circulating in the Belgrade Academy of Arts and Sciences. Accepting that ethnic Albanians comprise the majority population, and that there are very few Serb communities in the south-eastern part of Kosovo, Belgrade is nevertheless determined to retain control over the important economic and Serb cultural centres in northern and western Kosovo, including the capital Pristina.

It has become clear that a primary objective of the current offensive in Kosovo is to secure control over the mineral wealth in northern Kosovo, together with the numerous Orthodox religious churches and monasteries situated in Western Kosovo. Clearing ethnic Albanians from these regions will allow Milosevic to present the world with what would amount to a fait accompli regarding political partition of Kosovo. Presumably Belgrade would then have no objection to what remained of Kosovo declaring itself independent. Despite the fact, therefore, that the international community has largely refuted the idea of partition because of the impact it might have on the now fragile Dayton Accord in Bosnia, the Serbs are manifestly closer to their goals than is the West.

Impact Of Refugees On Albania

By far the largest number of refugees fleeing Kosovo, an estimated 120,000 have crossed over the border into northern Albania. The Albanian authorities are struggling to cope with such a sudden and massive influx of people into what is the poorest region of Europe's poorest country. The government has appealed to the international community for help and has sent hundreds of buses and private cars to Chukkas to move refugees away from the volatile border. Although local families have taken in some of the refugees, the local population itself is struggling to survive at mere subsistence level in the harsh mountainous region. Conditions in the town of Kukes have become intolerable. With no sanitation, the centre of the town has become an open sewer.

The European Union has announced $11 million (e 10.2 million) in refugee aid for Albania and emergency aid is being airlifted and distributed to the refugees via the UNHCR, the Albanian Red Cross in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme and the UN Children's Fund. The town of Kukes is an arduous 10 hour journey from Tirana along an appallingly bad, narrow road, which is choked with vehicles trying to each the refugees. As a result, a large consignment of British aid is still in Tirana. The priority is to get the bulk of the refugees away from the harsh winter conditions which still pervade northern Albania down to the much milder climate around the capital Tirana. Here the infrastructure is relatively intact to assist speedier deliveries of aid from Tirana airport and the nearby seaport of Durres.

Should such large number of Kosovo refugees remain in Albania for a considerable length of time, some degree of social planning with be necessary. An immediate concern is to avoid the ever present threat of cholera in lowland Albania, where summer temperatures reach an average of 90 degrees fahrenheit and fresh water is scarce. Three years ago forty people died in a cholera epidemic in the Tirana environs. Apart from sanitation, food and accommodation, schools and medical facilities will have to be provided for.

Since the collapse of Communism in Albania in 1992, thousands of unemployed northern Albanians have moved down to the outskirts of Tirana where they have established various shanty towns. This has put tremendous pressure on the capital's limited infrastructural resources, attributing not only the city's deteriorating physical appearance, but more importantly to the anarchic social conditions and the high level of crime.

Recommendations

  • NATO must destroy or at least limit the capability of the Yugoslav Army, special police units, and paramilitary organisations to commit further crimes against the civilian population of Kosovo.
  • NATO must be prepared to send ground troops into Kosovo. In order to avoid a worsening of the humanitarian catastrophe already under way, NATO should be prepared to take such a step even in a non-permissive environment.
  • The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) should immediately send staff to Albania and Macedonia to gather evidence from refugees for possible future indictments of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo.
  • In order to facilitate the ICTY's work, NATO - in keeping with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's announcement on 29 March - should make the necessary information available to the tribunal as long as that does not pose a security risk to ongoing NATO operations.
  • The international community should cripple the Yugoslav regime's capability to disseminate propaganda by destroying the transmitter network of the state-controlled electronic media and should launch a campaign in Yugoslavia to inform the population there of the real situation in the country and of the objectives of NATO's military intervention.
  • The international community should help Macedonia and Albania - as well as other countries in the region which might accept refugees in the future or have already started doing so (such as Turkey) - to cope with the challenge of absorbing large numbers of refugees. Most of the countries affected by the exodus of refugees from Kosovo have serious economic and social problems of their own. International support should include financial, logistical and humanitarian assistance and should be made available swiftly and with the minimum of bureaucracy. Aid should be given not only to national governments but also to humanitarian organisations and NGOs dealing with refugees. This is necessary not only to ease the plight of refugees from Kosovo and the burden placed on their host countries, but also to avoid further destabilisation in the region.

Tirana, 02 April 1999