Kosovo refugees spurned by nations worldwide

UN administrator Bernard Kouchner denounces the forced deportation of thousands of Albanians by Western governments
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The Independent Online

Governments are deporting tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians to Kosovo as the surge of generosity shown by the world in response to Slobodan Milosevic's repression of the province evaporates.

The deportations were denounced yesterday by Kosovo's UN administrator, Bernard Kouchner. "We don't want them to come back at the same time," Mr Kouchner said. "Some of the children are in school in these host countries. What about the forced returns?"

Of nearly 96,000 Kosovars officially sent to the West by the UN last year, almost 90 per cent have returned of their own accord. Western governments are now making efforts to get rid of the remainder. Some countries are sending back more than they officially took in, filling planes with thousands of others who made their own way out of Kosovo. International officials warn the abrupt influx could seriously destabilise the fragile peace in Kosovo. Germany, for example, has started deporting dozens of convicted criminals.

Under the United Nations' Humanitarian Evacuation Programme, a total of 95,927 people were rescued from Kosovo - rather fewer than the 134,482 that the UNHCR says have gone back.

The two biggest batches of returns so far were from Germany, which took in 14,689 last year but has sent back 25,109, and Switzerland which admitted 1,687 but has sent back 19,669.

The discrepancy arises because many Kosovars arrived at borders under their own steam, or had already been in the West before last year's fighting. But as one aid worker put it bluntly: "The policy of the governments towards refugees is getting tougher; they have no shame any more."

David Boratav, Kosovo officer for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, argues that the most significant threat is not of mass forcible returns but of a gradual erosion of conditions in the host countries.

He said: "A lot of people are going to be put under pressure because of the cutting of benefits for temporary protected persons or the downgrading of their status - for example, in Germany, from the category of 'war refugee' to 'toleratedperson'.

"It is likely that most states are going to find ways of downgrading the status of refugees to the level that people will conclude that there is no option for them but to return."

The right of all those who fled Kosovo to apply for political asylum in the West is being undermined, Mr Boratav argues. "It is unacceptable, at the moment, for people to be returned to Kosovo in a forcible way."

What worries pressure groups is that the most vulnerable people will be browbeaten into returning. Several categories could be at physical or psychological risk, including those in mixed marriages, those who deserted from the Kosovo Liberation Army or those who disobeyed its injunctions. Victims of rape or sexual abuse may be particularly unwilling to return to the scene of the offence.

Jacques Franquin, spokes-man for the UNHCR, said: "We are not going to argue with the fact that Kosovars are returned by host countries. That was part of the deal. But we do want governments to consider cases on humanitarian grounds."

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