Kosovo's refugees still need international protection, says UNHCR
GENEVA, May 3 (UNHCR) - In a new position paper on the continued protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees from Kosovo, UNHCR has urged states and decision-makers not to compel or induce certain groups of refugees - including minorities - to return home against their will.
In the paper, UNHCR says that despite a range of improvements in the general situation in Kosovo, the situation of minority groups remains a major concern. In particular, people who are not ethnic Albanians continue to face severe security threats which place their lives and fundamental freedoms at risk, and continue to force some people to leave the province.
Referring to minorities like Kosovo Serbs and Roma, the paper notes that "violent, attention-grabbing incidents are interspersed by periods of calm which can lead to a false sense of security or erroneous interpretations that circumstances have fundamentally changed".
As a result, UNHCR says its essential position remains that "members of the minority groups in Kosovo described in this paper should continue to benefit from international protection in countries of asylum".
In cases of minority returns, the refugee agency stresses that these should take place on a strictly voluntary basis, and should be based on fully informed decisions by the individuals concerned. The paper notes that although the vast majority of Kosovo refugees who fled the province in the late 1990s have now returned home, no significant spontaneous returns of minorities - either among those still displaced inside Kosovo or living as refugees elsewhere - have taken place in the past year.
The few cases who have gone back, the paper says, "would appear to have been spurred more by push factors, such as increasingly difficult circumstances in exile, or politically-motivated return pressures". The paper then goes on to state emphatically that "minorities should not be forced, compelled or induced to return to Kosovo".
Around 900,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo since June 1999, when KFOR entered the province. But the huge majority of these are from the Kosovo Albanian majority in the province. Around 231,000 people from Kosovo, mostly Serbs, are in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, many of them living in difficult circumstances, and there are around 22,000 people from minorities still displaced inside Kosovo itself, living a very precarious existence.
But even Kosovo Albanians face problems at home too, says the UNHCR position paper. It extends the protection categories to include Kosovo Albanians originating from areas where they constitute an ethnic minority, those in ethnically-mixed marriages and persons of mixed ethnicity, as well as those perceived to have been associated with the Serbian regime after 1990.
Also included in the list are "traumatised individuals" like victims of torture and witnesses to crimes against humanity, as well as "vulnerable persons" like the chronically ill or the severely handicapped who cannot find appropriate medical support in Kosovo.
"The return of people to a situation of internal displacement should be avoided at all costs," concluded the paper, "as it can only add to the challenges faced by the Former Republic of Yugoslavia in addressing psychosocial hardships and lack of socio-economic opportunities of hundreds of thousand refugees and IDPs."