|TRACKING THE REFUGEES|
May 19, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Our update on the Kosovo refugee story, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: And joining me is Brunson McKinley, director general of the International Organization for Migration. The Geneva-based group, supported by 67 member countries, provides assistance to migrants and refugees worldwide. The group is working with UNHCR and other agencies in the Kosovo conflict, identifying and registering refugees, evacuating refugees from the immediate area, and helping to reunite families. Welcome Mr. McKinley.
BRUNSON McKINLEY, International Organization for Migration: Great to be here.
MARGARET WARNER: We're now eight weeks into this conflict. What's the refugee situation on the ground?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Well, I would say we've reached a kind of mid-point in the crisis. We've overcome the urgent necessity to find ways to deal with the first echelon humanitarian crisis. And now we're trying to manage the refugee situation, not because we think it's over and done with, but because we think we've got a handle on it and we're working in various ways -- different ways in different countries -- to come to grips with this very big, very sudden emergency that we faced two months ago.
MARGARET WARNER: So for instance, in Macedonia, where as we know, the government there has said it's hard for them to handle this many refugees, how's that going?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: The Macedonian part of the operation is moving along fairly smoothly I think. There are today about 225,000 refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia. And these people are now pretty well settled either in camps or in families mostly of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. And we're operating an emergency evacuation airlift to relieve the pressure.
MARGARET WARNER: How many have you moved out?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Over 50,000 so far to a lot of different destinations, including of course the United States. People here I think know about that. But they're going as well to Australia and Canada, large numbers to Germany, to Turkey, to European countries, both near and far. It's working pretty well.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, this week accused the Macedonian government of really mistreating the refugees and saying that the police, the Macedonian police were harassing and intimidating them? Is this going on? What can be done?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: There have been some incidents. No crisis like this is free of incidents. The Macedonian authorities have taken on the whole a rather hard line towards the refugees, who are not particularly welcome for a variety of political, economic, social reasons in that country. And there have been times when the treatment of the refugees was not up to international standards. We've tried to identify these incidents, which are isolated, and make sure that the authorities do the right thing. I think on the whole it's working pretty well. This is not a deteriorating situation, but it's also not one that has been completely free of abuses.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, in Albania where I gather there are more than 400,000 refugees --
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: -- they've tended to be more welcoming, but there are reports from there, for instance, that in the town of Kukes, which is right to be border, the town is saying we're going to cut off the water to the camps because we can't continue to provide this water. Is there a strain even there, in Albania?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: There are tensions in Albania. The official government policy and the attitude of most Albanian citizens has been much more welcoming. They look upon the Kosovars as their cousins, and they have opened their doors to them. But there are problems. The impact on communities, especially in the North where most of the refugees are still concentrated in the town of Kukes, has been very, very heavy and severe. Even in those families where Albanians have taken in Kosovar refugees, problems have developed, tensions with these long-staying guests. We're working hard to try to ease that. I mean, there does need to be a redistribution of the refugee population around the country so that the burden is shared more equitably among the different localities. And there also has to be a system of rewarding and supporting the families and the communities that are bearing most of the load in this crisis. And we're working on that. And these things are going to with in place fairly soon.
MARGARET WARNER: So it sounds as if you've really moved from managing this as an acute crisis to seeing it as a medium to long-term situation that's going to have to be dealt with.
BRUNSON McKINLEY: I think that's fair. Now, of course, where we go from here is of course dependent on the political and the military outcomes, which are very hard to predict. But we are treating this as a potentially long-term refugee crisis where we will need to apply different kinds of solutions to different groups of people.
MARGARET WARNER: How soon would the conflict have to end for the international community, the relief community and others to be able to get the Kosovars back into Kosovo before winter?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Well, I would say in the next few months. We don't have too much more time before the winterization is going to become the top priority. In fact, we're already talking about building up a capacity to keep these people safe through the winter.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean out of Kosovo?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Yes. Out of Kosovo, in Albania largely and of course in the other countries to which they're being flown right now. If you -- but there's a premise to your question that I think needs to be commented on a little bit. I think even under the best of circumstances, a substantial percentage of this refugee caseload will not be going back right away. Why? Because they will have their doubts about security. They won't have employment. Their houses may very well have been destroyed, or they may have made a decision to go where their relatives are in other countries and start a new life. So I think we are talking about even under the best of circumstances a return which will not be a total return anytime soon.
MARGARET WARNER: But I gather some of these tent cities where they're living now, they aren't winterized. They wouldn't be suitable for the winter?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: That's right. So what we have to do is find abandon buildings and put them in shape to house people. We have to get more absorption by families, which is certainly possible, but it needs some incentive and support, and we're working on that, too. That's part of moving the caseload around the country a little bit, as well, not just concentrated in the North.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly finally, this particular work that your agency is involved in, how difficult has it proved to be to reunite some of these families, to help people find one another?
BRUNSON McKINLEY: That's actually working pretty well, because especially in Macedonia where most of the movement activity is taking place, we have a good computerized database. And, in fact, we're using it to link up families that have been split. Now, of course, the people who are still back in Kosovo, they are the ones we don't have access to. And you can't do much about that. But if they come out and are in different places, we can use our database and our radio network and other devices that we've put in place to get those families back together. And that's working out pretty well so far.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well thanks, Mr. McKinley, very much.
BRUNSON McKINLEY: Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.