Kosovo Albanians in Asylum Countries: UNHCR Recommendations as Regards Return - Update
1. The vast majority of Kosovo Albanians who fled the conflict in Kosovo during 1998-99 have already returned. Most returned independently and spontaneously within weeks of the entry of the international military presence (KFOR), despite knowing that the situation remained fragile and in many ways unsafe.
2. Due to the particular constellation of circumstances prevailing at the time of the massive return in the summer and autumn of 1999, including the precarious security situation, the lack of adequate and available shelter and basic services, and the approaching winter, UNHCR urged States to engage in only voluntary return to Kosovo until the spring of 2000. UNHCR undertook to review its advice in the spring, and this note comprises that review. The note addresses considerations only for persons of Albanian ethnicity from Kosovo.
3. The situation of non-Albanians is covered in UNHCR's position paper issued on 1 October 1999. The safety and living conditions of non-Albanians remain precarious in Kosovo, therefore the position as set out in the October paper remains valid.
Return of Kosovo Albanians
4. The withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and the entry of KFOR into Kosovo in mid-June 1999 heralded a significant improvement in the situation for Kosovo Albanians in most parts of Kosovo. The previous situation of systematic discrimination, harassment and persecution no longer prevails.
5. UNMIK and its partners have made progress in the formidable task of re-establishment of civil administration in Kosovo, including developing the economy, rehabilitating and constructing shelter and providing municipal services. Efforts to establish effective policing and a functioning judiciary continue.
6. In these circumstances, most Kosovo Albanians remaining in asylum countries no longer have immediate protection needs and therefore should be able to return home in safety.
Individuals with Protection Needs
7. Notwithstanding these positive changes and the efforts of the international community, there remain individual Kosovo Albanians who could face serious problems, including physical danger, were they to return at this time. Currently available information on Kosovo indicates reports of violence, harassment and discrimination against the following:
- persons or families of mixed ethnic origin;
- persons associated, or perceived to have been associated, with the Serbian regime after 1990;
- persons who refused to join or deserted from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA/UCK);
- persons known to be outspokenly critical of the former KLA or the former self-proclaimed "Provisional Government of Kosovo" and members or supporters of political parties not aligned with the former KLA or the former self-proclaimed "Provisional Government of Kosovo;"
- persons who are known to have refused to follow the laws and decrees of the former KLA or the former self-proclaimed "Provisional Government of Kosovo."
8. Claims from persons who fear persecution because they belong to one of the categories mentioned above should be carefully and individually considered in order to ascertain the need for international protection. Claims not falling in these categories may be considered in accelerated procedures.
9. The claims of traumatised individuals, such as victims of torture or particularly egregious forms of violence (for example, ex-detainees, or women who may have suffered sexual violence), or witnesses to crimes against humanity, will require special attention, in that their past experiences will be highly relevant in determining their continued protection needs.
10. In addition, the protection needs of persons or families who originate from areas where they would constitute the ethnic minority need to be assessed very carefully. At this stage, UNHCR would advise against the return of Kosovo Albanians to Serb-dominated areas (e.g. the area north of Mitrovica or certain areas in Eastern Kosovo) as it is neither safe nor sustainable.
11. Individuals in the following particularly vulnerable categories may have special needs which should be taken into account in the context of return in the present circumstances:
- handicapped and ill individuals, or families with handicapped or ill members;
- the unaccompanied elderly;
- unaccompanied minors;
- female-headed households (especially those without relatives in Kosovo).
12. UNHCR considers that persons finding themselves in such vulnerable circumstances currently deserve exemption from forced return and should be allowed to prolong their stay on humanitarian grounds until special and co-ordinated arrangements can be put in place, on a case by case basis, to facilitate their return.
Operational Considerations relating to Return and its Sustainability
13. As noted above, UNMIK and KFOR are working under difficult circumstances to normalize the situation. There is still tension in some parts of Kosovo, and the crime rate is still high. Efforts are continuing to establish effective law enforcement, including an independent judiciary. Despite all efforts, fully functioning legal, judicial, policing and administrative structures are not yet in place. Access to shelter, reconstruction assistance, income and basic services will also continue to be problematic for some time.
14. UNHCR agrees with the views shared with it by State delegations that voluntary return is the preferred modality, and appreciates that most concerned States are promoting voluntary return to Kosovo. Voluntary return is of course preferable in all circumstances, and is always, but particularly so in this context, likely to be more sustainable.
15. Taking into consideration the complexities of the current situation, UNHCR would urge that, whichever modality is used, the return process for Kosovo Albanians who do not have protection needs should be phased, co-ordinated, orderly and humane and accomplished in manageable numbers where accommodation arrangements are in place.