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Kosovo: new UNHCR papers on protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees

Briefing notes

Kosovo: new UNHCR papers on protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees

24 August 2004

UNHCR has issued three linked papers on the continued protection needs of certain asylum seekers and refugees from Kosovo. Two of the papers are position papers intended to guide states and others involved in making decisions as to whether to provide individuals with protection in the asylum country or to return them to Kosovo. The third is a detailed 62-page report on the situation of Kosovo's minorities between January 2003 and April 2004.

The latter report's appendix contains a non-exhaustive list of 145 separate incidents recorded during the period covered by the report - excluding the major period of civil unrest that took place in mid-March of this year, which is covered by a separate appendix. Incidents apparently targeted at members of minorities range from simple stone-throwing to a number of brutal murders and other extremely violent assaults, involving shooting, grenade attacks and arson.

In general, the report says, the number of such incidents aimed at members of the Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptian, Bosniak and Gorani minorities declined during the period January 2003 to early March 2004. However, this positive trend was shattered by several killings of Kosovo Serbs during the second half of 2003 and the first few months of 2004. In all, 12 Kosovo Serbs were murdered between January and November 2003, compared to five during the whole of 2002.

The fragile nature of the decrease in inter-ethnic tensions in recent years was fully exposed by the unexpected explosion of violence that began on 17 March and continued for three full days before being brought under control. In all during this brief period, 20 people were killed, and more than 950 were injured. Initial assessments estimated that at least 730 houses or apartments belonging to minorities were damaged or destroyed, as well as 36 churches, monasteries, other religious sites and public buildings catering for minorities. By 23 March, a total of more than 4,100 Serb, Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptian and Albanian minority community members had been displaced. About 2,300 of them are still displaced five months later.

In the light of all this information, UNHCR concludes that there is clearly a continued need for international protection for asylum seekers belonging to Kosovo minority groups, especially Serbs, Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians. A few selected groups of Kosovo Albanians are also in need of international protection, including those in mixed marriages and some perceived to have been associated with the Serbian regime prior to 1999, in addition to those living as minorities in some parts of northern Kosovo.

In the position paper on international protection needs, UNHCR has also highlighted its view that individuals in a particularly vulnerable situation - for example people with severe physical or mental illnesses and some categories of elderly people and separated children - should not be returned by states, given the inadequate standards of health care and social welfare situations available in Kosovo.

UNHCR for the first time issued a separate position paper addressing the question of whether or not members of Kosovo minorities could be sent back to other parts of Serbia and Montenegro, and said that it believed the implementation of such returns would not be reasonable unless justified exceptionally by the individual circumstances of the person concerned."

In coming to this conclusion, the agency cites the serious legal difficulties facing displaced people from Kosovo in other parts of Serbia and Montenegro, including those already living there as internally displaced people (IDPs). These are particularly acute in the case of people from Kosovo who are forcibly returned from third countries, including ones where they have sought asylum. In addition, many of the 220,000 Kosovo IDPs already in Serbia and Montenegro are facing considerable hardship. IDPs from the Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian minorities are often marginalized, or actively discriminated against, and unable to find employment.

Finally, the UNHCR paper reminds asylum countries considering the forced return of people from Kosovo to other parts of Serbia and Montenegro, that UN Security Council Resolution 1244, of 10 June 1999, talks specifically of assuring the safe and unimpeded return of all refugees and displaced persons "to their homes in Kosovo."

The UNHCR paper also says that the "denial of refugee status on the basis of the internal flight or relocation concept may be interpreted as condoning the new ethnic reality on the ground, and hence negatively impact on the safe and unimpeded return to their homes of those minority members who wish to do so."

Nevertheless, while confidence in the fragile minority return process has clearly been damaged by the violent rioting in March, small scale voluntary return of minorities continues. Nearly 11,000 minority members have returned to their homes since 1999, including 3,800 last year. About 1,030 have returned so far in 2004, which would suggest a lower yearly total than in 2003. UNHCR continues to support voluntary returns, based on a free and informed decision, to Kosovo.