Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2017, 12:58 GMT

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

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 - Macedonia , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 13 December 2017]
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 1999, Macedonia hosted about 17,000 refugees, including about 10,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, 4,000 Roma from Kosovo, 3,000 ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia, and 400 refugees from Bosnia.

Macedonian nationals lodged 1,170 asylum applications in other European countries during the year, roughly as many as had in 1998.

During the Kosovo crisis, 360,000 people (equivalent to 16 percent of the country's own population) sought refuge in Macedonia. Nearly all departed the country the same year. The number of refugees present on Macedonian territory peaked at 255,000 in mid-June.

Relations between Macedonian authorities and the international community were often strained during the Kosovo refugee crisis. Nevertheless, cooperation was sufficient to help avert the humanitarian catastrophe that loomed in the spring.

Influx from Kosovo

At the end of 1998, Macedonia hosted some 6,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo. By March 1999, the count had risen to 15,000, as many more fled the escalating violence in the province. The government decided on March 2 to extend "humanitarian assisted status" to refugees who found a host family in the country. This made them eligible for food and some relief assistance from the Macedonian Red Cross. This status was extended several times, and was last due to expire on March 28, 2000.

But the nature and scale of the crisis changed entirely once NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24 and the Yugoslav authorities resorted to massive expulsion. The sudden influx of tens of thousands of new refugees posed a formidable relief challenge both to Macedonia and the international community at large.

Macedonia's initial response was to close its borders. On March 24, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) protested the previous day's closing of the Macedonian border. Within hours, the government replied that it had reopened the border. However, by April 3, as many as 65,000 refugees seeking to enter Macedonia were stranded at the Blace border crossing. Macedonian authorities, in an apparent effort to buy time while negotiating a solution with the international community, had begun on March 30 to meticulously check all arriving refugees. Observers reported excessive use of force on the part of the Macedonian police. Humanitarian conditions during these first days in Blace were extremely poor. Relief organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), had limited access to the area. Médecins Sans Frontières reported that as many as 11 refugees may have died in Blace by April 4.

In a controversial operation that was not supported by UNHCR and protested by USCR and other organizations, Macedonia organized the transfer of 10,000 to 15,000 of the Blace refugees to Albania and 1,000 to 2,000 to Turkey, during the night of April 3. Families were separated, and not all transfers were voluntary, violating accepted human rights standards. USCR interviewed the refugees in Turkey, confirming allegations that they had been mistreated by the Macedonian police. USCR published a report, Destination Unknown: From Kosovo to No-Man's Land, about their experiences (see story).

To break the catastrophic deadlock, NATO began building two large transit camps the next day, and completed construction in two days. The international community considered creating a "humanitarian corridor" to transfer up to 100,000 refugees through Macedonia to Albania, but eventually abandoned the idea in light of Albania's already stretched reception capacity and the likelihood that many refugees would not voluntarily consent to the transfer. Instead, several third countries, led by the United States, endorsed the principle of extra-regional temporary evacuation, coordinated by UNHCR.

The inflow began slowing in early May 1999. Macedonia's eight refugee camps, all in the areas of Skopje and Tetevo, hosted a peak of 111,500 people at the end of May. NATO forces built most of these camps and was involved in their initial management. Although inconsistent with humanitarian relief's key principle of neutrality, the urgency of the situation precluded alternatives. During the second half of April, NATO gradually transferred camp operations to UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Both camp capacity and coordination of relief assistance remained a major challenge throughout the crisis. In April, an average of 14 aid flights landed every day in Skopje, often accompanied by new NGO arrivals. Also, as in Albania, aid agencies and NATO focused primarily on assisting the camp populations, often to the detriment of the larger numbers staying with host families.

Once the cease-fire in Yugoslavia took effect on June 10, large numbers of Kosovo refugees began spontaneously returning almost immediately, despite UNHCR's warnings of minefields and lingering violence. The first organized repatriations took place on June 28. By June 30, only 52,000 ethnic Albanian refugees remained in Macedonia (20,000 in camps). At year's end, only about 10,000 refugees remained, all accommodated privately. However, multilateral, international, and national efforts continued into the year 2000 to provide assistance and solutions to these populations, and rehabilitate the environment of former campsites.

Smaller numbers of refugees continued to trickle into Macedonia during the second half of 1999. Among them, about 4,000 Roma fled reprisal violence in Kosovo. Another 3,000 ethnic Albanians from the Serbian municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac sought refuge from an increasingly volatile situation in ethnic Albanian populated regions of southern Serbia outside Kosovo. Many of these refugees lived with relatives in Macedonia at year's end.

Refugee Evacuation

In contrast to the Albanian operation, the international community quickly identified the need to evacuate significant numbers of refugees from Macedonian territory. From April 6 to 11, 4,420 refugees flew to Germany, 2,941 to Turkey, and 515 to Norway.

However, as the inflow of refugees showed no sign of abating and Macedonia remained adamant that its capacity was already overwhelmed, a more structured program was urgently needed. The United States and allied governments, seeking to address Macedonian concerns, promoted a humanitarian evacuation program (HEP). Because UNHCR has a long-standing institutional preference for "solutions within the regional context," the agency initially opposed airlifting tens of thousands of refugees to third countries. However, faced with intense humanitarian and political pressure, UNHCR, in late April, organized the first flights carrying refugees out of Skopje. On May 5, USCR's executive director accompanied the first U.S.-bound HEP flight to the United States.

By the end of June, the HEP had transferred nearly 92,000 collective-center refugees to 29 host countries. Amnesty International and other refugee advocates, however, charged that this "rush to evacuate" did not sufficiently safeguard the rights of refugees. The HEP, they said, allowed too much discretion to individual relocation states, both in the initial selection of evacuees and in the rights and legal status granted upon arrival. A candid official evaluation of UNHCR's performance throughout the Kosovo crisis cited a "blurring of concepts" between resettlement, humanitarian evacuation, and temporary protection. The report said that the HEP targeted only refugees in collective centers, did not inform them of their options, and allowed itself to be manipulated by refugees eager to emigrate to Western countries.

Despite its flaws, the HEP alleviated the pressure on Macedonia and shared the burden of providing protection in an innovative manner. Its impact was far greater, for instance, than that of the later humanitarian transfer program (HTP). The HTP began in May as an effort to encourage voluntary refugee movement from Macedonia to Albania. A successor to the earlier "humanitarian corridor" plan, the HTP had envisaged the transfer of 60,000 refugees to newly built camps in Albania. However, only about 1,300 refugees, mostly family reunification cases, participated in the HTP. Many declined the offer to move to Albania because that would make them ineligible for third-country evacuation under HEP.

Macedonia's Role

Although recognizing that cooperation by Macedonian authorities often proved instrumental in managing the relief, protection, and repatriation efforts, USCR criticized the Macedonian government at times for flagrantly violating its international legal obligations.

Early in the crisis, Macedonia opened and closed its border as leverage in its ongoing negotiation with the international community for a quick relocation of Kosovo refugees. Macedonia is a small country with few resources and a delicate ethnic balance between its Macedonian majority and a 25 percent Albanian minority. The government feared the destabilizing effect of an uncontrolled influx of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo. However, USCR said that Macedonia violated international refugee law – the prohibition on refoulement (forced return) – when it effectively closed its borders to persons fleeing persecution. It did so on at least three separate occasions (March 23, March 30, and May 5) while lobbying the international community for other solutions. Periodically during the crisis, Macedonia refouled at least 20,000 refugees to a situation where many faced immediate physical danger by its refusal to let them cross the border.

USCR's interview with refugees in Turkey who had been stranded in the Blace no-man's land also documented a number of incidents involving brutality and arbitrary treatment of refugees by the Macedonian police. Such incidents continued in the camps, where Macedonian authorities were responsible for security.

In July and again in November, Macedonian border officials blocked the free transit of humanitarian goods into Kosovo. In September, 461 Roma from Kosovo claiming persecution at the hands of ethnic Albanians were stranded at the border for one week.

Other Vulnerable Populations

Approximately 400 refugees from Bosnia (mostly from Republika Srpska) lived in Macedonia at the end of 1999, down from 1,200 a year earlier. UNHCR is promoting durable solutions for this remaining population.

Several thousand residents of Macedonia (predominantly ethnic Albanians and Roma) remained stateless. Citizens of the former Yugoslavia, they had not applied for citizenship by 1993 as required by the laws of the new state of Macedonia. The government indicated in 1999 that it would ease a stringent 15-year residence requirement for naturalization, set in 1996, to 10 years, conforming the country's practice with Council of Europe norms. Implementing legislation was expected within one year. Roughly 25 percent of Macedonia's population of 2.2 million are ethnic Albanian, and at least 2 percent (in all likelihood, far more) are Roma.

Asylum Law and Procedures

Macedonia's treatment of individual asylum seekers under normal circumstances is based on its aliens law, which provides for temporary protection or protection for humanitarian reasons. Individual asylum seekers may register claims with Macedonian diplomatic or consular missions, at the border, or within Macedonian territory.

The Interior Ministry adjudicates asylum cases. Persons whose asylum claims are rejected in the first instance have the right, according to the government, "to submit a complaint to the Committee for the Government and the right for court protection in case of a denied request in the second instance."

UNHCR reportedly plans to work with the Macedonian government on developing an adequate asylum system, beginning with the adoption of a specific asylum law in 2000.

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