"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 Brazda refugee camp, which has been built and operated by the British army.
Earlier this month, Britain announced that 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, after posing for the cameras with refugee children in front of their tents. "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 [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] said, `Please reconsider', then we will reconsider."
According to the UNHCR, 1,000 or so refugees are being evacuated every day to half-a-dozen countries, including Germany, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, Norway, and even 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 has been bitterly criticised for the desperate situation 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 and say the camps are not well equipped and not well organised. At the same time, they come up with 300 excuses why they themselves shouldn't [take any refugees]."
Since last spring, when fighting began in earnest between the Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, some 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.
As Mr Lloyd pointed out: "It's equivalent to the UK absorbing 5 million refugees. If we were faced with 5 million people queuing at the Channel Tunnel, we'd also have cause for concern." The difference in Macedonia is that ethnic Albanians already made up a quarter of the population.
The vast refugee influx of the past three weeks has raised fears of ethnic conflict with members of the Macedonian majority.
In 1994, there were riots in Macedonia after the government tried to stop ethnic Albanians opening their own university in the western town of Tetovo. Mr Trajnov said he was concerned about the presence among the refugees of members of the KLA, and the potential conflict which this could create with the government in Belgrade.
He said that as a result of the crisis, foreign companies had suspended investment negotiations and banks were reluctant to give credit to Macedonian borrowers.
"I think in six months there will be a total collapse of the economy," he said. "Then there would be a lot of side-effects for national security, law and order and society."Reuse content