War In The Balkans: Conditions in aid camps deteriorating

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The Independent Online
MOST OF the 161 ethnic Albanians who arrived in Leeds yesterday with their few belongings in plastic bags eventually want to go back to their Kosovo homeland. For now, however, home will be two disused buildings refurbished at short notice. Local authority workers were up at 6am yesterday cutting the grass and laying carpets. They described the accommodation as "first class".

The thousands left in the Macedonian camps from where the contingent was evacuated are having to endure more squalid conditions, with 48,000 crammed into spaces intended to house only 30,000 and surviving on a diet of donated fish and bread.

Aid workers said there was "incredible anxiety" over the deteriorating conditions at the two camps - called Stenkovac 1 and 2, outside Skopje. "I don't think we can underestimate the appalling conditions," said one.

"Some of the kids you can see are stressed out. We can only imagine what experiences they have gone through; what they have witnessed, what they have actually seen happening to friends and relatives."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 600,000 people, one-third of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population, have fled the province since Nato's air assault began on 24 March. Many thousands more were displaced before the present phase of the conflict began, including 100,000 who sought asylum in West European countries over recent months.

The bulk of the displaced Kosovo population, 363,100 according to the latest UN figures, is camped in Albania, while Macedonia has taken in 135,200. Bosnia, still recovering from the ethnic cleansing visited on its own Muslim population in the early Nineties, has seen an influx of some 32,500 Kosovars.

Macedonia was the destination for further train, bus and tractor loads of refugees at the weekend. More than 2,000 crossed the border at Blace on Saturday leaving aid workers with little option but to squeeze the earlier arrivals even further into the already cramped tented settlements. Many were moved out of a border camp to clear tents for the newly arrived.

In Albania, meanwhile, only about 90 people crossed at the Morini border post near Kukes, among them was a family from Prizren who reported that the Serb crackdown was reaching the city - previously ethnically mixed. Kukes, stretched to breaking point by the arrival of more than 350,000 refugees in the past month, is beginning to return to normal as people are encouraged to seek shelter deeper inside Albania.

Most of the camps at Kukes, which in normal times has a population of 20,000, have emptied but aid agencies are leaving the tents up, fearing that a further exodus is inevitable.

About 20,000 people have been flown out of Macedonia and are being dispersed to 35 countries. Nearly half of those already evacuated from the region are in Germany and Bonn has bowed to pressure to take at least 20,000. Turkey has taken in nearly 5,000 people and is due to take 15,000 more, while the United States has offered temporary refuge to 20,000, although the UN would prefer to keep displaced people in Europe where possible.

The numbers flown to Western Europe represent only a drop in the ocean: Britain 161, Holland 152, Sweden 132, France 772 Belgium 676 and Austria 645, although all of these countries have agreed to take more. Macedonia is reluctant to keep its doors open until Western countries start to do more, according to the UN.

While the first batch of refugees to come to Britain were touching down near Leeds yesterday about 100 exhausted Albanians were being led from a plane in Madrid. Among the first to step off the aircraft was a father who had by chance found his family among 35,000 refugees in a Macdonian camp only hours before their departure to Spain. At the last minute the man was able to be included on the flight.

The evacuees were "incredibly grateful" to be coming to Britain, where some have relatives, aid workers said yesterday. They have been granted one year's exceptional leave to remain in Britain. They will be entitled to work, claim benefits and get NHS medical treatment.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, defended Britain's handling of the crisis, promising to respond to any further requests from the UNHCR.