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Statement by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council (Geneva)

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council (Geneva)

6 April 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

After the signature of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, I hoped that this Working Group would become a forum to discuss the return of refugees, in the wider context of peace and reconstruction in the former Yugoslavia. Yet, three and a half years later, hundreds of thousands of people continue to remain displaced throughout the region. And worse, a new refugee emergency is unfolding in the southern Balkans, even more catastrophic than many of us had been predicting for some time. The images on our TV screens are reminiscent of the most disastrous humanitarian crises of this decade, the likes of which - how often have we said it? - should not occur again: Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda...

Never, in recent years, has the expression "forced population displacement" been such a tragically literal description of what is occurring in Kosovo. We thought we had seen the worst of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. What started to happen in Kosovo following the departure of international observers and humanitarian agencies, may be even worse. Rather than of refugee movements, I should in fact speak of deportation. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians arriving in Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia tell appalling stories not only of violence; of people forced to leave their homes, towns and villages at gunpoint; of separation of men from their families - but also of personal documents and vehicle number plates being destroyed and of property records being wiped out. These unprecedented violations of the most elementary rights of an entire civilian population appear to aim at destroying its collective identity. It has become difficult to even think of the future, when refugees and internally displaced people will - as they firmly wish - return to their homes. It is frightening and anguishing that this century, as in its darkest hours, should end with the mass deportation of innocent people.

Deportations have made the immediate response to the crisis in Kosovo extremely complicated to manage, and its longer term solution much more difficult to pursue. We must of course express our indignation, but this will not be enough. As we speak, people are being inflicted untold suffering. As we speak, the entire region of the southern Balkans, its fragile economy, its delicate ethnic balances, are being affected and destabilized. The situation is grave. This meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group will therefore focus on the tragedy in Kosovo; on refugee outflows; on measures being taken, and to be taken, to address the crisis; and on planning - together - for the future.

Later, I shall ask Nicholas Morris, my Special Envoy for the former Yugoslavia, who directs this operation, and who has just returned from Montenegro, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to complete my introduction with a first-hand briefing on the situation on the ground. On my side, let me give you a few facts and figures, and try to outline a course of action, at least for the immediate future.


Since international staff of the Kosovo Verification Mission and UNHCR withdrew from Kosovo, about 400,000 people have fled the province, the largest exodus in Europe since the war in Bosnia. Figures continue to increase. The latest total number of refugees from Kosovo in Albania is over 260,000 as of this morning, and still rising fast. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, it is 136,000. In the Republic of Montenegro, there are over 61,000 internally displaced people from Kosovo. Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been affected: there are 17,000 refugees from Kosovo, as well as 14,000 people from other areas of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Let me recall that before UNHCR suspended its operations in Kosovo, there were already some 200,000 refugees and displaced people outside the province, including 100,000 outside the region and 30,000 in other parts of Serbia; and 260,000 inside Kosovo, a figure that was rising rapidly. Since deportations began, the number of internally displaced has of course become meaningless. Many are now among those who have arrived in neighbouring countries, for most just the latest flight in a terrible odyssey of multiple displacements. And every Kosovo Albanian still within the province is today at grave risk. I would like, once more, to appeal for an immediate end to violence against civilians in Kosovo.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNHCR established its presence in Kosovo in 1992. As in the rest of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, we helped the authorities assist ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. (The international community, through UNHCR, has spent more than 300 million dollars over the years in support of this group of refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.) When tension increased in Kosovo, about a year ago, we also increased our presence in the province and included in our activities protection and assistance of internally displaced people of both Albanian and Serb ethnic origins. Throughout winter, as the situation worsened with the progressive collapse of the Holbrooke/Milosevic accord, we tried, through our presence, and in close cooperation with the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, to contain human displacement. This meant primarily working inside the province of Kosovo, where we had a relatively large presence and where we concentrated our efforts.

As I said before, the departure of the OSCE and of humanitarian agencies coincided with a dramatic and sudden further increase in violence and human rights abuses in Kosovo. This made refugee flows much greater than anyone would have expected. Preparedness measures put in place by my Office and its humanitarian partners in the last few months in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and - in spite of serious problems of logistics and security - in Albania, were quickly overwhelmed.

Let me assure you that I fully appreciate that governments on the frontline of refugee flows may have been frustrated by the relatively slow-moving delivery of support in the first few days of the operation. There have indeed been, perhaps inevitably, some initial delays. Although this tragedy is obviously the result of failed political negotiations, much is being said - as always - about the presumed humanitarian shortcomings. They are a more visible and immediate target for criticism. I am satisfied, however, that humanitarian agencies are doing all that is possible, with their limited means, and working around the clock, to address the situation.

There are very serious logistical hurdles - the first relief planes arriving in Tirana, for example, had to be offloaded by hand! And we should not forget that we have to deal with population movements which are forced, planned and directed, and which are therefore all the more unmanageable and destabilizing, as European Commissioner Bonino stated very clearly in Bonn last week, upon return from her tour of the area. I would like by the way to take this opportunity to thank her also for her strong moral support. In spite of tremendous difficulties, let me assure you that those bearing the greatest impact of the refugee crisis will not be left alone and that we shall continue to step up our efforts and organize international assistance to support them.

Televised images may convey a picture of chaos and disorder. However, an impressive humanitarian effort has already been under way for a few days and is starting to have some positive results. UNHCR staff evacuated from Kosovo were immediately redeployed to deal with the influx in neighbouring countries. UNHCR has also sent new emergency teams, led by some of its most experienced field staff, to Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Our international staff have been able to return to Montenegro only a few days after evacuating Podgorica.

In a matter of days, efforts to deliver substantial amounts of material assistance have been organized, thanks to governments in the region, with the active support of UNHCR, other UN agencies (UNICEF and the World Food Programme in particular), the International Organization for Migrations, the Red Cross movement, national and international NGOs, as well as of other governments. Efforts have concentrated especially on providing shelter, food, water, health and sanitation supplies. Finding sites to establish even temporary shelter facilities, and organizing camps, have been the biggest hurdle. Everywhere, many refugees have been hosted by families. I would like to take this opportunity to single out the extraordinary hospitality given to refugees - especially in the Kukes area - by the government and the people of Albania. I would also like to commend Montenegro for keeping open its boundary with Kosovo, in spite of the limited amount of aid that can currently be provided to this Republic, now hosting a displaced population exceeding 10% of its total population.

The Kosovo crisis is disruptive also further afield. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the influx compounds a major displacement problem still affecting the country. Three and a half years after Dayton, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians continue to live away from their homes. Indeed, the Kosovo crisis already has a negative impact on the fragile and uncertain process of minority returns, and on a society which continues to remain divided along ethnic lines. Any further influx will undoubtedly further complicate the situation. While minority returns must remain an objective for the international community, the actual situation on the ground, which markedly compounds the well known legal and political obstacles, today makes this goal at best elusive.

Likewise, in Croatia, in spite of some progress, very few returns of Croatian Serbs to areas which they fled in 1995, especially the Danube Region and the Knin area, have occurred. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia therefore still hosts about half a million refugees from both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, whom we shall continue to assist in spite of our reduced presence and the difficult situation within the country.

In spite of the Kosovo emergency, you must not lose sight of the protracted displacement problems in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A new refugee crisis will not make the previous ones disappear: it will rather complicate them, and make solutions more difficult. A situation of multiple displacement is totally incompatible with peace and stability in the region. Clearly, more efforts must be made in the areas of social and economic reconstruction. This is the responsibility of local authorities, central governments in the three countries, and of the international community.


Notwithstanding the remarkable humanitarian efforts made so far, the pace and size of the human tide, and the volume and speed of required aid are such that in certain sectors, particularly logistics and shelter - as in Northern Iraq or Eastern Zaire in the past - we will continue to require additional, direct help from donor governments and international organizations.

In this respect, I am especially grateful to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, its Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Vollebaek of Norway, and Secretary-General Aragona, for having offered the use of their remaining KVM monitors and their vehicles and equipment in support of humanitarian action in both Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We have taken immediate advantage of this.

Likewise, I am very grateful for the offer of support from NATO member states and I have agreed with Secretary-General Solana that they will support the humanitarian effort in a few, literally vital areas, which given the size and speed of the emergency are beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies to sustain: the airlift to Tirana and Skopje; the handling and storage operations at the ports and airports receiving relief goods; and the setting up of refugee transit centres and camps, as bilaterally requested by Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

It is also of the greatest importance to coordinate the provision and delivery of in-kind relief assistance by governments, in order to avoid gaps and duplications, and to ensure smooth logistics and the secure transport of goods: as we have already announced, UNHCR and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with the support of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Coordination Center at NATO, have set up an Air Operations Cell in my Office. Making effective use of the airlift is of critical importance to the success of this operation, and I urge all governments wishing to transport relief by air to coordinate fully and in advance with the Operations Cell.

There is another aspect of support to host countries on which I would like to draw the attention of governments. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has expressed serious concerns about the potentially destabilizing effect of a very large influx of refugees from Kosovo. For a few days, in spite of pressing requests by many government leaders and UNHCR, the border remained virtually closed, with tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the no man's land site of Blace, not accessible to humanitarian agencies, in poor weather conditions and without assistance.

On Sunday, I urged states to share the burden of countries neighbouring Kosovo and to offer access to temporary safety to some of the refugees. I am grateful to the countries that have already responded positively to this appeal. UNHCR and IOM presented to governments a plan for the humanitarian evacuation of refugees who volunteer to be moved - temporarily - to further destinations, until such time as conditions in their places of origin permit their return.

The optimal solution for all refugees remains voluntary return, and it is of course preferrable that they be protected and assisted in the region. Humanitarian evacuation will therefore be an exceptional measure. I also wish to emphasize that any humanitarian evacuation has to be on a voluntary basis. UNHCR will dissociate itself from any forced evacuation, carried out against the will of refugees. UNHCR, with IOM's support, will be responsible for identifying refugees to be evacuated and for determining their destination. We will make every attempt to ensure that families are not further separated by the evacuation. We shall of course also need material, financial and logistical support to carry out this plan, for which we are presenting a budget to governments.

At the same time, NATO contingents who were hoping to support the implementation of a peace agreement, are setting up instead a temporary holding centre in Brazda, a few kilometres away from the border. Both the humanitarian evacuation plan and the new temporary site are meant to ease pressure on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and to ensure at the same time that refugees are admitted on its territory. I trust that in response to these initiatives, the government will allow refugees to cross the border, grant them safety, give humanitarian agencies full and unhindered access, and thus put an end to the deplorable plight of thousands of refugees.

I would like to add another, important point. Although the extraordinary character of the Kosovo emergency means that for specific activities we need the type of support that only the military can provide, I wish to stress that the humanitarian operation must preserve its civilian character. This is essential. Its ultimate goal is to bring protection and relief to civilians displaced by violence and deportation: this is why UNHCR has been designated by the United Nations Secretary-General as the agency coordinating all humanitarian activities in the area, including those for which exceptional military support is provided. I would therefore like to appeal to all governments and agencies involved in humanitarian activities, to recognize that UNHCR's coordinating role is an important guarantee of the civilian and humanitarian character of the operation, and to respect this role.


I have briefly described the situation in the region, and I have outlined the main measures taken or planned to respond to the crisis. I would like to insist in particular on two crucial points.

First, I wish to emphasize again the importance of ensuring the protection of all those fleeing Kosovo, at different levels and in different ways: by keeping borders open to asylum seekers from Kosovo; by extending temporary protection in your respective countries; and - as I said - by providing humanitarian evacuation possibilities whenever appropriate.

Second, although we all strongly hope that a political solution will soon be found, paving the way for the return of those who fled, we must foresee an prolonged period of sustained assistance to refugees. Resources to finance and support the humanitarian operation ought to be relatively easy to obtain now, with the tragedy unfolding on TV screens; but this will become much more difficult if refugees are still in camps throughout the southern Balkans in a few months, when media interest will wane. For example, I wish to remind you that before the latest events, less than 10% of the 1999 United Nations Consolidated Appeal for the former Yugoslavia was funded. It is essential that funds be contributed urgently in response to the Consolidated Appeal, and to cover the additional, Kosovo-related needs expressed in the Donor Alert document of last week, which we have already updated to cover 650,000 foreseen arrivals, and which we will continue to update adopting a modular approach, to meet the requirements of a fast evolving situation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Kosovo crisis has raised strong emotions everywhere. There is a palpable eagerness to act, to do something, to bring at least some relief to those who flee. I believe that it is our responsibility - as governments and international organizations - to channel these generous and spontaneous feelings, to organize a coordinated and rational response to the emergency, to immediately give as many people as possible access to safety and material assistance, and to share the heavy burden of the most directly affected countries.

However, in spite of all the pain, frustration, and anger, and in spite of the enormous hurdles that we have to overcome, we must also look to the future. We must not - and this is perhaps the most difficult challenge - lose sight of the need for a solution, which, as I said, can only be the voluntary, safe and dignified return of those forced to flee.

I hope that conditions will be created that allow the return movement to begin as rapidly as possible. This will help reduce the burden on host countries. It will also partly minimize the difficulties inevitably linked to a prolonged absence after enduring brutal violence. Now we are concentrating on relief programmes - and rightly so. But we must already start planning the enormous efforts that will be required in Kosovo to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, and even more so a gravely traumatized, shocked society, especially at the grass-roots level. This is what refugees and internally displaced people expect. Return, when it occurs, must be made durable and secure for both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs, with a robust monitoring system, and guaranteed by a respected, strong international presence on the ground.

Tonight, after this meeting, I will be leaving to Rome, where I will have discussions with the Italian government. From there, I will fly to Tirana, meet with the Albanian authorities and travel to Kukes. Finally, I will proceed to Skopje, have discussions with the authorities of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and visit the border area there.

I hope that tonight I will be able to leave carrying a strong message from the international community to governments in the region and to refugees alike - a message not only of solidarity, but also of firm willingness to seek and find an early solution to the plight of all those who have been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo, and of all the people who continue to be exposed to violence and abuses inside the province.

Thank you.