UNHCR welcomes return to Tetovo area
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Thursday hailed the rapid return home of a first group of displaced ethnic Macedonians who were forced to flee their villages near the town of Tetovo earlier this week.
"The speedy return of displaced people from all ethnic communities is absolutely critical as a confidence-building measure and to help avert any further polarization," Lubbers said of Thursday's first return convoy carrying ethnic Macedonians to villages from which ethnic Albanian rebels had withdrawn just hours earlier. "Displaced people want to go home and it is in everyone's best interest that the international community helps them to do so as quickly and safely as possible."
The return convoy left Skopje late Thursday afternoon with 120 people from the village of Lesok. More return convoys, carrying up to 4,000 people, are scheduled in the next few days, security allowing. UNHCR was asked by the government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and by NATO officials to take part in the returns.
Eric Morris, UNHCR's special envoy for the region, was in Skopje to help organize the return movement. He said UNHCR's involvement complemented the work already being done by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the areas affected by the on-again, off-again conflict in FYROM.
"The immediate challenge for all of us, including both parties to the conflict, is to try to quickly reverse the worrisome separation of ethnic populations that we'd seen starting to take place in the past few days," Morris said. "We've seen members of both ethnic groups, who had been living together in the same communities for years, going in opposite directions in search of security from their own groups. If this is not stopped and reversed quickly, it will be very difficult over the longer term to get people back home and back together again."
Morris said UNHCR's involvement in the Balkans over the past decade of conflict had shown that long-term displacement itself becomes a major obstacle in any peace process. "That's why it has to be dealt with immediately," he said. "If people can voluntarily and safely go home, they should do so."
To ensure their continued security, humanitarian agencies like ICRC, UNHCR and other UN and aid agencies require a sustained presence and unhindered access in areas of return. Morris said UNHCR stands ready to help with this and other confidence-building measures aimed at helping all ethnic communities stay home. The presence of international aid agencies can provide a measure of security for populations that otherwise might be at the mercy of the conflict, he added.
High Commissioner Lubbers urged both sides to show restraint, describing the recent forced displacement of ethnic Macedonians as "counterproductive and simply wrong as a matter of principle. We have seen enough of this type of thing in the Balkans." He welcomed the government's agreement to restrain its military response, noting further turmoil will bring more displacement of both communities. There are currently some 60,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from FYROM in neighbouring Kosovo.