Forced return of Kosovo Albanians could cause problems

PRISTINA, Apr 14, 2000 -- (AFP) The head of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) warned Thursday against the over-hasty return of Kosovo Albanians by former host countries, saying a sudden influx could swamp the post-war province's fragile economy and ethnic structure.

Bernard Kouchner also expressed concern at the method of some of the returns, many of which have been forced by host countries Germany and Switzerland.

Kouchner, a former French health minister, said in qn open letter that despite agreements with host countries to return up to 150,000 Kosovars slowly and in a phased manner this year, "the initial experience is worrisome."

While expressing gratitude to governments, which took in Kosovo Albanians when Yugoslav forces were driving them from their homes last year, Kouchner said a sudden influx of "tens of thousands of returnees expected this year will swamp the capacity to absorb them."

He said UNMIK had signed memoranda of understanding with host countries, one of the largest of which is Germany, and the aim was for an "orderly, voluntary return at a time when their subsequent reintegration was possible" and the harsh Balkans winter was over.

"Bearing in mind that the returns are just starting, and that we already have problems with too many arriving simultaneously and with lack of regard for the dangers to ethnic minorities, it is crucial that we put things right quickly," the statement said.

Many of those being returned, often by force and in handcuffs, had lived and worked in western Europe for several years before the open conflict between Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority started in 1998.

Courts in Germany and Switzerland have ruled that since NATO-led international peacekeepers took over the Yugoslav province last June, ethnic Albanians can safely return home and do not have refugee status.

Despite UNMIK's stated wish that Kosovar Albanians should not be forced to return, many arriving at Pristina's Slatina airport have told of being picked up by police at night or at their workplace and deported without having time to arrange their affairs.

"It is crucial for all parties to abide by the spirit as well the letter of those arrangements," Kouchner said.

He said that while the host countries should not be penalized for their "earlier acts of humanity," the province -- devastated by war and years of neglect -- could not cope with massive returns all at once.

"We are doing our best, with the help of the international community, to rebuild Kosovo and establish peace and security," Kouchner said.

"We are making fragile progress. We cannot allow these common efforts to be undermined," he concluded.

Original article