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PRESS BRIEFING BY UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

5 May 1999

Return would be the best solution, Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing on the refugee situation around Kosovo.

She said that return would be made possible when peace came. The best scenario would involve a ceasefire, the presence of international military forces, the withdrawal of Serb security forces and the return of refugees. The High Commissioner was joined at the briefing by Kofi Asomani, Director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Liaison Office in New York.

On organizing repatriation, she said that security in the area to which the refugees were returning had to be assured and they would have to return voluntarily. For the time being, the refugees would have to be taken care of in the countries of asylum. The most likely scenario would be one of mixed movement, with one part going back and the other part staying on.

The refugee crisis was continuing without any let up, she said. A lot of people continued to come to Albania, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro. Close to 700,000 people had already come out of Kosovo. She did not have any precise information on the situation inside Kosovo.

There were roughly four ways UNHCR was approaching the crisis, she said. First, it was receiving the refugees at the border points and providing some transient accommodations. The idea was to move them quickly to more permanent sites. Second, it was trying to provide longer-term accommodations. The priority was to get them into host families. People had been very generous in receiving the refugees. The UNHCR was also trying to set up camps, and that posed two difficulties -- to identify campsites and to speed up the construction.

A third approach, which had never been done before in UNHCR's history, was to evacuate people on an emergency humanitarian basis from The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, she continued. It was a special programme intended to get people out of that country so that it did not have to cope with such a large influx of people, which complicated the situation in that country socially, economically and politically. In many cases, they had almost resorted to closing the borders, which till now had been averted.

She said that to lessen the burden, people had been taken out of The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to other countries, first to neighbouring countries. There were some 85,000 slots offered and, as of today, more than 28,000 had gone to European countries. However, that had not kept up with the rate of influx of refugees. With about 5,000 people crossing the border daily, the plan was to take 2,000 out to lessen the burden. That target had not been met.

To ease that pressure, she had appealed to countries outside the region, including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which had offered to host refugees on a temporary basis, to take them. Today, the first 400 had come to the United States. Those gestures of burden-sharing meant a lot politically in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The fourth approach was to take some of the refugees coming to The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Albania, by land, she said. Theoretically, Albania would be willing to take them. There was the difficulty of willingness -- some of those who had come to The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia did not want to go to Albania. Even in evacuation situations, a certain amount of willingness was required. That was an issue that had to be addressed. Also, the camps in Albania were not sufficient. Those were the measures being taken to ensure that the first asylum countries -- Albania and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- would be able to host the refugees as long as they had to.

Among her general concerns was the lack of documentation among many refugees, she said. Many had had their documents confiscated as they fled. There was also the issue of insecurity near the border areas, especially in Albania. There was some forced recruitment by the Kosovo Liberation Army. In addition, there were incidents of criminalities such as human trafficking.

The humanitarian agencies were coping, she said. The UNHCR was working closely with the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. Partnerships with non-governmental organizations, governments and international organizations were necessary and were improving and becoming more mobilized.

Asked if the refugees would actually want to return to Kosovo, Mrs. Ogata said that some who had sought asylum in neighbouring countries might not want to return. At the same time, many of the refugees were peasants and would want to return to their land.

Commenting on reports of The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia closing its borders, she said that there had been a period when refugees had not been allowed in. Sometimes it was on and off, but mostly that border was open.

In response to a question on the refugee burden in Montenegro, she said that UNHCR had been working in that area all through the war days. At its peak, there had been 80,000 Bosniaks in Montenegro, and that number had gone down. Today, there were about 62,000 people from Kosovo in Montenegro.

Emergency shelter was one of the forms of humanitarian assistance being given to them.

Elaborating on the criminal activities taking place among the refugees, she said that pretty girls were being taken away and given to human traffickers, and then some were sent to Italy. There was also a strong Kosovo Liberation Army presence in Albania.

Asked to comment on the humanitarian needs assessment team proposed by the Secretary-General, she said that there had to be security assurances and cooperation from the Serb authorities before a team could go in. The UNHCR had just received an invitation to participate and had knowledge of the terrain that could assist such a team.

As to the causes of refugee outflow, she said that in coming out of Kosovo the refugees had alluded to Serb atrocities and the forced displacement of people. There were about 20,000 people from Serbia moving into Bosnia. Some of them were trying to evade the draft, some were afraid of the conditions in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and others were afraid of the bombing.

Asked how realistic it was that refugees would return, she said that if they wanted to return after peace was established, they could do so. At the same time, it would depend on how long it would take and whether people would want to pack up again and move. Some brought to the United States for family reunification might not want to break family ties again.

In response to a question on whether UNHCR was planning to "winterize" their camps, she said the tents in the camps were quite "flimsy" and would be alright for the summer, but would definitely not be sufficient for the winter. If the refugees were not able to return by winter, then those camps would have to be winterized or a collective centre would have to be built. A decision would have be to be made by the end of May. The implication was that the likelihood of many refugees staying in the first asylum countries through the winter was pretty high.

Turning to the refugee situation in Africa, she said that she had been in West Africa for 10 days in February. There were about half a million Sierra Leoneon refugees in Guinea. Although repatriation to Liberia was taking place, it was very fragile. Also, Guinea was one of the poorest countries. There were also security problems such as cross-border raids. She planned to go back to Africa in June and keep up the attention on that part of the world.

Elaborating on the relationship between the UNHCR and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), she said that NATO's Secretary-General had offered to help and UNHCR had asked for specific services. The services included air control, handling of goods in airports and seaports, and construction of refugee sites. The Commission also had bilateral assistance from the United Arab Emirates, who had come in with logistical assistance.

Asked about payments from UNHCR to host countries, she said that it had given $1 million to The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia within the past couple of days. It had no estimates yet as to the costs involved for reconstruction. The current budget was $143 million, of which $65 million had been received. There were also contributions in kind and in services.

In response to a question on how she could cooperate with NATO, she said that she had to get help from anyone who could effectively provide it. Her job was to help the refugees. She would do anything that was not bad and would help the refugees, as it was so important to save lives.

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