Forced refugee returns cause alarm in Kosovo

PRISTINA, Apr 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) Police arrived without warning late one night at Zejnie and Behxhet Ahmeti's apartment in the picturesque German city of Heidelberg, their home for the past seven years.

The Germans gave them half an hour to pack their bags, they said, and then kept them in a cell for the night. The next morning they put them on a plane back to their native Kosovo.

"Germany had really welcomed us up until now," said Zejnie, 33, waiting for their bags in the drab, gray airport of the Kosovo capital Pristina. "But this last thing they did to us was really terrible. We didn't deserve this."

The Ahmetis are among hundreds of Kosovo Albanians forcibly repatriated over the past few weeks, mainly from Germany, despite pleas from an anxious international administration here.

Officials fear a large and uncontrolled influx of returnees this year could seriously endanger their efforts to build post-war stability in the province.

They have also been appalled by the way host countries have organized the return of some Kosovo Albanians.

"We're extremely concerned, from some of the recent returns, that they certainly do not seem all to be carried out in a humane way," said Dennis McNamara, the head of humanitarian affairs in the U.N.-led administration.

"We've had verified reports of split families (with some members being deported while others remain in the host country), of pregnant women being taken from their homes in the middle of the night," he said in an interview.


Officials are braced for the return this year of up to 150,000 people who fled Kosovo either during Serb forces' brutal campaign against the province's ethnic Albanian majority last year or in the decade of general repression that preceded it.

With tens of thousands of war-damaged homes, overcrowded cities, high crime and not enough police, the United Nations says the last thing Kosovo needs is an immediate influx of more people - especially people who were not even planning to come back soon.

An extra 150,000 would raise the population of Kosovo by around 10 percent in the space of a few months.

The United Nations accepts the Kosovo Albanians must come home. But it is pleading with Germany and Switzerland, which host the largest numbers of Kosovo Albanians, to avoid forcing people back and to ensure returns take place gradually.

The level of concern is so high that Bernard Kouchner, the head of the UN mission, felt compelled to issue an open letter this month appealing to the host countries to show restraint.

Describing the initial experience as worrisome, the former French cabinet minister warned that too many returnees at once "will swamp the capacity to absorb them".

"We are doing our best, with the help of the international community, to rebuild Kosovo and establish peace and security," Kouchner wrote. "We are making fragile progress. We cannot allow these common efforts to be undermined."

The vast majority of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled Kosovo last year returned in the first few months after NATO and the United Nations took over responsibility for the province last June, following NATO's bombing campaign to drive out Serb forces.

Host countries heeded a UN appeal not to send people back during the harsh Balkan winter. But some German regional states with conservative governments, in particular, have wasted no time with the arrival of spring.


The states argue they have been generous in taking in large numbers of Kosovo Albanians and some forced repatriations are necessary to make clear to the refugees that they must now go home.

"The legal obligation to return applies to all refugees and does not lie at their discretion," declared Thomas Schaeuble, interior minister of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

"Anyone who doesn't leave our country punctually and voluntarily is therefore consciously accepting the possibility of being deported," he said after his government organized its first forced repatriation flight to Kosovo last month.

Even refugees not formally forced back say they felt they were given little choice but to return as soon as possible.

"We were given a deadline to leave by April 10," recalled Skender Berisha, a 36-year-old lawyer who spent several months as a refugee at an old army barracks in eastern Germany.

"If we didn't leave by then, we'd have to pay for the trip ourselves and all our benefit payments would be cut off," said Berisha, now trying to repair the burned out home on the outskirts of Pristina he was forced out of by Serbs a year ago.

Berisha was at least given an incentive to sign up for his "voluntary" return - the promise of around 1,000 marks ($480) from German authorities once he came home. Returnees who are forcibly repatriated do not even get that.


International officials are also worried by the emphasis host countries have placed on sending back convicted criminals, who have just completed their sentences or served enough time to qualify for early release.

The former convicts are returning from countries that have double Kosovo's number of police per head of population, said Tom Koenigs, head of civil administration at the UN mission.

"And some of these people were still making trouble in Germany and Switzerland," he said.

Among those who have returned so far are convicted killers, rapists and people found guilty of other violent crimes. They step off the plane at Pristina and disappear into society after having their fingerprints taken.

The arrival of ethnic minorities on the repatriation flights has also alarmed the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which says the security situation here is still too precarious to support the return of such groups.

For foreign government officials perhaps unmoved by the fate of individual returnees, the United Nations has a word of caution - forcing people back to Kosovo may carry a high price which will have to be paid in Western capitals as well as in Pristina.

If the returns create more disorder and crime, the West will be forced to commit yet more soldiers, police and money to Kosovo and the positions of local hard-liners with an interest in instability will be strengthened, UN officials warn.

"Be humane, be slow in this and do everything for voluntary returns," Koenigs urged the host countries, "because in the end it will be much cheaper in all respects."

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