Lessons from earlier aid emergencies are being applied as the West attempts to tackle the growing Balkan refugee crisis
At the camps it really strikes you that there are only women and children and a smattering of old people. You have to ask, `Where are the men?' " said an official from the Department for International Development. "Usually you would expect women and children to make up 65 per cent of a refugee camp, but here it is around 80 to 90 per cent. The deficit of men is certainly visible. The women have horrendous stories about how their menfolk have disappeared."

While politicians have described the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovar Albanians as the worst exodus since the Second World War, the more measured view of officials from the DFID is that, while the crisis is serious, its scale pales in comparison with Rwanda or Sierra Leone. "The people coming over the Kosovo border are better nourished, they have assets, some have cash. It's not on the same magnitude as Rwanda or Sierra Leone but for the families concerned it is just as serious, and in the context of Europe it is just as bad," said a DFID official.

Senior logistics experts from the department, headed by Clare Short, returned on Friday from a fact-finding mission to the region. "We've all seen the television pictures, but you have to be there to catch the smells and the noise," said a senior DFID official. Their visit has confirmed that the international aid effort in the Balkans will be a vast task.

The department has admitted that aid agencies were caught out by the speed and brutality of the exodus from Kosovo. "When things move as fast as they have, a degree of chaos and confusion is almost inevitable," said a senior official from the department. "We have a lot to learn for the future, but things are getting better organised. I don't believe anybody could have anticipated the rapidity and ferocity with which Slobodan Milosevic turned on his own population.

"Even if we had had 10 times the aid, we still would have been caught out. Imagine if we had stockpiled food along the border in advance. That would have given Milosevic the message he could just send the Kosovars over. It's also risky to do that in a country as poor as Albania. Aid agencies stockpiled food in advance in Monrovia for the Liberian crisis, and much of it was looted."

Thanks to lessons learned in previous emergencies, great efforts have been made to maintain morale among refugees by keeping families and communities together if possible, although the arbitrary way in which Macedonia moved them on has not helped. More lighting has been provided for the camps to make them safer from women after experiences in Goma, where many Rwandan women felt threatened in dark sleeping quarters and toilets.

Greater emphasis has also been placed on the "caring" side of aid. "The purpose of aid is not just to save lives, but to preserve an island of humanity and show these people the world isn't just full of Milosevics," said a DFID spokesman. "The way in which we hand out aid is important, to ensure we don't demean people." The agencies will remain in the region for "as long as it takes", he said. "But we also have to make sure that after the initial rush of help, people do not forget about this place."

The department is liaising closely with the Disasters Emergency Committee, which links 12 leading charities taking food, shelter, sanitation and other help to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians expelled from their homeland. Its UK appeal has raised pounds 8m from 243,000 calls in four days since the appeal was launched.

Officials believe the Kosovars' sense of nationality will assist the reconstruction of Kosovo after the war. Unlike Bosnia, or Rwanda, which had a mixture of ethnic groups, Kosovo is - or was - 90 per cent ethnic Albanian. "They believe Kosovo is their homeland, and that unified spirit will greatly help recovery, whatever shape Kosovo takes," said one DFID staffer.