War in The Balkans: Macedonia `facing economic collapse'

Refugee Camps
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The Independent Online
THE MACEDONIAN government angrily denounced Western nations yesterday for breaking their promises to give sanctuary to Kosovo refugees, and warned that the country's fragile economy was heading for collapse under the burden of the Balkans crisis.

"We can accept refugees at the borders and transport them to other countries or to the airport," the Macedonian Interior Minister, Pavle Trajnov, said in an interview with The Independent.

"Why the foreign countries don't accept that, I do not know. They declare that they want to help the refugees, but is it enough just to come to the camps, take photos with the refugees, and then tell the whole world, `See, we've done so much for the refugees'?"

He spoke as the British Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd was flying into the Macedonian capital, Skopje, for a half-day tour after spending a few hours in neighbouring Albania. Mr Lloyd met the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, and toured the Brazde refugee camp, which has been built and operated by the British Army.

Earlier this month, Britain said it was prepared to provide sanctuary for "some thousands" of refugees. Other countries, including the US, made similar announcements, but so far few have lived up to their commitments.

"We have always made it clear that where there was a demand, the UK would take in refugees," Mr Lloyd said. "But we are not interested in creating a permanent refugee camp outside the region. We are determined that these people will go back to their homes, but if the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] said, `Please reconsider', then we will reconsider."

The UNHCR officials say 1,000 or so refugees are being evacuated every day to half-a-dozen countries, including Germany, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, Norway, Israel and Iceland. But there was confusion over whether Britain had been asked formally to receive refugees. "If Britain says we haven't made a formal request then I suppose we haven't," a UNHCR spokesman said yesterday.

Macedonia was criticised earlier this month when tens of thousands of refugees were trapped for three days in a morass of mud at the border crossing of Blace, and roughly treated by border police. But Mr Trajnov accused foreign governments of hypocrisy in their approach to the crisis. "We've seen it before in other places, and it's happening again here," he said. "They pass judgement on how the refugees are being cared for. At the same time, they come up with 300 excuses why they themselves shouldn't [take any refugees]."

Since last spring 150,000 Kosovo Albanians have fled to Macedonia - an 8 per cent population increase in a country with an already delicate ethnic and political balance between Slavs and Albanians.