Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



The State
of The World's Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action

Chapter 9: War and humanitarian action: Iraq and the Balkans

Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
January 1, 2000

Pages 233-242

Excerpted from full document (PDF)

The Kosovo crisis

As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended, elsewhere in the Balkans another crisis was looming. Kosovo had a long history of human rights abuses. From 1989, when Kosovo’s autonomous status within Serbia was partially revoked, the majority of Kosovo Albanians had been living in an apartheid-like situation in which they were denied access to jobs and services, and were unable to exercise basic rights. As a result, the Kosovo Albanians, who comprised about 90 per cent of the population of Kosovo, established parallel systems for almost every aspect of daily life, including employment, health and education. Between 1989 and the beginning of 1998, an estimated 350,000 Kosovo Albanians left the province at one stage or another, most of them going to countries in Western Europe.

The long-simmering crisis took on a new dimension in February 1998. The Serbian security forces intensified operations against Kosovo Albanians suspected of involvement with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). As security deteriorated, some 20,000 people fled over the mountains to Albania in May–June 1998. Others made their way to Montenegro, as well as to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and other parts of Western Europe. Over the following months, the clashes escalated, and by September there were an estimated 175,000 internally displaced people in Kosovo. UNHCR set up a large operation to assist these internally displaced people and others affected by the conflict.

Increased international pressure after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1199 in September 1998 led the Yugoslav authorities to agree to a ceasefire and a partial troop withdrawal from Kosovo. An international verification mission under the auspices of the OSCE was deployed to verify compliance with the agreement. A temporary calm followed, but isolated ceasefire violations continued, and by the end of 1998 the ceasefire was unravelling. In mid-January 1999, 45 Kosovo Albanians were massacred by Serb forces in Racak. These developments gave fresh impetus to efforts to end the conflict, which culminated in peace negotiations in Rambouillet, France, in February 1999.

Although further fighting and displacement continued throughout the Rambouillet talks, Western governments were optimistic about prospects for peace and called on UNHCR to plan for the return of refugees and displaced people. But the peace talks collapsed on 19 March, and on 24 March, without authorization from the UN Security Council, NATO commenced an air campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including attacks on targets in Kosovo. Since the campaign was justified principally in terms of stopping actual and potential killings and expulsions of Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces, it was often referred to as NATO’s ‘humanitarian war’.35 The nomenclature could not conceal, however, that the air strikes resulted in an even larger humanitarian crisis, at least in the short term.

The influx into Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

When the air strikes began, there were already an estimated 260,000 internally displaced people within Kosovo. In addition, outside Kosovo, there were some 70,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees and displaced people in the region and over 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Western Europe and further afield.

The NATO air campaign triggered an escalation of violence on the ground. Local fighting between the KLA and Yugoslav forces continued, while Yugoslav armed forces and police, as well as paramilitary forces and local Serbs, carried out a brutal campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’, which included organized mass deportations to neighbouring states.36 Thousands of Kosovo Albanians were killed and some 800,000 fled or were expelled from Kosovo after the start of the air campaign. Of these, some 426,000 fled to Albania, some 228,000 to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia), and some 45,000 to Montenegro.37 In addition, large numbers of people were internally displaced within Kosovo by the end of the 78-day air campaign.

Responding to a refugee crisis of this size in such a highly charged political environment was a huge challenge. Over the previous years and months, UNHCR—in cooperation with other UN agencies and NGOs—had made contingency plans for an exodus of up to 100,000 people. But no one had anticipated the scale and rapidity of the exodus that eventually took place. The influx overwhelmed the response capacity of the host governments and humanitarian organizations. UNHCR, in particular, was strongly criticized by some donors and NGOs for its lack of preparedness and its management of the crisis in the initial phase.38

In FYR Macedonia, the authorities temporarily closed the border at the beginning of April 1999, denying entry to tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians in a situation reminiscent of the Turkish response to Iraqi Kurds in 1991. Facing tensions related to its own ethnic Albanian minority, the Macedonian government feared that a large influx of Kosovo Albanians would destabilize the country. To reduce the number of refugees on its territory, the government requested that a system of international burden-sharing be put in place, involving the evacuation or transfer of some of the refugees to third countries. NATO needed the Macedonian government’s consent for its continued presence on Macedonian territory, and this gave the Macedonian government considerable leverage over the governments of NATO member states.

The relief operation became even more politicized as NATO military forces became involved in assisting the refugees. The international media continued to provide dramatic images of desperate refugees flooding into Albania or stranded on the Macedonian border. It became increasingly clear that, in the short term, the air campaign had led to more rather than less violence against Kosovo Albanians. In response, NATO increasingly turned its attention to the plight of the refugees. On 2 April, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana wrote to High Commissioner Ogata offering to support UNHCR in the humanitarian relief operation. The High Commissioner accepted this offer in a letter sent the following day which outlined the main areas where services were needed. This included management of the airlift operation to bring in relief supplies to Albania and FYR Macedonia, assistance with transportation, and logistical support in setting up refugee camps.39

UNHCR’s acceptance of NATO’s offer of assistance helped to provide an urgently needed solution for the 65,000 Kosovo Albanians stranded on the Macedonian border. Immediate camp construction and a subsequent evacuation programme to third countries were the ‘package’ needed to secure the Macedonian government’s agreement to admit the refugees.

NATO’s participation in the establishment of refugee camps set a precedent. UNHCR was criticized by some observers for its close cooperation with NATO on the grounds that, since NATO was a party to the conflict, the involvement of its military forces in setting up camps for the refugees challenged the impartiality of the humanitarian operation. But, as had been the case in northern Iraq in 1991, the military appeared to be better placed than any other actor to provide the logistical support and security necessary to bring the humanitarian crisis under control.

The other part of the package which was agreed to ensure that FYR Macedonia kept its border open was a ‘humanitarian evacuation programme’. The initiative was launched at the insistence of the Macedonian government, strongly supported by the United States. It was implemented by UNHCR, in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration. Under the programme, refugees were transferred from FYR Macedonia to third countries. The programme represented a new variation of burden-sharing. It was understood as a short-term solution only. The ambiguity of the legal status and rights of those evacuated under the programme resulted in different governments applying their own standards to issues such as the right to family reunion. UNHCR insisted that the evacuation should be voluntary, should respect family unity and should give priority to those who were particularly vulnerable. But deciding which refugees were in greatest need, which countries were the most appropriate destinations, and registering and tracking them as they moved—with few or no documents—was a difficult task.

By the end of the emergency, almost 96,000 refugees had benefited from the programme in 28 host countries. The largest numbers went to Germany (14,700), the United States (9,700) and Turkey (8,300), while France, Norway, Italy, Canada and Austria each took more than 5,000 refugees. In addition, several thousand refugees were transferred on buses from FYR Macedonia to Albania.

In Albania and FYR Macedonia, donor governments contributed generously to the relief operation. Indeed, there was a great disparity between the amounts of funding and resources provided by donors for this operation and those provided for new refugee emergencies in Africa at the same time. The enormous publicity being given to the relief operation in the Balkans by the international media meant that political considerations dictated the way in which assistance was provided. As one UNHCR official working there at the time explained: ‘Being there and being seen to be dealing directly with refugees became almost a necessity for many different actors. The more it seemed that bombing had no effect except to push refugees out, the more governments felt obliged to be seen to be caring for the refugees.’40 The result was that, rather than providing multilateral assistance through organizations such as UNHCR, governments channelled unprecedented amounts of funding through their own national NGOs, or directly to the Albanian and Macedonian governments.

This presented a major challenge to UNHCR in carrying out its lead agency role. Some camps were set up and used before UNHCR was even informed of their existence. Standards of bilateral assistance varied widely, and for many actors visibility often seemed more important than impact and coordination. High Commissioner Ogata urged governments not to weaken the action of international humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR by by-passing them. She also emphasized the importance of multilateral assistance in guaranteeing impartiality, since such assistance is ‘aimed at people and is not based on the interests of states’.41

Rebuilding Kosovo

On 9 June 1999, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formally accepted a peace plan requiring the withdrawal of all Serb forces from Kosovo, the safe and free return of all refugees and displaced people, and the establishment of a UN mission which was authorized under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. On 12 June, a NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), which included Russian troops, began deploying in Kosovo.

The refugees started returning immediately. Within three weeks, 500,000 people had returned and, by the end of 1999, more than 820,000 Kosovo Albanians had returned (including people who had left before 24 March). Those returning went back to a society without a functioning civil administration, police force, or any legal or judicial system, and where there had been massive destruction of property. Returnees also faced danger from landmines, booby traps and unexploded ordnance.

With tens of thousands of homes destroyed or badly damaged in Kosovo, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations immediately set up a large-scale rehabilitation programme. Providing material assistance to the returning Kosovo Albanians, however, represented only one of the many challenges of building peace in Kosovo. The whole society was severely traumatized by the war and the events of the previous years, and the security situation in Kosovo remained volatile. The funds allocated to NATO’s air campaign had been massive, but post-war investment—both politically and economically—once again proved minimal by comparison.

A United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was entrusted by the UN Security Council to provide an interim civilian administration. It was to be responsible for everything from social welfare and housing to law and order. Added to years of neglect, the damage caused by the war required urgent reconstruction in all key sectors: power and water, health and education, factories and small businesses, agriculture and communications.

Apart from the enormity of the reconstruction task, however, the greatest challenge faced by KFOR and the UN-led mission proved to be that of protecting the remaining Serbs, Roma (gypsies) and other minorities in Kosovo. As the refugees and displaced people flooded back, Kosovo Albanians attacked and intimidated Serbs and other minority groups suspected of perpetrating atrocities against them or of collaborating in doing so. Within three months, up to 200,000 Serbs and other minorities left Kosovo in a process dubbed ‘reverse ethnic cleansing’. In spite of the emphasis which had been placed by NATO governments on the need to preserve multi-ethnicity in Kosovo, and the commitments of the Kosovo Albanian leadership to this end, the province has become deeply divided between Kosovo Albanian areas and pockets of territory still inhabited by Serbs and Roma. Since June 1999, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations have carried out a number of activities, in cooperation with KFOR and UNMIK, aimed at protecting and assisting Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo.

Meanwhile, the flight of Serbs from Kosovo to other parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has put a further strain on a country already suffering from the prolonged effects of international sanctions and aerial bombardment. Even before this latest influx, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was hosting over 500,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, making it the largest refugee-hosting country in the region.  

35 A. Roberts, ‘NATO’s Humanitarian War’, Survival, vol. 41, no. 3, 1999.

36 OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Kosovo/Kosova, As Seen As Told: an Analysis of the Human Rights Findings of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, October 1998 to June 1999, vol. 1, OSCE/ODIHR, Warsaw, Nov. 1999.

37 These figures are for those who fled between 24 March, when the NATO air campaign began, and 12 June 1999.

38 A. Suhrke et. al, The Kosovo Refugee Crisis:An Independent Evaluation of UNHCR’s Preparedness and Emergency Response, Geneva, Feb. 2000, available on <> .

39 High Commissioner Ogata and NATO Secretary- General, correspondence, 2 and 3 April 1999.

40 Interview in Dec. 1999 with I. Khan, former UNHCR Emergency Coordinator in FYR Macedonia.

41 High Commissioner Ogata, Introductory Remarks, Colloquium on the Global Refugee Crisis—A Challenge for the 21st Century, Brussels, 20 May 1999.


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