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Yugoslavia: Figures Vary On True Number Of Kosovar Refugees

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 3 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is a telephone interview conducted yesterday with the chief spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Kris Janowski, in Geneva.

Q: "How accurate is the figure of 442,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo in Albania?"

A: "Well, the figures are what they are. They are estimates. And they are just that. That means they are not exact. Nobody has ever counted these refugees one by one. So we have probably fairly accurate estimates nonetheless they are estimates, plus the additional problem of course is that some of the people come into Albania and then leave Albania and are taken across the sea across the Adriatic by smugglers over to Italy and they show up in Switzerland or in other west European countries, where the number of Kosovo asylum seekers is growing. We cannot really assume that all the people who have crossed the border from Kosovo to Albania are still in Albania. Some of them have left. There may also be some double counting here and there. So the whole figures game has to be taken with a huge grain of salt, otherwise we really do not reflect the accurate situation, the real situation."

Q: "Now of these 442,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in Kosovo, approximately 100,000 are in camps. Is that so?"

A: "Well there are more than 100,000 in camps, nonetheless, most of them are still with host families and these families have to be helped. They are very poor themselves. We have just negotiated a program with the Albanian government essentially to pay each family $10 per month per refugee but not exceeding $120 a month, which will give some sort of shot in the arm to these host families and help them a little bit. But in the long run we have to plan for even more people. Our planning figure for the next month is actually, overall in Macedonia, in Albania and in Montenegro is some 1,250,000. This does not mean that this is going to happen that so many more people are going to leave Kosovo. We have to reckon with it. So it is immensely complex. The figures game is made even more complex by the fact that there has been no registration so far. We'll start doing the registration in mid-June roughly, so probably by mid-July or so we will be able to tell somewhat more accurately how many people we actually have in Albania, how many people are with host families, how many people are in camps. We have a huge number of people in Kukes near the border with Serbia who are basically refusing to leave, refusing to go south. We estimate there are probably between 80,000 and 100,000 people there living partly with host families, partly in make-shift camps, partly sort of roughing it on their tractors and trailers and so on and so forth."

Q: "If you are expecting to have about one and a quarter million when there are now 760,000, does that imply that your estimate is that perhaps half a million Kosovo Albanians are in Kosovo?"

A: "Yeah, again, it's an estimate. Again we're back to some kind of rough calculation. What we are estimating is that there were probably 1.7, 1.8 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo at the time of the last census in 1991. Since then, several hundred thousand, perhaps 300,000 or so, have left for western Europe and have sought asylum in various west European countries, mostly Germany and Switzerland. Since the conflict started last year, some 800,000 people, have fled Kosovo. At the same time, we had about 100,000 asylum seekers from Kosovo in 1998. So added together, we end up an estimated population of up to 500,000 people still in Kosovo. But this may be overblown. There may be fewer people than that. Probably not more."

Q: "Yes, it is awfully difficult to tell, but when one sees how few are coming out now, there is really no way of knowing how many are still in Kosovo."

A: "No one can tell."

Q: "So these are mathematical estimates rather than anything else?"

A: "Yes, mathematical estimates. It is basically, you know, subtracting and adding and so on and so forth."

Q: "It is certainly possible that far fewer people are there in Kosovo as far more people left in the 1990s. And in the 1980s some 200,000 to 300,000 left for western Europe as guest workers. The question is whether they really had one point eight million to start with in the last census."

A: "That is probably true too. I mean we say 1.7, 1.8 [million], but I agree, perhaps more people [did leave]. We have the overall Yugoslav asylum statistics for the 1990s but these included also Bosnia and Croatia, for example."

Q: "But what I am saying is that those who left earlier left as guest workers, so they were still registered as living in Yugoslavia but were in fact non-residents. By 1990, there were say a quarter of a million gone. Since then probably at least as many again, so that is one thing and the next thing is that the Albanians in taking the last census put pressure on non-Albanian, non-Slavic groups or at least non-Serbs to declare themselves as Albanians, so when they said there were 90 percent [of nearly two million] that was probably a considerable exaggeration."

A: "On the other hand when you get these bits and pieces coming out of Kosovo, you still have to assume that Pristina is not empty, Gnjilane is not empty, Kosovska Mitrovica is not empty, Prizren is not empty. There are still sizable Albanian populations in all these places."

Q: "Sizable?"

A: "Well of course, greatly reduced. But there are people out there still."

Q: "Has the UN mission that was in Kosovo a week ago come up since then with any sort of an estimate?"

A: "Well, they are not saying anything until [mission leader] Sergio de Mello's briefing with the UN Secretary General [Kofi Annan]. So I don't think they will come out with a population estimate. I don't think they had that kind of access and that kind of freedom of movement that they could actually in any professional way assess it. I mean they will probably come up with some sort of a snapshot or series of snapshots of the situation and they won't do that until tomorrow or so after they brief [Annan]."

Q: "But you still really believe there are large numbers."

A: "I think this is probably much less than 500,000. Nobody really knows. I mean we are sort of caught in this game of arithmetic so we say maybe up to 500,000 but there may be as few as 300,000. Who knows."

Q: "Of whom maybe a third or more are living out in the open."

A: "Oh yeah, well of course, a lot of people are already displaced within Kosovo."

Q: "But these are people who are living without anything over their heads, I mean in the hills"

A: "We probably don't have that many people living out in the open. But we may have people who are on the road, trying to flee, being stopped, going back and so on and so forth, so de facto they are on this sort of never ending odyssey. I mean people who come out to Macedonia say they were on the road for three weeks and probably spending a lot of time out in the open."

Q: "And finally, what do you say about the Yugoslav estimate, its government's reported of 60,000 refugees from Kosovo in Serbia? Now UNHCR says this is unconfirmed."

A: "Well, unconfirmed, because we have not really registered or counted these people. This is a government estimate. These people have not also registered formally as displaced. So the government estimates there are 60,000. We actually estimate that there may be more. In certain areas that were ethnically mixed before the conflict, especially rural areas. The Serbs are basically completely gone and they were already almost completely gone before the trouble started big time, so they were already gone before the expulsions, before the air strikes and since then probably more Serbs left. So we are looking at a trend in Kosovo where we will eventually only see Serbian police, paramilitary and administration, whereas the normal civilian population will have left in a couple of month's time, because of a number of reasons, because of a complete lack in prospects for the future, the destruction of the infrastructure and essentially, the impossibility of living a normal life."