Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2016, 12:52 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Albania

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Albania , 1 June 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8cb48.html [accessed 30 August 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Albania

At the end of 1999, Albania hosted about 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including approximately 3,500 refugees from Kosovo and 1,500 asylum seekers from various countries, including China and Turkey. One year earlier, about 25,000 refugees, mostly from Kosovo, had been living in Albania. At year's end, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified about 1,700 Kosovo refugees in Albania as vulnerable.

Albanian nationals lodged 3,501 asylum applications in other European countries during the year, a 47 percent decrease from 1998.

These modest numbers do not reflect the magnitude of the refugee crisis that Albania faced in 1999. The country had no experience hosting refugees prior to 1998. During the Kosovo crisis, some 465,000 people (equivalent to 15 percent of the country's own population) sought refuge in Albania. Nearly all departed the country the same year.

Generally, the Albanian authorities and people were highly cooperative with international efforts to manage the crisis. Still, severe capacity gaps and lack of effective government control over substantial portions of northern Albania hindered the relief effort.

Influx from Kosovo

In 1998, Albania had accepted approximately 25,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing the increasingly violent situation in Kosovo. Refugees continued to arrive during the first three months of 1999. However, the onset of NATO's bombing campaign on March 24 and the Yugoslav authorities' use of massive expulsion marked a radical transformation of the crisis. Some 300,000 refugees entered Albania in the first two weeks of the bombing campaign. Kukes, a northern town of modest size, bore the brunt of the shock: its population of 20,000 tripled during the March 27 weekend. A manageable refugee flow into Albania suddenly became a potentially catastrophic humanitarian emergency.

The great majority of refugees entered Albania on their own, directly from Kosovo or (for 40,000) through Montenegro. In the first days of April, however, Macedonian authorities forced 10,000 to 15,000 Kosovo refugees onto buses and transported them to Albania. Until that time, the Macedonian authorities had denied them entry and left them stranded at a muddy, squalid border post called Blace (see Macedonia). During the Blace crisis, the Albanian government offered to take another 100,000 refugees from Macedonia, but neither the refugees nor other governments responded positively.

UNHCR had an ambitious plan to relocate about 60,000 refugees from Macedonia to Albania. The agency was able, however, to facilitate the voluntary transfer of only 1,300, mostly family reunification cases. UNHCR's humanitarian transfer program (HTP) failed to elicit much interest among the refugees, in part because another UNHCR-administered program – the humanitarian evacuation program (HEP) – was transporting refugees to relatively safe and well-to-do countries outside the region. Because the HEP was restricted to refugees in Macedonia, most refugees decided not to go to Albania, which would have made them ineligible.

By the end of May, UNHCR had transferred by bus or train 70 percent of the refugees to central and southern Albania. This eased the congestion in the Kukes region, which, in addition to being lawless, overcrowded, and remote, was also coming under periodic shelling. Still, many refugees were reluctant to travel south, many saying they did not want to move any farther from home, and about 100,000 remained in and around Kukes until mass repatriation began in June.

About 29,000 local host families opened their homes to refugees, ultimately accommodating two-thirds of the estimated 465,000 refugees (the exact number is unknown, because Albanian authorities did not issue them documents and UNHCR did not fully register them). The remainder found shelter in one of 49 camps scattered throughout the country (20 percent in tents, thirteen percent in public buildings and other hard structures). The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) traveled to Albania in the last week of April and voiced its concern to the U.S. government about the significant disparity in camp conditions, noting that collective centers were built and maintained by an eclectic mix of multilateral, bilateral, and nongovernmental donors. USCR also called for better coordination in ensuring that refugees be swiftly directed to proper accommodation sites.

Return to Kosovo

The withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, and the arrival of NATO peacekeeping troops, triggered a massive and swift movement of refugees back to Kosovo. Although the first organized returns through Kukes and the Morini border point did not occur until June 30, by then 270,000 refugees had already spontaneously crossed back into the province. Refugees rushed home despite UNHCR's warnings that certain areas were still heavily mined, that return infrastructure was lacking, and that other security dangers still existed.

Some Albanian criminals robbed and extorted returning refugees and their relatives traveling back to Kosovo through the Albanian towns of Durres, Tirana, and Kukes. In at least one instance in August, criminals near Kukes killed three refugees after robbing them. Gangs also looted several camps following the departure of the refugees, injuring aid workers who had remained to guard the equipment. Criminal elements from Albania also reportedly followed the returning refugees into Kosovo, greatly contributing to instability in the province.

By September 1, only 32,500 Kosovo refugees remained in Albania; by year's end, the number had dwindled to 3,500. This residual population was comprised mostly of vulnerable persons with special needs. Humanitarian organizations remaining in Albania at year's end also worked on the environmental rehabilitation of former camps.

Relief Coordination

From early June, the challenge for the relief community changed dramatically: a problem of capacity became one of logistical coordination. As in Macedonia, relief assistance throughout the crisis remained primarily focused on camps, to the detriment of host families. In April, USCR called for the U.S. government to help jump-start aid to private families.

The international aid community was unprepared for a refugee emergency on such a sudden and massive scale. By its own admission, UNHCR's reserve stocks of some key relief items were significantly lower than called for by its own contingency planning. On March 28, UNHCR-Tirana reported that in-country stocks existed for 10,000 persons, not 50,000 as estimated three days earlier. Furthermore, the contingency planning itself was insufficient. Nevertheless, the combined efforts of the Albanian government and people, multilateral agencies, third countries, and hundreds of international private organizations successfully warded off the high mortality and disease rates usually associated with a human disaster of this magnitude.

NATO and the European Union (EU) emerged as the Albanian government's primary strategic and operational partners in managing the crisis, effectively sidelining UNHCR. NATO's key role in the building and initial management of many refugee camps, and its coordinated efforts with UNHCR called into question UNHCR's mandated adherence to political neutrality. NATO also created a protection force in Albania with an exclusively humanitarian mission that overlapped significantly with UNHCR's own mandate.

Paradoxically, the economic impact of the crisis was positive, at least in the short term. Refugees and the international presence created a powerful surge in economic activity that was financed by hard currency flowing into the country from public and private sources. However, Albania remains one of the poorest countries of Europe, and its efforts to bring its asylum practices into conformity with international norms will require continued international assistance.

Asylum Law

Albania's 1998 constitution and asylum legislation provided for the right to asylum and nonrefoulement in accordance with international law. However, no implementing institution existed at year's end. UNHCR was reportedly setting up a training program for government officials and lawyers involved in asylum matters.

Transit to Europe

During the year, Albania continued to serve as a transit country for asylum seekers fleeing persecution. The migrants, not all of whom were asylum seekers, were predominantly ethnic Kurds from Turkey and Iraq, Pakistanis, Chinese, and Albanians.

EU countries exerted sustained pressure on the government to discourage the high-risk trip across the Adriatic Sea. Albania and Italy organized regular joint land and sea patrols during the year. Nevertheless, large, but indeterminate, numbers of people attempted to cross from Albania in 1999, notably from the port of Vlore. On November 1, five Albanian, Moldovan, and Turkish nationals drowned off the coast of southern Italy. On July 27, the Italian police rescued 60 Roma from Serbia, mostly children, who had embarked in Vlore and were later dumped into the sea by traffickers.

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