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UNHCR begins organized repatriation of Kosovar refugees

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UNHCR begins organized repatriation of Kosovar refugees

28 June 1999

Two weeks after its return to Kosovo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday began the organized repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees, taking more than 300 from camps in the FYR of Macedonia to their homes in Pristina.

The 325 returnees from Stenkovec 1 and 2 refugee camps north of Skopje, made their return trip aboard 10 buses organized by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Some of the returnees had been in the camps since early April.

"Returning refugees is always the most satisfying part of our work," said Dennis McNamara, UNHCR's Special Envoy for the former Yugoslavia and Albania. "But it is also a major challenge when you have a large refugee population like this one that is so anxious to return. In just two weeks, we had to rebuild our programme from scratch and get all of the necessary pieces in place to begin official return."

Of some 800,000 refugees in regional asylum countries at the beginning of June, more than half have already gone back on their own, marking one of the fastest spontaneous returns seen by UNHCR in decades.

The early returns occurred despite warnings from UNHCR, KFOR and others that refugees face an uncertain security situation, heavy damage in many areas and the lack of an international support system. Dozens have been wounded or killed by mines and many had returned to find their towns and villages destroyed.

UNHCR has established six of seven planned offices in the territory and - along with its UN and non-governmental organization partners - is rapidly developing an extensive logistical network for the delivery of thousands of tons of humanitarian aid over the coming months.

It has also determined in conjunction with KFOR commanders at both local and headquarters levels that the necessary security condition for return now exists in three urban areas - Pristina, Prizren and Urosevac. All three towns were relatively undamaged and are easily accessible from the FYR of Macedonia or Albania.

As the security situation stabilizes and the logistical networks continue to expand, new areas of return will be identified in coming days. Regular bus convoys will shuttle the refugees from neighbouring asylum countries.

Monday's returnees were met in Pristina by volunteers from UNHCR's local partner, the Mother Theresa Society. Those who needed it were provided immediate assistance, including both food and non-food items from UNHCR, the World Food Programme and a variety of NGOs.

There are an estimated 67,000 refugees still in the FYR of Macedonia, 32,400 in camps and 34,700 living with host families. About 209,000 refugees remain in Albania, some 46,000 are in Montenegro and 21,000 in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Organized returns from Albania are expected to begin Tuesday.