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Refugee Heat Rising

While the aid agencies are running out of cash, tensions in the refugee camps in Macedonia are increasing.
By Iso Rusi

As the plight of the Kosovo Albanian refugees falls off the world's front pages, their ordeal continues in over-crowded camps in Macedonia. Away from the media spotlight in the scorching heat of the Macedonian summer, tensions are high and resources low.


The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in both Geneva and Skopje, says that it is running out of cash to care for the 241,000 Kosovo refugees who have fled to Macedonia and warns of the possibility of unrest in the packed camps.


Despite high-profile visits to refugee camps by a string of celebrities, including NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, US First Lady Hilary Clinton, and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Roger Moore, the refugees' needs are outstripping the resources allocated to meet them.


According to Ron Redmond, the UNHCR spokesman in Skopje, of a promised $143 million, about half has been received and spent. He said that unless new sources of money were found in the coming weeks, his agency would not have the means to look after the basic needs of the Kosovo Albanians in the camps.


In the Stenkovec camp near Skopje, which is home to 65,000 refugees, Aruvasi Patel of the UNHCR says that as a result of the conditions in the camps, tensions have been running high for many weeks.


The camp was originally constructed by NATO troops who remained there to maintain order for the first month and a half. Since then the Macedonian police have taken over responsibility for security.


In the first large-scale demonstration within the camp, which took place last week, some 2,000 refugees gathered to chant "NATO, NATO" and "KLA, KLA". The demonstration was organised in protest at the arrest by Macedonian police of one of the camp's residents.


The refugee, Milaim Gashi, says that he was talking with some relatives when the police seized him and his friend and took them to a police station out of the camp for questioning. The Macedonian authorities say that the refugee had wanted to leave the camp and that his detention was a routine police matter.


Since the demonstration, tensions within the camp have eased as the Macedonian authorities have worked to accommodate the many of the refugees' demands. They have promised to deploy more ethnic Albanian police; to patrol in a more discrete manner; and to introduce a stricter regime at the entrance, including measures to restrict journalists' access to the camp.


The Macedonian-language media, which failed to report the demonstration at the time, have commented that the unrest was organised from the outside and accused the refugees of abusing Macedonia's hospitality.


A senior official from the Foreign Ministry attributed the unrest in the camps to "the frustration of the refugees at the living conditions in the camps, the inactivity of the refugees, and their understandable desire to get out ." Already one month earlier, the tent cities were reported to be "on the verge of rioting" as a result of the over-crowded conditions.


Stenkovec is not the only camp overflowing with refugees. More than 30,000 refugees are also crammed into the newest camp at Cegrane, even though the sanitary and water systems are yet to be completed.


The Macedonian government has repeatedly said that it did not wish to see any new camps built. However, as a result of the overwhelming demand, construction of new camps Cegrane 2 and Blace 2, as well as the enlargement of existing camps to accommodate another 20,000 people, have been announced.


The UNHCR also says that it wants to move 60,000 Kosovo Albanians from Macedonia to Albania, where new camps will be built for them. However, on the day the transfer was scheduled to begin, only 150 out of an anticipated 600 refugees were willing to leave.


Otherwise, the airlift to countries out of the region continues, though not in the numbers originally anticipated. Most days fewer than 1,000 people leave Macedonia by plane, even though the target is for 2,000 a day.


Just two weeks days ago, 15,000 refugees arrived in Macedonia in only 24 hours. Some 70,000 displaced Kosovo Albanians are believed to be close to the border. Nowadays, however, only about a dozen refugees a day are entering the country via the main Blace crossing.


Analysts speculate that the decline in numbers is the result of an agreement between Macedonian and Serbian police to close the border on the Yugoslav side and force refugees back into Kosovo. Murdered Kosovo Albanian politician, Fehmi Agani, whose train from Pristina was turned back at the Macedonian border, is believed to have been a victim of this policy.


As evidence, analysts cite Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov's latest correspondence with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. "The Republic of Macedonia, and I personally, are trying to do everything in our power, and in the interest of friendship between our people, to achieve peace in the region," Gligorov wrote. He concluded: "Our position is firm: no offensive action can be mounted from Macedonian territory against any neighbour, including Yugoslavia."


Iso Rusi is a journalist with the Skopje weekly Fokus.


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