Prague/Tirana, 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - One of the most striking aspects of the Kosovo refugee crisis in Albania is that the refugees, estimated by the UN to number 442,000, are all but invisible in that country of just 3,250,000.
With little or no money and in many cases immobilized by small children or ailing grandparents, the refugees remain largely confined to wherever they are living, be it in huge tent camps, abandoned army warehouses or, like most refugees, in private homes.
The chief spokesman in Geneva for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Kris Janowski, told RFE/RL today that UNHCRs figures for the number of refugees in Albania are only estimates and 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, the real situation."
Janowski says the UNHCR expects to begin registering refugees in Albania later this month so that by mid-July a more accurate count should be available. He says slightly over 100,000 refugees, or a quarter of those in Albania, are actually in camps. The rest live with families in private homes.
"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 a 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."
Janowski says the UNHCR is reckoning with the possibility that up to 500,000 people are still in Kosovo, though he warns this figure may be high. He says by July the total number of refugees in Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro could total 1.25 million, compared with the current estimate of 760,000 refugees.
One refugee, Nazmi Munishi from Pristina, describes how he and his family spent a month with a family in southeastern Albania after being expelled from Macedonia and before being transferred to a tent camp near Pogradec run by the Greek Red Cross.
"Where we were, in Maliq, we were put up by a poor family, a women with four children without a father, without a job. We were there for 25 days and they were so hospitable. After having survived such horrors, we were received so well."
Nazmi says "Albanians and Albania have proven themselves, by having taken in so many refugees open-heartedly despite being a very poor country."
The head of the sociology department at Tirana University, Ylli Pango, says when the mass Serbian expulsions of Kosovar Albanians began in late March, the response by Albanian society was surprising.
Pango says "We did not believe we were capable of expressing such hospitality toward our Albanian brothers - from a humanistic point of view this is very important." He adds that he hopes "the state of affairs continues for a very long time."
Pango says the hospitality has not been a state policy but rather a spontaneous public response. This response has similar parallels among the ethnic Albanian communities in neighboring countries. In Montenegro, some 67,000 Kosovar refugees have found refuge in homes, schools and places of worship in ethnic Albanian areas (Ulcinj, Plav, Rozaje). In Macedonia, 108,000 of the nearly 250,000 refugees officially in the country are registered as living with host families. The Macedonian government estimates an additional 30,000 refugees are living with host families but are not registered.
Pango says since even the poorest families in Kosovo own their own homes, and had land to work and now have nothing, he predicts that over time this may heighten tensions between the dispossessed refugees and their impoverished hosts. There have been instances of Albanians complaining that the refugees who take their meals in camps are being better fed than most Albanians.
In spite of the hospitality, there is growing concern that the refugees could be targets to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous elements.
Organized criminals are already said to be targeting female refugees and luring them to Italy where they are forced into prostitution. Refugees are also bilked by bus drivers demanding exorbitant fares. In Tirana, thousands of refugees have paid immense sums for counterfeit Albanian passports and false Italian visas which they hope will be their ticket to prosperity.
Italys biggest humanitarian aid organization, Misericordia, which runs refugee camps in Albania, yesterday condemned the practices of some Albanian police guarding the Italian embassy in Tirana. Misericordia accuses guards of demanding 500 deutschemarks from Kosovar refugees wanting to speak to Italian consular officers.
These scams bring back memories of the abuse many refugees faced at the hands of Serb police when forced to leave Kosovo in the first place.