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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Albania

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Albania , 1 January 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8c230.html [accessed 25 July 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.

At the end of 1998, Albania hosted about 25,000 refugees from Kosovo, Yugoslavia, all of whom entered the country during the year. Prior to 1998, Albania had no experience as a refugee host country.

The refugee influx, and fears of an even larger influx, contributed to anxiety and unrest within Albanian society during the year. Despite the tensions, Albania maintained an "open door" for Kosovar ethnic Albanian refugees.

Albania's own lawlessness and instability greatly complicated the refugee relief effort. In September, UNHCR's warehouse in Tirana was looted with estimated losses in humanitarian relief supplies of more than a quarter million dollars. At times, UNHCR and other agencies suspended operations in northern Albania, a remote and insecure area, due to security concerns. Following repeated robberies and looting, UNHCR closed its office in the northern town of Bajram Cirri on September 29, and began delivering assistance to northern Albania by convoys from Tirana, rather than attempting to maintain warehouses in the north. Even so, trucks were repeatedly and regularly robbed, preventing relief distribution in October.

Kosovar Refugees

Aid workers had great difficulty trying to reach the refugees in the northern districts of Tropoje and Bajram Curri. The region features rugged mountain terrain; roads into the remote area are in poor condition, and armed bandits raided and looted trucks carrying humanitarian assistance. Small arms were plentiful in the region as a result of looting of the Albanian national guard armories during rioting in Albania in 1997. Security was all the more precarious because Albania itself was barely recovering from 1997's anarchy. It was further complicated by the significant trafficking in arms and the presence in the area of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas.

On June 15, 1998, UNHCR said that it was considering asking NATO to fly relief supplies into the area by helicopter. Roads leading to the north were treacherous, and stockpiling aid there was impossible because of the lack of security.

USCR visited Albania in late July. At the time, about 14,000 Kosovar refugees were living there. USCR visited refugees in and around Tirana and Durres, as well as the northern towns of Bajram Cirri and Tropoje. At the time, USCR found the security situation in the north to be unacceptable and observed that its isolation would further complicate aid efforts. USCR urged refugees in northern Albania to seek refuge in central and southern Albania, and called upon humanitarian agencies and the Albanian government to facilitate their movement away from the border. USCR noted, however, the strong reluctance of many refugees to leave the border area.

During the last two months of 1998, humanitarian agencies suspended aid deliveries to Tropoje district because of the insecurity of the area.

Crossing the border from Kosovo into Albania or back again was extremely dangerous. In October, Yugoslav border guards opened fire on a family of returning refugees, killing four and wounding two. A week later, Yugoslav border guards shot five refugees attempting to leave Kosovo – two elderly men, two children, and one woman – seriously injuring them. Despite the danger, on average, about 30 to 40 refugees per day continued to cross directly from Kosovo to Albania during the late summer and fall, most entering from the areas of Prizren and Djakovica.

Although entering Albania directly from Kosovo became increasingly difficult, some refugees came via Montenegro. In mid-September, after Montenegro announced that it was sealing its border with Kosovo to prevent the influx of more refugees, about 4,000 Kosovars entered Albania from Montenegro. Initially arriving in Shkodra, by month's end, their numbers in Shkodra had fallen to about 2,600, as the remainder moved farther south within Albania.

Restrictive Measures

Before the crisis in Kosovo erupted, European governments were preoccupied with preventing the migration of Iraqi and Turkish Kurds who were arriving without authorization or documentation in Italy and Greece. Responding to pressure, in January 1998, Albanian authorities conducted sweeps along its border with Greece to arrest improperly documented foreigners. On January 9, USCR wrote to the Albanian authorities saying, "While we do not question your right to apprehend undocumented aliens in your country, we would ask that they be accorded full rights to fair hearings on any possible asylum claims they might have, and that Albania comply with all customary norms regarding the nonreturn of refugees where they might be persecuted."

During the year, Albania continued to serve as a transit country for undocumented foreigners seeking entry to Italy. For example, in October, authorities apprehended a group of 44, mostly Iraqi Kurds, hiding near Vlora, a port city. The group had previously attempted to sail to Italy, but said that they returned to Albania when they saw the Italian coast guard. They were deported to Greece at the Kakavia, reportedly because they had entered Albania via Greece.

Subsequently, Albania agreed to conduct joint land and sea patrols with Italy to prevent unauthorized migration, an effort that appeared likely to deter the movement of Iraqi Kurds, and other asylum seekers as well.

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