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UNICEF: The Balkan region, one year later

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One year after the start of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia and the massive humanitarian relief effort that followed, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy declared today that the children of the Balkans region "remain the most endangered children in Europe" and said their long-term prospects remained dreary unless "adults throughout the region fulfill their moral duty to end the ethnic hatred and violence that so insidiously shadow every new generation."
"If the past year has taught us anything, it is that war alone does not have the power to destroy a region’s future," Bellamy said. "But ethnic hatred does - and it is ongoing bloodshed based on cultural or ethnic hatred that threatens to destroy the hope that accompanied the return of refugees to Kosovo last June. That’s why I appeal to everyone concerned - governments, communities, individuals - to eschew violence and ethnic hatred and set a new course for the children of the region."

Bellamy welcomed this month’s agreement between Bosnian and Croatian leaders to allow 4,000 Bosnian Croat and Croatian Serb refugees to return to their homes within the next three months. "This is a significant step in the right direction," Bellamy said. "We hope it will lead to the return of tens of thousands of refugee children and their families."

Bellamy also noted that massive humanitarian relief efforts during the past year had done much to improve the immediate circumstances of the region’s children, pointing out that a UNICEF-led alliance of relief organizations, international donors and local communities had succeeded in getting 97 per cent of primary school children back in class. The effort has also resulted in the repair and reopening of 385 of Kosovo’s damaged school buildings – more than a third of the total.

But Bellamy said overall prospects for children of the Balkan region remained in doubt, citing violations of child rights ranging from repression and violence to displacement and economic recession.

A year after the NATO bombing of Kosovo began, UNICEF said that:

  • Children in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are the most endangered in Europe, due to both war and sanctions. Poverty has almost doubled since last year’s conflict and almost two-thirds of the population, mostly Serbs, live at or below the poverty line. Shortages of heating fuel have forced schools to shorten their hours, weakening an educational environment in which schools closed three months early during air strikes last spring and reopened late last fall while classrooms housed displaced families from Kosovo.
  • More than 200,000 Serbs, Roma and other ethnic minorities have fled Kosovo since June 1999 to seek safety elsewhere. They joined more than half a million long-term refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina who fled their homes during the 1991-95 wars in the former Yugoslavia.
  • In Kosovo itself, more than 110 children have been killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordinance since June 1999. This month alone, one child was killed and five injured by a mine in northern Kosovo and two women were seriously injured while crossing the heavily-mined border between Albania and Kosovo. Landmines and unexploded cluster bombs have spoiled 3 per cent of Kosovo’s land.
  • Kosovar youth - who make up more than half the population - are in crisis. Surveys by international organisations indicate increases in organised crime and drug trafficking among juveniles, and increases in the number of female-headed households, children working on the streets, and cases of domestic violence.
  • Throughout the region, widespread poverty, unemployment, violence and stress have eroded the ability of parents and communities to protect children. Over 30,000 children in the FRY are reportedly abused or neglected, and some 10,000 are exploited and living on the street. An estimated 30,000 young Albanian women are working as prostitutes in western Europe, many having been forcibly trafficked.
  • In neighbouring Montenegro, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, communities are still recovering from the burden of hosting thousands of refugees and displaced people. Some 24,000 Kosovar refugees remain in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 20,000 in FYR Macedonia, and 3,000 in Albania.
  • Finally, the children of non-Albanian minorities that remain in Kosovo face the same problems that ethnic Albanian children faced a year back: Lack of access to schools, needed health care, and other basic services that are every child’s right.

"A year later the environment for children is troubling, particularly in Yugoslavia, but throughout the region," Bellamy said. "Children need peace and a sense of security in order to develop to the fullest of their potential. Real peace is what is lacking in the region right now - we hope that will change."

For more information on UNICEF, visit its web site at http://www.unicef.org