Kosovo: record returns on Thursday 24 June
Spontaneous returns to Kosovo reached a record high of nearly 50,000 on Thursday, bringing to over 300,000 the number of refugees who have returned in just 10 days, since KFOR troops were deployed to Kosovo. All three UNHCR border monitoring posts in Albania, FYR of Macedonia and Montenegro registered record numbers. More than 25,000 people poured into Kosovo from Albania, 19,000 from Macedonia and more than 4,000 from Montenegro.
The UNHCR convoy and relief operation is gathering steam with dozens of trucks reaching those in need on a daily basis. High tension persists in some areas of Kosovo notably in Pec (Peja) marked by nightly shooting and sporadic arson attacks. In Kosovska Mitrovica, tensions run high between the Albanian and Serb communities. The city was described by a UNHCR field worker as dense with tension.
Humanitarian evacuation suspended; organized returns to begin
The Humanitarian Evacuation Programme (HEP) for refugees from Kosovo will be suspended at the beginning of July, with the exception of refugees in need of special medical care. The programme began in early April mainly to relieve the pressure on the FYR of Macedonia posed by the arrival of large numbers of refugees from Kosovo.
In view of UNHCR's plans to begin organized repatriation to three locations in Kosovo next week, and in view of the successful deployment of the international security force in Kosovo, there is no longer a need for humanitarian evacuation to continue.
More than 89,000 refugees have been evacuated to 29 countries since the programme began in early April. UNHCR is urging receiving countries outside the immediate region of Kosovo to continue for the time being to host the evacuees, as well as the many other Kosovar refugees and asylum seekers they have received, to enable the return programme to focus initially on the refugees and displaced persons in Albania, the FYR of Macedonia and Montenegro.
Hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians have sought asylum in European countries over the past decade. Since the outbreak of conflict in Kosovo in March 1998 alone, around 146,000 citizens of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have applied for asylum throughout Europe, the vast majority of whom are Kosovo Albanians. Germany and Switzerland have been the main receiving countries, with each taking in around one quarter of all the Kosovars seeking protection.
Meanwhile, as announced yesterday in Pristina by UNHCR's Special Envoy Dennis McNamara, UNHCR is making preparations to start organized returns in the coming days. The first returns will be of refugees from camps in the FYR of Macedonia and Albania whose homes are in three cities which KFOR has confirmed are sufficiently secure for organized returns to start, namely Pristina, Prizren and Urosevac.