A key element in the international peace plan to end the Kosovo conflict is the "safe and free return of all refugees and displaced persons under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees" (UNHCR). However, given the enormity of the horrors and atrocities the refugees have suffered, and given the devastation in Kosovo itself, their voluntary return en masse is unrealistic, at least in the near future. Furthermore, any move to repatriate the Kosovar refugees against their will would be in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention -- to which all NATO countries are signatories, as are Albania and Macedonia -- and would be counter to the UNHCR's basic mandate of refugee protection.
Conditions in Kosovo are grim. The economy is in ruins. There has been no spring planting to speak of. Countless homes have been destroyed and entire villages razed. Shops and businesses have been looted and burned. Public utilities and medical facilities are almost nonexistent. Efforts at reconstruction will be severely hampered by land mines and booby traps. Wells stuffed with decaying bodies have polluted water supplies. We do not know the extent of mass graves and massacre sites and can only speculate as to the condition of the 600,000 internally displaced.
The Kosovars have a laudable love of their land. Exile is particularly painful to them. However, the physical, psychological and emotional traumas the more than 780,000 Kosovar refugees have endured will heavily affect their decision to go home. History shows that refugees, especially those who have been brutalized, often choose not to return. Of the estimated 2 million Bosnian refugees and displaced, only 550,000 have returned to their places of origin. More than 2.5 million Afghan refugees still remain in Pakistan and Iran. More than 300,000 Cambodian survivors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge spent over a decade on the Thai border until they were "persuaded" to go home. Closer to our shores, the vast majority of refugees who fled the violence that enveloped Central America in the 1980s have not gone home. We should not expect the Kosovar refugees to behave any differently.
Work must begin now to winterize the camps in Albania and Macedonia. Snow comes early to this mountainous region -- in less than four months, winter weather will set in. It will require a massive effort to provide winter shelter for the refugees, but there is no other realistic alternative.
At the same time, if peace is restored to Kosovo and adequate security arrangements are in place, a concentrated and intense reconstruction and rehabilitation effort in Kosovo must begin. Only then will it be realistic to expect the voluntary return of a large number of refugees.
A significant number of refugees will seek to remain outside Kosovo, especially in Albania. An internationally funded effort will be needed to enable them to integrate. The needs will be in housing, schools, health facilities and the like -- not only for the refugees themselves but also for the indigenous Albanian families and communities.
Finally, planning must begin now for a generous international resettlement for those Kosovar refugees who are unable or unwilling to go home. Those with close family abroad should be offered the opportunity to reunite their families. Compelling cases such as families with female heads of household, rape victims, the elderly and the infirm will need special consideration as well. This effort will require equitable burden sharing among the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States. More than 75,000 Kosovar refugees have already been resettled abroad, and more are sure to come.
To maintain that the return of all the refugees is the central objective is to ignore history and basic international refugee law. We need to enable those Kosovar refugees who voluntarily elect to go home to do so in safety and dignity. At the same time, we need to provide for those Kosovars who are unwilling or unable to return by enabling them to build new lives for themselves and their families outside their homeland. Only then will we have fulfilled our obligation to the refugees and the displaced of Kosovo.
Robert P. DeVecchi is a senior fellow for refugees and the displaced at the Council on Foreign Relations. Elizabeth Archangeli is a research associate there.