Amnesty condemns failure to grant refugees official status refugees

War in the Balkans: International Law
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The Independent Online
MACEDONIA and Western governments have committed serious violations of international refugee law in their response to the Kosovo crisis, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group also condemned UN efforts to move refugees from Macedonia to camps in Albania.

Macedonia's policy of closing its border from time to time is tantamount to "kicking people back to their deaths", Saul Takehashi, Amnesty's refugee officer, said.

Instead of honouring their obligation to protect the refugees, heavily armed Macedonian police are intimidating and abusing them in closed camps ringed with barbed wire and high perimeter fences, according to a report published by Amnesty yesterday. The Macedonian authorities, who are sheltering around 230,000 refugees, are criticised for threatening border closures as a way of pressuring the West to organise a rushed evacuation to other parts of Europe. "Macedonia is using the refugees as a bargaining chip ... as political pawns," Mr Takehashi said.

Amnesty believes Western governments were wrong tacitly to accept Macedonia's claim that the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees would destabilise the country. The result, the group said, is that legal rights enshrined in the Geneva Conventions established after the Second World War have been swept aside in the case of the displaced people of Kosovo.

Evacuations have been organised so hastily that many refugees have been shipped out with little or no information about their destination, or their rights once there. Their legal status in the host countries, including Britain, is unclear, despite UN assurances that ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo should automatically qualify as refugees under the 1951Geneva Convention.

Amnesty also issued a stark warning yesterday about the likelihood of serious tensions in the northern Albanian refugee camps if the UN pursues plans to transfer people further south or to move people from Macedonia to Albania.

Kukes in northern Albania is harbouring 100,000 refugees, and the town authorities - who have hitherto operated an open-door policy - have threatened to turn off the water supply if the ethnic Albanians don't start leaving soon. But Amnesty predicted clashes if the refugees are forced out.

Brendan Paddy, an Amnesty representative in Kukes, said the refugees were not prepared to be moved on. "Many of them have told me they would rather die than be moved anywhere other than back to Kosovo," he said.