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May 1999, Volume 6, Number 5

Kosovar Refugees

By the end of April 1999, about 600,000 residents of Kosovo had become refugees; another 400,000 were displaced inside Kosovo, meaning that half of the two million residents of Kosovo were refugees or internally displaced people. About 375,000 Kosovars moved south to neighboring Albania (population 3.2 million and per capita GDP $700) and 150,000 had moved to Macedonia (2.1 million and $1700); others moved to Montenegro and Bosnia. As they left Kosovo, Serbs reportedly stripped many Kosovars of passports, property deeds and other records.

A repeated justification for NATO's bombing of the Serbian military was to prevent ethnic cleansing, marking one of the first times that a humanitarian goal was invoked to go to war. Serb treatment of Kosovars has been called the "glue" of NATO solidarity. The NATO bombing campaign was launched to stop Serb aggression against Kosovars. Instead, after the bombing began, the Serbs stepped up their effort to drive Kosovars out of Kosovo. A successful conclusion of the NATO campaign would be their return of Kosovars to a peaceful Kosovo.

Governments of the European Union, led by Germany, favored aiding the refugees as close to Kosovo as possible rather than accepting them for resettlement. Emma Bonino of Italy, acting humanitarian affairs commissioner of the European Union, said that: "The further away people are from home, the more difficult it is for them to go back." The EU provided assistance to establish refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia rather than moving hundreds of thousands of refugees out of the area. NATO troops took the lead in establishing shelters and providing food, and then turned the operation of the refugee camps over to UNHCR and other relief agencies.

Moving Kosovars out of the region proved to be problematic. On April 4, it was announced that 100,000 Kosovars would be airlifted to temporary safety, including 20,000 to the US and to Turkey; 10,000 to Germany; 6,000 to Norway; and 5,000 each to Austria, Canada and Greece. There were calls for each EU nation to accept a quota or share of the refugees, but Great Britain, France and Italy opposed such a quota scheme.

As they registered in the refugee camps, Kosovars were asked where they would like to be relocated; most chose Germany. Countries accepting Kosovars set up screening procedures, determining who had education, relatives and financial resources or was in greatest need of resettlement; the informal goal was to relocate 1,500 Kosovars a day. Many European countries are reluctant to take the entire contingent they promised to accept until other countries accept refugees, and Sweden noted that it was reluctant to accept extended families as part of the 5,000 refugees that it agreed to accept because, with no relatives left behind, Kosovars may be reluctant to return.

Smugglers are reportedly active in the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, promising to take people to the European country of their choice for $5,000. In many cases, the smuggling fee is paid by relatives in the destination. In a few cases, Macedonians have been caught coming into refugee camps to register as refugees in order to get relocated to Europe.

By the end of April 1999, about 10,000 Kosovars had been flown to Germany. Once in Germany, Kosovars are treated like asylum seekers, provided with accommodations and meals and DM80 a month for adults and DM40 a month for children. The cost of caring for the Kosovars was put at DM1,000 a person each month, divided equally between the federal and state governments. There are about 300,000 Kosovars in Germany, including 100,000 who are under orders to leave: Germany has stopped deportations to Kosovo.

Foreigners commissioner Marieluise Beck called on the German government to allow private citizens to sponsor Kosovars; there are about 100,000 Kosovars in Germany. During the Bosnian war, Germans were permitted to sign affidavits of support for Bosnians who had Temporary Protected Status in Germany.

The US planned to shelter 20,000 Kosovars in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but they were reluctant to travel so far from Kosovo without any assurance of entering the US. Kosovars in Guantanamo would have restricted rights to apply for asylum, according to a 1993 US Supreme Court ruling. [Guantanamo Bay is the place where 50,000 Cuban and Haitians were housed in the early 1990s at a cost of about $250 million. Most of the Haitians were returned to Haiti; most of the Cubans were eventually permitted to enter the US.]

In late April, the US agreed that 20,000 Kosovars could enter the US as refugees, eligible for welfare, housing and other resettlement assistance, if they had US relatives as distant as aunts, uncles and cousins. Legal US residents may also agree to sponsor Kosovars who are their relatives, with priority given to admissions from the 130,000 Kosovo Albanians in Macedonia. For more information, call 800-727-4420.

After one year of US residence, the Kosovars could become legal US immigrants. Some Albanian-American groups were critical, noting that accepting the Kosovars as refugees sent the signal that they would be unlikely to return soon. The US has granted temporary protected status to about 3,000 Kosovars in the US when the bombing began. The US resettled 2.3 million refugees since 1975; most were from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. The US, which anticipates 78,000 refugees in FY99, resettles more refugees than all other countries combined.

About 1.8 million of the two million residents of Kosovo before fighting began were ethnic Albanians. Many reports compared the Kosovo refugee situation to that of Bosnia. In the spring and summer of 1992, over 750,000 Bosnians fled from attacking Serbs. About 350,000 Bosnians moved to Germany, and Germany spent $11 billion caring for them until they began to trickle back to Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. By April 1999, about 80,000 Bosnians remained in Germany. Bosnians in the US are concentrated in Chicago and St. Louis.

The Kosovo conflict prompted thinking about "permanent refugees." The UNHCR has traditionally thought of three solutions for refugees: "going home, being locally integrated, or being resettled" in a third county.

IOM/ICMPD. The Geneva-based International Organization on Migration (IOM) and the Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) released a report on Kosovar migration that concluded that about half of the 400,000 persons displaced by the conflict had left the province before NATO airstrikes began in March 1999. Most went to other nations of the ex-Yugoslavia.

Some of those fleeing Kosovo used smugglers to get into Western Europe, traveling to Hungary and then across the Slovak and Czech Republics to Germany. Germany apprehended three times more Kosovo Albanians attempting to cross the German-Czech border in the first half of 1998 than in the same period of 1997. Almost half of the attempts to enter Switzerland illegally on the Italian-Swiss border during the first half of 1998 were by Kosovo Albanians or Albanians.

The report noted that about 40 percent of the Bosnians who fled to Western Europe have returned to Bosnia since the signing of the Dayton Peace agreement in December 1995; most of those who returned went back to areas in which their ethnic group is predominant.

As Kosovars streamed into Albania in April 1999, some made their way to Vlore, a city of 90,000 from which people and goods are smuggled to Italy, 42 miles away. The smuggling business developed after the collapse of communism in Albania in 1991, first taking Albanians, then migrants from around the world, into Italy in high-speed boats. Most of the boats are equipped with several engines, and can take 30 to 40 migrants to Italy in 60 to 90 minutes at a cost to the migrants of $500 to $1,000 each. Italy is financing efforts to reduce the smuggling, and the high-speed boats are no longer openly moored in the bay at Vlore.

On March 24, Greek officials boosted security along Greece's northern borders with Albania and Macedonia to head off an expected wave of refugees following the air strikes on Serbia. Greece, though a NATO member, will not participate in any direct military action against Serbia.

Christian Miller, "Refugees Frustrated by Slow Pace of Relocation," Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1999. Blaine Harden, "Kosovars Relocated to US Would Be Eligible to Remain, New York Times, April 23, 1999. Valerie Lawton, "Canada expects UN call as refugee crisis worsens," Toronto Star, April 19, 1999. Roger Cohen, "Already Burdened, Western Europe Is Reluctant to Take in Kosovo's Outcasts," New York Times, April 2, 1999. "Refugees face 'long, hard haul,'" Irish Times, April 10, 1999.