Focus: War In Europe: Half-hearted UN fails the refugees

Nato governments, including our own, have not done enough to ensure the relief effort is properly funded
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Scenes from a refugee crisis for the 21st century: the train of tractor-trailers, bearing their pathetic loads of weeping women and children, a medieval scene beamed around the world from the cluster of satellite trucks gathered in the main square in Kukes, northern Albania.

But something was missing, at least for the first few weeks: the white four-wheel-drive vehicles, flags fluttering, that normally ferry the disaster professionals from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Medecins sans Frontieres, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the rest.

"Nobody could have predicted this," said Sadako Ogata, the High Commissioner for Refugees, on a brief visit to Kukes. But she was wrong: journalists from Tirana, perhaps remembering that President Slobodan Milosevic's troops cleansed around a million people from northern and eastern Bosnia within four months, actually reached Kukes before the first traumatised group of refugees crossed into Albania on 25 March. The television news agencies and 24-hour news networks drove their satellite transmission trucks up the tortuous, pot-holed roads into Kukes shortly afterwards. It would take the large aid agencies rather longer: for the first 10 days or so, the UNHCR had one foreigner and one Albanian struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of Kosovars flooding across the border.

It must be acknowledged that although a handful of refugees died of exposure or heartbreak, there was no mass starvation, no fatal epidemics. But the aid operation has been chaotic and disorganised, with donor governments sweeping the UNHCR aside and setting up their own relief programmes and building camps to wildly differing standards. As Marcus Thompson, an Oxfam official, pointed out, two camps housing 50,000 refugees are a lot more efficient than 50 camps housing 2,000 each.

The US has built the 20,000-person Camp Hope, but most refugees are still housed in collective centres such as schools and sports halls, or private houses, rather than in large camps which offer economies of scale and equality of standards. Dozens of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are set up in Kukes, with little sense of an over-arching policy to ensure that work done is that needed by the refugees, rather than the NGOs.

Ten days ago the House of Commons select committee on international development launched a scathing attack on the UNHCR's handling of the Kosovo crisis. "Several weeks into the crisis, we have no sense that the UNHCR has taken control of the situation, providing clear direction, leadership and co- ordination," the report said.

Indeed, if it were not for the extraordinarily swift and effective response from Tirana, which ordered all municipalities to dispatch buses and taxis to collect refugees and speed them south, Kukes would have collapsed into anarchy and disease within days.

But blaming the UNHCR is too easy, since the agency depends on donor governments providing money and co-operation if it is to work effectively. Britain and Italy, both harsh critics, have provided a measly $800,000 (pounds 500,000) apiece to the Kosovo appeal, UNHCR officials say - one reason why the agency is broke at present. Why could not London, Paris, Washington and Rome - Nato capitals with immense influence at the UN - co-ordinate aid efforts?

Bureaucratic inefficiency meant that when the government decided to register refugees at the border, huge tailbacks up to 60 miles long built up in Serbia. So the system was abandoned, and refugees robbed of all identification papers were sent on their way without being registered by anyone. Divided families have no way of discovering if relatives are already in Albania except by posting messages through radio and television stations, registering missing persons with the International Red Cross, or visiting each camp and asking to check the register. No one knows for sure how many refugees entered Albania, nor where they are living.

Those of us who stood as wave after wave of refugees arrived at Morini, some after spending days on the road, were ashamed that for days there was no food, no water, no nappies, no dry clothing, no blankets. Even now that tea, blankets, food and water are distributed on the border, there are flaws. There is still no sign saying "Welcome to Albania, Kukes is 25km away, you are safe now", still no real information about living conditions down south, still no registration process.

The UNHCR, as many of its officials in Kukes admit, should take some of the blame - but only some. The agency needs to deploy forceful, effective delegates on the ground so that it can take the lead and steer NGOs into useful directions. But why has the Nato humanitarian operation taken so long to get going? Why are so many donor governments still determined to go it alone? And where is the money, the paltry $143m requested by the UNHCR?

As Marcus Thompson of Oxfam said: "I want the member governments to give the UNHCR the support, so they can do what we need them to do." The UN is a handy whipping boy - but we are the UN, and it is us.

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