The UNHCR is moving Kosovar refugees out of Macedonian camps to third countries as quickly as it can. RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey finds that the refugees are increasingly willing to leave for distant safe havens -- but insist on going back to Kosovo eventually.
Stenkovec, Macedonia; 26 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The alluring display of the attractions of an Italian holiday camp could easily be mistaken for a travel agency's advertising.
Glossy pictures show graceful low-rise houses on a tree-lined street, a dining hall furnished with Scandinavian wooden tables and chairs, and a luxurious bathroom complete with extra-long bathtub, glistening sink, toilet, bidet and ceramic tile floor.
But this is not a promotion for holidays in Italy. The display poster stands in front of a tent in the Stenkovec refugee camp in northern Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians expelled from their homes in Kosovo are being registered to seek safe haven in Italy. If they go, they will take up temporary residence in the elegant holiday camp in Comiso, Sicily -- and the advertising is designed to reassure them that they will be comfortable so far from home.
After up to seven weeks as refugees, even Kosovars who were at first determined to remain in tents in Macedonia's refugee camps to be close to their homeland, now are considering moving on to more comfortable accommodations in third countries. Refugees who have arrived in Macedonia in the last week seem positively eager to move out of the region -- far from the terrors of expulsion, arson, murder and rape that they have witnessed.
Buge, a 30-year-old mother of two from Pristina (who didn't want her last name used), looks around the tent in Cegrane camp that is her new home and mourns all she lost in Kosovo. As her small children play noisily, she says she is ready to move on.
"I had good conditions in my home, I had money and everything. And you can see how it is here. I would go to France or Canada, anywhere not to stay here."
Some 38 countries -- from tiny Andorra to the United States and Australia -- have volunteered to give the Kosovars temporary refuge until it is safe for them to go home again. Germany has accepted the most refugees -- nearly 13,000 -- and Turkey, Norway, Canada and France have also taken large numbers. A total of about 60,000 refugees have been airlifted out of Macedonia since the crisis began two months ago.
However, the Macedonian government is not satisfied, and President Kiro Gligorov insists that 100,000 refugees should be moved out of the country, which is already sheltering more than a quarter of a million Kosovars, with thousands more arriving every day. The number of refugees Macedonia has already accepted now exceeds 12 percent of its population.
Under pressure from Macedonia, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, worked out a plan to move some 60,000 refugees to camps in Albania, but so far only 208 Kosovars have actually moved.
The Macedonian government says Kosovars should be forced, if necessary, to move on. Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Trajkovski recently criticized the UNHCR for giving the refugees a choice of where to go and accused the UN agency of running what he said was an "immigration lottery."
UNHCR spokeswoman Paula Ghedini says it is vital that the refugees -- who have already been so badly traumatized -- only be moved out of Macedonia if they want to go.
"Our policy for any relocation, whether it is evacuation, resettlement or repatriation, is that everything is completely voluntary. And that families are allowed to remain intact. For us these are the two main criteria."
While Germany and Switzerland remain the preferred destinations for refugees, the UNHCR is working hard to inform them about the attractions of other less-popular countries. An airlift to Slovakia had to be cancelled earlier this month because not a single refugee signed up to go there.
Anki Eriksson, spokeswoman for the UNHCR's humanitarian evacuation programs, says the agency's top priority is to evacuate what it calls the most vulnerable refugees. She says this includes people with medical problems, large families, single parents or elderly people.
Although some countries place restrictions on whom they will accept, Eriksson stresses that the criteria for evacuation are completely different from the standards countries use when they accept immigrants.
"Absolutely. We are talking about something completely different. This is not even resettlement. This is humanitarian evacuation. And what we have been asking for is a temporary stay until the refugees would actually be able to return back to Kosovo."
And refugees who spoke to an RFE/RL correspondent in Cegrane refugee camp made it clear they see a stay in another country as only a temporary measure.
A Kosovar man in his 30s, deported last week with his wife who is five months pregnant, is thinking of going to Austria, where his father and brother are working. "Right now we don't have a house to go back to (in Kosovo), so it's best to got to Austria," he told our correspondent. "We will stay in Austria only until it is safe to go back to Kosovo. My first choice is to go back to Kosovo."
Fatmir Saliu, a 33-year-old man from Kacanik says the 20 members of his family with him in the camp only want to return to Kosovo. But he is thinking of going to Switzerland to work for a few years to recoup what they have lost in Kosovo.
"It's better to stay here, it's closer to Kosovo. But if I could go to Switzerland, because I worked in Switzerland for 12 years, and I made my standard of living quite good, I would go back to Switzerland to work only one or two years. I would only go by myself, but not with all 20 members of my family."
Enver, a 35-year-old man from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) (who didn't want his last name used), said he is thinking of taking his family to Germany or Switzerland. He fears it may be difficult to fit into Western European society, but he's exhausted after living through months of shelling, arson and small-arms fire by Serb forces.
"It will be very difficult, but the main thing is we won't see Serbian police there."
Mexhide Rexhepi, a woman of 40 who saw her home burned to the ground by Serb forces, says she and her 50-year-old husband might move out of the region -- to Germany or Switzerland -- only for the sake of their children's future.
Patting the heads of the two small blond sons on either side of her, she says: "It's too late for us, but maybe they will have a better life."