New ethnic separations in the Balkans

Eric Morris, UNHCR's special envoy for the region, voices UNHCR's concern on reports that Macedonian Slavs are fleeing ethnic Albanian areas in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

A transit camp awaits possible new arrivals from the conflict in FYR of Macedonia. UNHCR/H.Caux  © 

Geneva, July 24 (UNHCR) - The U.N. Refugee Agency said Tuesday it was concerned about reports that Macedonian Slavs were fleeing ethnic Albanian areas in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a development that recalled some of the darkest days of the past decade in the Balkans.

"Our fear has been that one ethnic community would go in one direction, toward the state security forces, and the other community would go the other direction, in search of security on the other side," Eric Morris, UNHCR's special envoy for the region said. "This is now happening in some places."

He added, "It was not my feeling that 'ethnic cleansing' was the intent of the conflict, but if there is going to be a separation of the population, the consequences could be the same. It can spiral out of control. And if a community believes it was forcibly expelled, enormous barriers will be created for any eventual return."

Morris was particularly disturbed by the recent departure of Macedonian Slavs from the towns of Aracinovo, north-east of the capital of Skopje and from Lesok, north of the town of Tetovo where fighting broke out again this week.

Morris said: "This concerns us greatly because the more displacement there is, the more difficult it will be to coexist in the future. We strongly urge both sides to avoid any purposeful displacement of populations - something we have seen all too often over the years in the Balkans.

"People should be allowed to stay in their villages and homes. Any military activity that results in displacement will make the prospects for return that much more difficult.

Earlier Tuesday a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva expressed concern at the latest cease-fire violations in the country.

"We are deeply concerned at the violations and urge all parties to avoid further confrontation in a conflict that has already displaced tens of thousands of people," spokesman Ron Redmond said.

Fighting flared again Monday around the town of Tetovo, though the refugee agency reported no perceptible movement of people out of the region. Crossings at the nearby border with Kosovo remained minimal with more people returning to the country from Kosovo than leaving.

Since clashes began in February between governments forces and ethnic Albanian fighters, an estimated 76,000 people fled their homes to Kosovo, though some 15,000 have since returned. Another 30,000 civilians were internally displaced.

"The continuing uncertainty surrounding the peace process makes any decision on return extremely difficult for the displaced," Redmond said. "And we fear the longer this uncertainty and displacement goes on, the deeper the rift between ethnic communities."

Good news

In southern Serbia, the Refugee Agency reported good news. It said it had increased to two the number of convoys taking refugees home to the Presevo Valley from neighbouring Kosovo.

An estimated 15,000 ethnic Albanians had left the Presevo Valley region during and after the 1999 Kosovo conflict, fearing a Serbian backlash. They recently began to return and thus far 4,000 people have gone home, some 700 with UNHCR assistance.

In addition to transport, the agency provides mattresses, blankets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting and foods as well as emergency housing repair kits in coordination with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

The Presevo Valley returns are logistically challenging. Many of the houses are in isolated locations spread across a vast hilly area which has been systematically looted and destroyed.