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UNHCR Briefing Notes: Balkans, Timor, Burundi/Tanzania, Chechnya

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News and Press Release
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This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below left
Kris Janowski

1. The High Commissioner in the Balkans

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata arrives in Kosovo today - one year after the start of the NATO bombing campaign and the one of the largest and most complex refugee crises in UNHCR's nearly 50-year history.

Mrs. Ogata is nine days into a 13-day mission to Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. She is scheduled to arrive in Kosovo by road from Montenegro around midday today and - security allowing - will go to the troubled northern city of Mitrovica before heading to Pristina. She is particularly concerned about the treatment of the remaining minorities in the province and Mitrovica is one of the most worrisome examples of that problem.

Although Kosovo remains a major concern for the entire international community, the High Commissioner says she does see some cause for cautious optimism elsewhere in the region.

In her meetings in Croatia, for example, President Stipe Mesic and other members of his new government reiterated that Croatia now welcomes the return of all its citizens. Five years after Dayton and very slow progress on minority returns, this is welcome news.

UNHCR and the rest of the international community are also watching closely for the first results of a March 9 joint declaration by Croatia and the Republika Srpska in which they pledge the return of 2,000 refugees from each within three months. UNHCR believes such a return could finally break the bureaucratic and political logjam that has been blocking returns.

Although there have been only 25,000 returns to Republika Srpska since Dayton, 13,000 of them were last year - more than all previous years combined.

Spontaneous returns are also on the rise elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mrs Ogata is encouraged by the potential impact of the Stability Pact promoting cross-border returns and economic initiatives and new property legislation in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina which could remove much of the bureaucratic red tape blocking minority returns today.

2. Timor

More than 155,000 East Timorese refugees have returned home from West Timor, since the UNHCR/IOM repatriation programme began in October. Around 500 went back on Thursday and some 300 returned from the border areas today. Departures from Kupang area camps, holding mostly pro-Indonesian East Timorese, are also continuing. Around 400 refugees have arrived from these camps at the transit centre in Kupang and are scheduled to leave for Dili next week.

The 60 East Timorese - ex-soldiers in the Indonesian army who along with their families had arrived in Dili last Wednesday - are now moving on to their original homes.

As security conditions improve in East Timor, UNHCR and its partners are stepping up distribution of shelter materials. So far, 4,187 shelter kits have been handed out. Each contains timber, roof sheeting, cement, nails and tools. This year UNHCR plans to distribute 35,000 shelter kits.

3. Burundi/Tanzania

Burundian refugees arriving in Tanzania report that the border area is mined. This could explain why the number of new arrivals has significantly dropped. Since the beginning of the month, 3,000 Burundis have arrived in Tanzania, down from 22,000 last month.

Newly arriving refugees report ongoing military operations along the border. They say civilians are forced to flee their villages as government soldiers conduct nightly patrols and systematically search and destroy houses, looking for rebels. Many people are scattered in the forest but they do not dare cross the border because the main entry points to Tanzania have been mined and are heavily guarded by soldiers. Rebels who used to guide civilians across the border have now withdrawn.

Tanzania is hosting 450,000 refugees: 350,000 from Burundi and 100,000 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

4. OAU Refugee Convention

Some 150 experts in refugee and humanitarian law, invited by UNHCR and the OAU, will meet in Conakry, Guinea for a three-day conference starting Monday, March 27 to discuss ways of strengthening the Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention of 1969.

Today, Africa is the scene of some of the biggest displacement crises in the world, but the climate in which the OAU Refugee Convention is being implemented has significantly changed. Refugee movements are no longer linked to people fleeing colonial oppression and apartheid, as it was the case in the 1960s. They are now much more complex and linked to internal disputes, gross violations of human rights and lack of governance and democratic institutions.

The past years have seen an erosion of refugee protection and a weakening of the basic humanitarian principles such as the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement (not sending back refugees to places where they could face persecution).

During the Conakry meeting, experts will look at key issues such as the level of implementation of the 1969 Convention by OAU member states, the search for lasting solutions, particularly in post-conflict situations, and declining funding for refugee programmes in Africa.

The meeting will examine in detail the root causes of new refugee flows and try to come up with concrete proposals to strengthen the implementation of the OAU Refugee Convention. It will also address the issues internal displacement and statelessness on the African continent.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner and Mahamat Habib Doutoum, Assistant Secretary-General of the OAU will lead the delegations of UNHCR and OAU, respectively. Representatives of OAU member states as well as representatives of academic institutions, UN agencies, NGOs and donor countries will also be present. The meeting is seen as an important step forward for the protection of refugees and displaced persons in Africa.

The OAU Refugee Convention has been ratified by 45 African countries and is one of the key instruments for the protection of refugee rights in Africa.

5. UNHCR office in Prague occupied by Chechens

A group of 21 Chechen asylum seekers are still in UNHCR's office in Prague, Czech Republic, nearly 48 hours after they entered the premises and refused to leave. They are a mixed group of men, women and children. They have behaved calmly without violence or hostility. They have not tried to prevent our staff or visiting Czech officials from leaving or entering the building. Some said they felt unsafe in the Czech collective centre for asylum seekers, others said they felt unsafe in the Czech Republic. Today we will interview all of them individually jointly with Czech asylum officials to determine what exactly their grievances are and work out a solution for them. The group originally comprised 23 people but two have since left. The asylum seekers have been supplied with food and water, diapers and baby food.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.