UNHCR concerned about refugee returns to unsafe areas in Macedonia
SKOPJE - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today expressed concern about refugees returning to areas in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where the security situation remains volatile. Nearly 1,000 refugees went back from Kosovo to FYROM on Monday alone in the largest return in recent days that coincided with the start of NATO's arms collection programme.
Up to 30,000 refugees have now returned and the rate is increasing since the weekend. While earlier returns were mostly to urban centres, indicating a lack of confidence in the security situation in their home villages, refugees have begun to return in recent days to rural areas.
NATO has a very specific mission in Macedonia - to collect arms from the Albanian rebels within a 30 day-period. UNHCR is worried that NATO's temporary presence is giving a false sense of security.
"We are concerned about the security vacuum at this time. This may pose a real danger for the civilian population, particularly the returning refugees and displaced people," UNHCR's special envoy Eric Morris said.
Despite the signing of the peace agreement on 13 August, security incidents occur almost daily in Skopje and the troubled town of Tetovo. UNHCR advocates the rights of all displaced people to return, but considers that under such a volatile situation, the conditions are not yet safe for the return of the many refugees and displaced people, particularly the ethnic Macedonians who fled from areas where they were in a minority.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has stepped up its field presence to help build confidence in conflict-affected areas. Eight teams were deployed on Monday to Skopje, Tetovo, Kumanovo and surrounding municipalities. The teams found that many villages they visited remained almost totally abandoned, but in one village, Lopate, almost all have returned.
UNHCR will be focusing on assistance and other confidence-building measures in hopes these will create conditions for safe return. In addition to basic assistance needs, UNHCR is pooling international and national agencies to address the problems of mines and other ordnance, infrastructure and shelter repairs and freedom of movement.