Doc. 8205

22 September 1998

Situation of the Kosovo refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons

Report

Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography

Rapporteurs : Mr Tadeusz Iwiński, Poland, Socialist Group, and Mr Ali Dinçer, Turkey, Socialist Group

Summary

Continued violent conflict in Kosovo has led, since spring 1998, to a ten-fold increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons, now estimated at between 290 000 and 600 000 people. Some 50 000 of these are living in particularly exposed conditions in remote wooded and mountainous areas. An estimated 7 000–10 000 homes have been made uninhabitable and many thousands badly damaged. The continued destruction of property in Kosovo, as well as the lack of security, makes return to many areas virtually impossible. Humanitarian organisations working in Kosovo have been subject to restrictions and harassment.

Emphasising that humanitarian aid cannot be a substitute for a political solution, the rapporteurs call for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, among other things, to cease armed operations harmful to the civilian population, and to take practical steps to facilitate the voluntarily return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes before the winter. They also call on the Member States of the Council of Europe to help guarantee secure delivery of humanitarian aid, to step up donor funding, to suspend forced returns of asylum seekers to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and to respond to calls for burden-sharing between European countries.

I. Draft recommendation

1.       The Parliamentary Assembly deplores the fact that continued violent conflict in Kosovo has led, since spring 1998, to a ten-fold increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons, now estimated at between 290 000 and 600 000 people. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 50 000 displaced persons are living in particularly precarious and exposed conditions in remote wooded and mountainous areas. These must be given proper shelter before the arrival of winter weather.

2.       The Assembly is deeply concerned by reports that an estimated 7 000–10 000 homes have been made uninhabitable and many thousands badly damaged. The continued destruction of property in Kosovo, as well as the lack of security, makes return to many areas virtually impossible and certainly sporadic. In accordance with their commitments, the authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and of Serbia must create the conditions for refugees and displaced persons to return voluntarily in safety and dignity to rebuild their lives and their own homes.

3.       The Assembly is seriously concerned that the border regions in Montenegro, Albania and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” are reaching the limit of their capacity to host refugees from Kosovo, many of whom are now seeking protection in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country already facing serious difficulties coping with the return of its own refugees. Regional political stability is thereby undermined.

4.       The Assembly is disturbed by reports from the humanitarian organisations working to relieve the plight of the displaced persons in Kosovo that their activities have been subject not only to restrictions on account of lack of security but also to deliberate harassment, including detention of aid workers and theft of relief supplies.

5.       The Assembly is aware that greater co-operation between international and local humanitarian organisations working in Kosovo could increase the efficiency of aid provision, and expresses its support for the lead role played by UNHCR.

6.       The Assembly considers that humanitarian aid cannot be a substitute for a political solution. Only a cease-fire and a political settlement could prevent a humanitarian disaster over the coming winter.

7.       The Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers:

i.       urge the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia:

ia. to cease violations of human rights and armed operations harmful to the civilian population, strictly respecting the provisions of international humanitarian law;

b. to take practical steps to facilitate the voluntarily return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes before the winter, including limiting police presence in areas where returns are taking place; ceasing the practice of interrogating male returnees; providing and respecting an amnesty for those wishing to return; ceasing the practice of destroying homes and property in areas secured by Serb forces; and providing timely shelter and other assistance, with the help of the international community, to make returns sustainable;

c. to give high priority to funding the reconstruction of destroyed and damaged property, without regard to ethnic origin;

d. to ensure that humanitarian organisations have unimpeded access to all areas in Kosovo in order to conduct their activities in accordance with their mandates;

e. to refrain from intimidation and harassment of aid workers;

f. to accept international escort of humanitarian convoys and the widespread presence of international monitors, including at the 12 official relief supply distribution centres;

g. to withdraw barriers to the import of international aid supplies to Kosovo and lift the embargo imposed by the Government of Serbia in April 1998 on the 35 basic items of food for the Albanian population in Kosovo;

h. to recognise the status of local and international humanitarian organisations, introduce registration procedures for humanitarian activity and grant appropriate visas for international aid workers;

ii.       urge the Kosovo Albanian parties to the conflict to ensure full respect for the provisions of international humanitarian law and full access for humanitarian organisations to territory under their control;

iii. urge the parties to the conflict:

a. to provide access to detained persons and information about missing persons;

c. to guarantee the safety and protection of those who have returned to their homes;

iv. urge the Governments of Montenegro, Albania and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” to keep their borders open to refugees and displaced persons from Kosovo;

v.       urge the Member States of the Council of Europe :

a. to provide for an international presence in Kosovo in order to guarantee secure delivery of humanitarian aid and the safe return of the displaced population where possible before the winter;

b. to step up donor funding for reconstruction and the winter emergency plans in Kosovo and provide financial assistance to Montenegro, Albania and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” which are currently hosting large numbers of refugees and displaced persons;

c. to suspend forced returns of asylum seekers to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and cease any negotiations with respect to readmission agreements;

d. to respond to calls for burden-sharing between European countries and receive asylum seekers from Kosovo, ensuring that their protection needs are fairly assessed through harmonised asylum procedures and protection granted on humanitarian grounds.

II.       Explanatory memorandum by Mr Iwiński and Mr Dinçer

1.       Introduction

1.       Following Order N° 544 adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly in June 1998, the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography organised a hearing on the Kosovo refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons in Paris on 2 September 1998. After the hearing, the Committee requested that a debate on this subject be held under urgent procedure during the 4th part of the Assembly’s 1998 Session (21-25 September 1998).

2.       This report outlines the main issues raised by the following organisations invited to the hearing : the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, the Mother Theresa Humanitarian Association, the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Médecins sans frontières, Amnesty International and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It also takes into account the information provided on that occasion by representatives of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Swiss Federal Refugee Office.

2.       Situation in Kosovo

3.       Continued international efforts to facilitate a political solution to the Kosovo crisis have so far failed to provide meaningful results. In mid-July and early August, heavy fighting occurred in the towns of Orahovac and Malisevo, as well as in Suva Reka and Stimlje areas (see appended map). By mid-August, intensive fighting started in the western parts of Djakovica, Decani and Pec. Towards the end of August, fighting continued in several areas: west of Pec in Rugovska Klisura area, along the Stilje-Suva Reka road, on the Komorane-Kijevo stretch of the Pristina-Pec road and near the Pristina airport. The negotiating process has not been renewed.

4.       The conflict has resulted in a cumulative displacement of persons. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there has been a ten-fold increase since spring 1998 in the number of those displaced as well as a sharp rise in the number of those seeking asylum in the immediate region or elsewhere, notably in Member States of the European Union. Reliable statistics on displaced persons are difficult to compile owing to the fluid nature of the conflict and vary from the minimum figure of 290 000 given by UNHCR to 400 000 or even 600 000 estimated by Catholic Relief Services and Mother Theresa Association.

5.       Thousands of civilians are constantly in flight to escape attacks by government forces. According to UNHCR estimates, there could be over 50 000 displaced people in Kosovo who have been forced to flee from their homes into remote wooded and mountainous areas where they live in the open air or in makeshift shelters. These people are the most vulnerable and are in need of urgent help. Despite assurances from the authorities, access is hindered, and the immediate priority of the humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is to find these groups and to deliver essential relief. It is clear that if these people remain in their current locations over the winter, they will be at a serious risk of death. It remains a priority to assist them to return to their homes, or to move them to host families, or, as a last resort, into collective centres where assistance can be more reliably provided.

6.       Due to unreliable access to areas of conflict humanitarian organisations find it difficult to plan, to estimate needs and to respond quickly with adequate humanitarian aid. In recent weeks, the incidence of cases of restriction of movement and denial of access for humanitarian organisations to certain areas, detention of aid workers and attacks on relief personnel has increased. Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations working in the region made an appeal to the international community to take political action to ensure minimum security in order to allow the humanitarian organisations to work in safety and to protect civilians in zones of conflict in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

7.       An estimated 7 000–10 000 homes have been made uninhabitable and many thousands are badly damaged. The great majority of the displaced persons are being housed by host families very often in extremely overcrowded conditions. The Kosovo Albanian community has responded to this crisis with remarkable generosity, but this section of the displaced population is subject to severe problems which will have to be addressed over the next few months.

8.       The municipalities in Kosovo affected by the conflict include Decane, Djakovica, Glogovac, Istok, Klina, Lipljan, Orahovac, Pec, Srbica, Stimlje and Suva Reka. Most of the displaced within Kosovo are staying within these areas, although some have moved to other municipalities. The population in other areas, while not directly involved in the fighting, is increasingly affected by the conflict. Many have little or no access to food supplies, and medical facilities face major supply problems. The crops could not be harvested since the population fled their villages during the summer months.

9.       In April 1998, the Serbian Government placed an embargo on the import of 35 basic food items to the Kosovo region, which hindered the work of many humanitarian organisations. This embargo should be lifted forthwith.

10.       After the meeting between Presidents Yeltsin and Milosevic in June 1998, the Serbian Government adopted a framework programme for the resolution of humanitarian problems in the province of Kosovo. Following this outline programme the Serbian Government established 12 distribution centres for humanitarian aid. The success of these distribution centres will depend on the true willingness of the Serb authorities to provide humanitarian aid without using the centres to impose police or military control over the displaced population. International presence and monitoring at the distribution centres are indispensable.

11.       The authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia made a commitment to create conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes in Kosovo. However, due to inadequate security conditions and the continued destruction of homes, return to many areas is virtually impossible. This did not prevent Serb forces from recently using sticks to force 15 000 displaced persons camping in fields near Istinic to board buses to return home. such methods are unacceptable. There is an urgent need to strengthen the international presence in Kosovo in order to promote safety for returnees and confidence-building between the parties in conflict.

12.       The human rights situation in Kosovo has been marked by widespread violations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has received increasing numbers of reports of persons being arbitrarily arrested by Yugoslav authorities for questioning and kept in pre-trial detention for periods well beyond the legal limit. While most of these people have been arrested in connection with police operations in the field, there is a growing number of cases in which Kosovo Albanian political activists, lawyers, humanitarian workers and medical personnel are being arrested and interrogated by the police. On the other hand, reports that some Serb, Kosovo Albanian and Roma civilians, as well as Serb police officers, have been abducted by armed Kosovo Albanians are additional cause for concern. Amnesty International has proposed that co-operation should be stepped up between humanitarian organisations and those involved in monitoring of human rights violations.

13.       International donors have been providing funding for the work of UNHCR, the World Food Programme (WFP), other international aid agencies and humanitarian NGOs working in Kosovo and neighbouring regions affected by the conflict. However, the scale of funding is still inadequate to fully respond to the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. For example, enough food is currently provided for approximately 60–80 000 people per month, while the needs are four or five times higher. Equally, international and local humanitarian organisations need to increase their co-operation in order to ensure greater use of local aid networks and thus more efficient delivery of relief and assistance.

3.       Situation in Montenegro

14.       The Montenegrin Red Cross has registered to date around 44 200 displaced persons from Kosovo, situated mostly in the districts around Ulcinj, Rozaje and Plav. In recent weeks around 3 000 inhabitants of 13 villages in the area of Rugovska Klisura fled to Rozaje after the deployment of Serb forces in the village of Veliki Stupelj west of Pec.

15.       The Red Cross continues with the registration and distribution of flour, rice, sugar, oil, blankets and mattresses. The UNHCR requested the Republican Commissioner for Refugees to provide a list of buildings that could be rehabilitated quickly since temporary shelter is the greatest problem and needs to be solved urgently.

16. On 11 September 1998, the Government of Montenegro announced that Montenegro has no real capacities for further acceptance of refugees and internally displaced persons, and consequently closed its border with Kosovo. The Montenegrin authorities have recently returned a number of displaced persons to Kosovo and expelled 3 000 to Albania. The latter are currently being sheltered in local homes or reception centres in Schkodra. On 12 September 1998, UNHCR sent a letter to the President of Montenegro urging that the border be reopened.

17.       Local police expressed their concern regarding the intense smuggling activities on the Albanian border and organised transport of displaced persons across lake Skadar.

4.       Situation in Northern Albania

18.       The conflict in Kosovo led to the first arrival of small numbers of refugees in early March 1998. However, the current major influx of refugees from Kosovo into Albania started at the beginning of June 1998. According to the Albanian authorities, some 15 000 refugees are currently living in 11 districts, notably Tropoja, Durrës and Tirana. Most of them are women and children under 16.

19.       Infrastructure is very poor in northern Albania where in some districts the refugees from Kosovo represent up to 25% of the population. Lack of running water is a problem throughout Albania and especially serious in Tropoje district where up to 70% of the water supply is diverted illegally for irrigation. Many refugees are living in uncompleted buildings without water supply. There is a very limited capacity for local families to host refugees without substantial outside assistance. Other reception sites in the south are being considered for relocation of refugees.

20.       The security situation in the entire country remains precarious. Incidents of random violence are reported throughout the country. Aid agencies continue to be concerned about the potential problem of armed fighters withdrawing into the area occupied by refugees. Border violations occurred between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Albania causing further political tensions in the region.

5.       Situation in “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”

21.       According to the Ministry of the Interior of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, 12 000 “guests” from Kosovo have been registered in the period between March and July 1998. The UNHCR office in Pristina estimates some 20 000 people from Kosovo to have arrived in the country on tourist visas. Around 2 000 are accommodated privately in the region of Tetovo.

22.       The Macedonian Red Cross branches and other humanitarian organisations are supporting the families with food, hygienic items and bedding. The UNHCR is assisting some of the families to obtain visa extensions and to access the country’s health care system.

23.       The situation in Kosovo has led to an increase in tensions between the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian communities in “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

24.       As a policy, the Government of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” has declared that the border with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remains open. According to the daily Nova Makedonija, control of the border between “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Kosovo will soon be reinforced with four new observation posts, making a total of 14 observation posts on the borders with Albania and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

6.       Kosovo asylum seekers in other European countries

25.       The number of Kosovo asylum seekers in other European countries is very hard to determine. In his report on Albanian asylum seekers from Kosovo, presented to the Assembly in January 1996, Mr Cucó estimated that there were some 340 000 present in the main European countries concerned, namely Germany (230 000), Sweden (60 000), Switzerland (28 000), the Netherlands (15 000), Norway (4 000), Austria (2 000) and Denmark (1 700). Although the numbers declined thereafter as the asylum determination procedure resulted mostly in negative decisions, they have begun to rise again since the start of the present crisis. Thus it is estimated that in the first eight months of 1998, 17 728 asylum seekers from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia arrived in Germany, 8 310 in Switzerland, and 2 800 in Austria. Although asylum statistics are not broken down by ethnic origin, it is generally accepted that some 90 per cent of these are Kosovo Albanians. UNHCR estimates that the total number of asylum seekers from Kosovo in the Council of Europe member States is now 150 000.

26.       Germany is still the country with by far the greatest numbers. However, the positive recognition rate for asylum applicants from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1998 is just 2.8 per cent, according to the German authorities. Asylum seekers whose applications are rejected have a right to appeal. If that is turned down, they are given three months in which to leave the country voluntarily. Forced deportation is possible thereafter. There are an estimated 135 000 nationals of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia subject to repatriation from Germany under the readmission agreement signed between the two countries on 10 October 1996. Of these, some 120 000 are rejected asylum seekers. Some 8 500 of the total have been returned (80 per cent of them Kosovo Albanians) since December 1996 in an ongoing process which had been expected to last until December 1999. However, most Länder have suspended deportations in view of the Kosovo conflict, and those that have not will doubtless be forced to do so since the only carrier authorised for this purpose under the readmission agreement is JAT, the Yugoslav National Airline just banned from most European Union countries including Germany.

27.       Switzerland is the European country that hosts the second largest number of asylum seekers from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of whom most are from Kosovo. According to the Swiss authorities, the acceptance rate is 5.6 per cent. According to the Swiss Refugee Council, 1 290 were returned from Switzerland between 1 September 1997 and 11 June 1998 pursuant to the readmission agreement which entered into force on 1 September 1997. On 12 June 1998 the Swiss Government suspended deportations to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with the exception of criminals, 113 of whom were returned in July and August.

28.       Reports from the United Kingdom indicate a growing influx of asylum seekers from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A recent survey by the British Refugee Council found that there were at least 4 300 Kosovo asylum seekers in the country. A readmission agreement is being negotiated.

29. Readmission agreements with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are under consideration or negotiation also by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, and Norway. Sweden has already signed and ratified such an agreement.

30. The position of the humanitarian organisations with regard to the growing numbers of asylum seekers from Kosovo is exemplified by a UNHCR position paper issued on 25 August 1998. This pointed out that "well before the escalation of the violence in early 1988 there was documented repression of Kosovo Albanians and documented serious human rights abuses affecting Kosovo Albanians, on political and ethnic grounds." The note went on to state that ethnically based persecution of all groups was a growing feature of the present situation, and identified several specific groups at particular risk. Many asylum seekers would qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Convention. If they did not they should be accorded leave to stay on humanitarian grounds since they had genuine protection concerns as victims of conflict and violence. Safety within the borders of the Federal Republic was not possible for a large number of those displaced and a further deterioration of the situation could be expected. In view of these considerations, the UNHCR encouraged asylum countries to receive asylum seekers from Kosovo, ensure that their protection needs were properly and fairly assessed, and host them for as long as required. The UNHCR also reiterated its request of 9 March 1998 that rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo should not be deported to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, on humanitarian grounds, pending a return to stability.

31.       The Assembly should endorse these recommendations with regard to asylum seekers from Kosovo arriving or already present in Council of Europe member States, the more so since they are completely consistent with the Assembly's previously established positions.

7.       Conclusion

32.       As the President of the Assembly, Mrs Leni Fischer, wrote in her noteworthy article in the International Herald Tribune on 12 August 1998, Kosovo is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The Assembly should emphatically endorse her call "for an immediate and massive upscaling of humanitarian aid for the stricken civilian population of Kosovo – if necessary, as in Bosnia, through logistics imposed by NATO in support of the already admirable but hopelessly under-resourced efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Red Cross and brave representatives of other non-governmental organisations." In view of the foregoing, the Assembly is urged to support the draft recommendation contained in this report submitted on behalf of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography.

Appendix

Reporting committee : Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography.

Budgetary implications for the Assembly : none.

Reference to committee: Urgent debate, Reference No. 2324 of 21 Septembmer 1998.

Draft recommendation unanimously adopted by the committee on 22 September 1998.

Members of the committee: Mr Diaz de Mera (Chairman), Mr Iwiński (Vice-Chairman), Mrs Aguiar, MM. Akselsen, Amoruso, Andres, Árnason, Mrs Arnold, MM. Atkinson, Aushev, Beaufays, Billing, Bogomolov, van den Bos, Brancati (Alternate : Brunetti), Mrs Brasseur, Mrs Bušić, MM. Cardona, Christodoulides, Chyzh, Clerfayt, Connor (Alternate : Kiely), Debarge, Dinçer, Mrs Fehr, MM. Filimonov, Fuhrmann (Alternate : Mrs Karlsson), Mrs Garajová, MM. Ghiletchi, Gremetz (Alternate : Legendre), Gyürk, Jakic, Mrs Johansson, Lord Judd, MM. Junghanns, Kalus, Kozlowski (Alternate : Mrs Kryzanowska), Kukk, Mrs Kušnere (Alternate : Mrs Rugate), Mr Laakso, Mrs Langthaler (Alternate : Mrs Riess-Passer), MM. Lauricella, Làzàrescu (Alternate : Chiliman), Le Jeune, Liapis, Loukota, Luís, Melo, Micheloyiannis (Alternate : Mr Korakas, Vice-Chairman), Minkov, Mutman, Rakhansky, Ruffy, von Schmude, Sincai (Alternate : Paslaru), Mrs Soutendijk-van Appeldoorn, MM. Tabajdi, Tahir, Vangelov, Wray (Alternate : Lord Ponsonby). N….. (Alternate : Mrs Guirado, Vice-Chairperson), N... (Alternate : Mrs Rastauskiene).

N.B. The names of those members present at the meeting are printed in italics.

Secretaries of the committee: Mr Newman, Mr Adelsbach, Mrs Karanjac.