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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Refugees Frustrated by Slow Pace of Relocation

Balkans: U.N. says some nations have failed to live up to promises to take in ethnic Albanians.

April 27, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAZDA, Macedonia — Hysen Gashi and his 12 relatives live in a tent marked "A1," which houses the very first refugees to arrive at this crowded, sprawling camp.

For three weeks, they have worn the same clothes. They have stood in line three hours a day for food. They have used foul-smelling ditches as toilets.

They have tried desperately to leave this misery behind by taking advantage of European offers to shelter refugees. So far, they have remained stranded, like thousands of others, as the camps have grown alarmingly crowded, unsanitary and tense.

"It is far beyond frustration," said Gashi, 65, of his repeated attempts to leave. "We are very, very upset."

The problem, U.N. officials say, lies with the failure of some nations to live up to their promises. While European countries have offered to take up to 85,000 people, they have absorbed fewer than a quarter of that number.

The U.S. has agreed to take up to 20,000 refugees. Until recently, however, U.N. officials have not wanted to send the refugees so far away. On Monday, they indicated that they may change that stance, and U.S. officials have begun initial planning on how to process refugee applications.

The slow pace of the refugee relocation has created discontent in the camps, sparking talk of protests and hunger strikes. It has strained relations between the United Nations and Macedonia, for whom the influx represents both a political and economic threat. And, perhaps most seriously, it has increased the chance of serious health and environmental problems in the camps, which have become small towns with small-town problems.

European officials defend their actions, saying they are moving as quickly as possible to remove people from the camps, which were supposed to be only temporary holding areas. Some accused the United Nations of not moving fast enough to provide accurate refugee information.

But U.N. officials say more must be done to relieve a situation they describe as a "crisis."

"We have to pick up the pace. People can't live like this," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The roots of the backlog lie in the complex relocation process. When refugees first enter the camps, they are registered and asked where they would like to go. In some cases, refugees simply haven't indicated a desire to move to some countries. Only 23 ethnic Albanians took Iceland up on its offer of hospitality for 100 people.

Another factor, say U.N. officials, is that some countries have started extensive screening processes, only taking the most desirable refugees--those with education or financial resources--for fear that they may wind up as permanent residents. Those with family connections also have received favored treatment.

That, in turn, has led to fears that the repatriation may wind up "ghettoizing" the camps, as upper- and middle-class Kosovo Albanian refugees with ties to other European countries leave behind their less fortunate brethren.

Already, some refugees have noted the differences.

"Most of those with good connections have already left the camp," said Bajrem Mjeku, a 34-year-old journalist who has given up a daily quest to go to Germany.

Bulletin boards of bare pine stick out of the mud all over the camp. Throughout the day, refugee workers post lists of the lucky few allowed out. The boards instantly are mobbed by hundreds of men jostling to see if they made the cut.

Many refugees have been stuck at the camps for weeks, and watched as friends and neighbors were transported to other countries within days.

"I'm very frustrated and angry. There are people who came here the day before yesterday and are on a 12:30 flight to Holland," Mjeku said.

European countries say the U.N. criticism is unwarranted. And many countries have moved quickly to fill their quotas. Germany, for instance, moved rapidly to take a first installment of 10,000 refugees.

But even those countries that acknowledge taking longer say the delay is for good reasons.

For example, Sweden--the country that Gashi wants to go to because a son lives there--has taken only 287 refugees out of the 5,000 it has offered to accept.

Lars Fransen, head of the Swedish refugee delegation, says his country wants to be sure that all European countries are sharing the burden equally before it accepts a flood of refugees.

He also says his country is reluctant to take extended families because if no relatives are left behind, the incentive to return home at the end of the Kosovo crisis might be diminished.

The Macedonian government, meanwhile, is watching the growing tide of refugees with alarm. Officials worry that the refugees, if allowed to stay, will overwhelm the country's fragile economy, sap its budget and strain health care, police and transport services.

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