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Yugoslavia: UNHCR Shelves Plans To Send Refugees Out Of Region

Skopje, 13 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten days ago, with some 50,000 Kosovo refugees stranded on its borders, Macedonia refused to admit any ethnic Albanians unless they could be guaranteed refuge in other countries.

In addition to European states, countries as far away as the United States, Canada, and Australia responded generously with offers to take a total of 100,000 refugees.

But now, plans for a mass evacuation have quietly been put on hold in the face of the Kosovar Albanian refugees' reluctance to move far away from their beloved homeland.

Ron Redmond -- a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR -- explains the agency always tries to keep refugees close to the area from which they've fled to make it easier for them to eventually return home.

"In principle, the UNHCR -- in all these types of situations -- tries to keep refugees as close to their homes as possible. So as long as we can cope, and as long as countries within the region are willing to share the burden, then that's what we prefer to do. In not just this case, but just about every refugee case."

The sentiment to stay close to Kosovo is heard in almost every interview with a refugee in the camps in Macedonia.

Arben Gashi -- a 20-year-old chemistry student from Przren -- echoed the feelings of dozens of refugees who spoke to RFE/RL's correspondent in the Brazda refugee transit camp in Macedonia when he said he will refuse to be relocated abroad. He said: "We will get back to our country. That is the only country we can live in. We cannot go anywhere else. I will never go abroad. I want to get back to my home. I live there. I was born there. And I would like to die there."

Now that the two NATO-administered transit camps at Stenkovec and Brazda are functioning like small, efficient cities, the pressure on the Macedonian government to relocate refugees has decreased.

Despite having said a few weeks ago that it could cope with no more than 20,000 Kosovar refugees, Macedonia has received 125,000 in just the last three weeks. Some of those have been moved on -- primarily to Albania -- but 105,000 of them remain. This is in addition to the uncounted but undoubtedly large number of refugees who arrived in the country during the previous year, since violence first erupted in Kosovo, and who are staying with Macedonia's many ethnic Albanian families.

With humanitarian aid now flowing plentifully and efficiently into the country, Macedonian officials have muted their opposition to hosting so many refugees.

UNHCR spokesman Redmond says cooperation with the Macedonian government is good.

"So far, we have been able to demonstrate that we can cope with this with their help and with the help of numerous NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and governments and NATO and the OSCE -- that it's been manageable now that we have got over the initial emergency phase, this huge influx that came in all at once. They're working right along with us. They've been very supportive."

What no one can predict now is how long the more than 100,000 Kosovars will stay in Macedonia. Airlifts of refugees are continuing to Germany, Norway and Turkey, and 100 refugees left earlier this week for Israel.

In the Brazda transit refugee camp, hundreds of people line up every day to register voluntarily to go abroad -- usually because they already have relatives in Germany or one of the other countries on offer. About 1,000 are sent out of Macedonia every day.

Albania has offered to accept every single refugee now in Macedonia, but the UNHCR says Albania's poor infrastructure is already overburdened by the more than 300,000 refugees there now.

And Redmond says the refugees in Macedonia must be consulted about whether they want to move to Albania.

"It depends not only on the infrastructure and whether they're capable, but also whether the refugees themselves (want to go there). One of our basic principles is that we do not move people against their will, so in any movement of that nature, it would have to be voluntary. So whether that would happen would remain to be seen."

But the UNHCR hopes that even moving refugees to Albania would be a temporary measure. The top priority of both NATO and the UNHCR is to get the Kosovars back to their homes, as they so fervently desire.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, underlined that pledge on a visit to the region last week when she told a small Kosovar boy in Albania: "I will go back to Kosovo with you."