Nobody could be prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale
United Nations officials - the very embodiment of cool, measured language - talk of tragedy, catastrophe, nightmare. Given Slobodan Milosevic's track record, we should have been ready for the worst. But the ruthless killing and expulsions from Kosovo in recent days have been shocking - even to those who have seen the worst of the worst. In the words of a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it has been "absolutely terrifying".

Without apparent irony, the Serb media continue to portray the bombing campaign as a repeat of the Nazi assault more than half a century ago. But it is the Serbs who carry out acts of cruelty more reminiscent of Nazi-era brutality than anything that post-war Europe has seen. President Milosevic has broken even his own grim record during these days. Increasingly, it seems that the Yugoslav leader hopes that he can create an Albanian- free Kosovo, compressing into a few weeks the same policy that Hitler took years to complete, with his proclamation of judenfrei areas. A quarter of a million refugees have fled and been driven out of Kosovo in recent days.

The horror of Srebrenica, when large numbers of civilians were driven from their homes or casually murdered, stands as a symbol of the hideousness of the Bosnian war. Now, we have a whole clutch of Srebrenicas taking place, all across Kosovo. And when the survivors cross the borders, what then? Another form of nightmare. Both Albania and Macedonia had already taken in tens of thousands of refugees in the past 12 months of war. Now, they are drowning in the flood.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe, and has suffered its own fair share of instability in recent years, with poverty-driven violence and political chaos. Macedonia has a delicate ethnic balance; around a third of its population is ethnic Albanian. Macedonia has tried to maintain a reputation for old-style Yugoslav tolerance. Like the Bosnian government that President Milosevic was so determined to destroy, the Macedonians have tried to ensure peaceful co-existence and ethnic rights. Even here, however, Albanian-Macedonian tensions have exploded in the past two years. Macedonia knows that it lives on a knife-edge. Its very existence is by no means guaranteed.

Faced with the danger of lethal upheaval, Macedonia has begun to say loudly what it was until now saying sotto voce: enough is enough. The Macedonian government said on Friday that the number of refugees arriving from Kosovo - 40,000, in just one week - is more than the country can handle, and that the flood is threatening stability and public order. Meanwhile, the Albanian deputy prime minister has complained of the slow speed of international reaction to the crisis.

The task is enormous. The refugees arriving in Albania find themselves in one of the most remote and poverty-stricken parts of the country. Aid agencies had been making contingency plans in recent months, including the stockpiling of tents and basic foodstuffs. But even that was fraught with difficulty. Some stockpiles were in Kosovo itself, so became inaccessible when foreigners were forced to leave. Even the stockpiles outside Kosovo were not immune from the lawlessness of the region: an Oxfam warehouse near Tirana, full of contingency stocks, was looted.

Even in retrospect, it is difficult to argue that things could have been organised better in advance. Aid officials argue that far too many resources would be wasted if every potential emergency had to be coped with. In the words of one UNHCR official: "That kind of disposition is wishful thinking. It's ideal - but it's like when you hear generals say the ideal assault is when you outnumber the other side by 10 to one. You'd have to have unbelievable resources to be able to respond to everything in that way."

The current scale of disaster was on a faint what-if list somewhere. Aid agencies, in discussion with the Albanian government, had reconnoitred suitable sites for tent cities to be erected, and agreed those sites with the local authorities. In that sense, they were not unprepared. But most agree with Ian Bray of Oxfam: "Nobody anticipated anything this big." Aid agencies' immediate blueprints were for a crisis involving "only" a few tens of thousands of refugees.

Attempts are made to provide tents for those arriving, while others may find their way to friends or families. But the lack of identity documents, confiscated by the Serbs to make the Kosovars stateless, makes things more difficult. In Macedonia especially, many people from Kosovo have relatives: Macedonia was, after all, in the same country as Kosovo until President Milosevic came to power and caused the old Yugoslavia to rip itself apart. Skopje, the Macedonian capital, is a short drive from the Kosovo capital, Pristina. Aid workers speak of the generosity of locals: "People who have just one room of their own will take in six strangers." But, as a UNHCR official says: "That generosity is overwhelmed by the scale of what is happening now."

There is an attempted method in the chaos. Aid agencies, in conjunction with the local authorities, improvise arrangements on the basis of existing blueprints. At a series of late-night meetings between representatives of the agencies most active in the region, aid workers on the ground try to calculate how much of what is needed, and divide responsibilities roughly according to agencies' known strengths. Local staff radio or use satellite phones to contact the regional offices in Tirana or Skopje to sketch out their needs. They, in turn, are in touch with Geneva, London, Paris and New York. International crisis meetings follow one another in short order: foreign ministers met in Bonn on Thursday, the UNHCR is chairing a meeting in Geneva on Tuesday, and so it will go on - Sadako Ogata, the UNHCR, is expected to visit the region straight after that meeting.

But even if the humanitarian crisis were to be brought halfway under control, none of the underlying problems would be solved. Food, tents, medical treatment and water would be a start, but not much more. Paul Stromberg of the UNHCR makes a point that is echoed by others: "One of the lessons we've learnt is that humanitarian agencies can't solve problems on their own." First, the humanitarian agencies can do nothing to solve the wars which the politicians cause or allow to happen. In addition, the medium and long-term future of the arriving refugees has everything to do with politics, brutal or otherwise.

Attempts can be made to rehouse them, allowing them to begin new lives in a new country. Or the politicians (helped along by the generals) can press for them to be able to return to their own villages or homes. The first option is a defeat of a kind, but offers the possibility of home comforts. The second option is a victory of a kind - but that may only come after years of uncertainty, by which time many do not want to return.

During the Bosnian war, Serbs forced Muslims into buses and trains, when expelling them from Serb-held territory. Aid agencies and the UN were faced with an unenviable choice: to co-operate with the Serbs, and thus appear to condone their policies; or refuse to co-operate, and thus condemn those expelled to even greater suffering and possible death. President Milosevic has created an updated version of the same dilemma.

Macedonia is bitter, as never before. The deputy foreign minister, Boris Trajanov, says: "Today is Easter, Brussels does not work. Our neighbouring countries have lost their sense of responsibility to accept even one refugee - let alone Europe." His anger is understandable. Throughout Europe, bucks are furiously being passed, and heads buried in the sand. Less affluent countries such as Poland, with more than enough problems of their own, offer to take refugees, to take some of the pressure off Albania and Macedonia. From Britain, a resounding silence. (To be exact, in the comforting words of the Home Office: "Asylum can be sought in neighbouring countries - it's practical for them to do it there.") Don Flynn of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants talks of a "strict, very legalistic interpretation" of the Geneva Convention on Refugees which helps to keep the numbers down.

Germany, which bore the overwhelming brunt of the Bosnian refugee crisis - more than a quarter of a million Bosnians came to Germany - is understandably keen that there should be no solo heroics this time. Otto Schily, the German interior minister, called on Friday for a "fair sharing of the burden" of refugees. On present form, there is little chance of that. The British government is happy with the current Catch-22 situation which makes it almost impossible for refugees to gain asylum here, whatever the circumstances of their expulsion. There is no sign that that is about to change.