Europe, Headlines

REFUGEES-YUGOSLAVIA: Norway Takes in Kosovo Refugees

Jan Skjelbek

OSLO, Apr 14 1999 (IPS) - An exhausted group of 700 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, clutching their few remaining possessions, are settling into temporary homes in Norway after fleeing the strife in Yugoslavia.

The refugees have been arriving by air almost daily since the April 6 when Norway decided to take some of the pressure off Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Authorities have been flying emergency supplies to the Balkans and the same aircraft returns with refugees to Gardermoen airport outside the capital.

The first 700 have found refuge in different reception centres in the southern part of Norway, and the plan is to find space for an additional 5,000, depending on the situation in Macedonia and if the Norwegian health service is able to cope with the extra work.

The majority of refugees are people with medical problems.

“It is hard to find words to express our gratitude to the Norwegian government. This is a trying time for the people of Kosovo, and in times like these the most important thing is to be safe,” says Fatmir Gashi, who was forced out of his hometown Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, together with his family on March 31.

Gashi came here with his wife Emine last Thursday and the couple are desperate to contact the rest of their family who are believed to be spread over different camps in Macedonia. He says Serbian police stripped many Kosovo Albanians of their possessions and identification documents before allowing them to leave.

Gashi says that, although “most probably our house is in ruins,” he is set on returning to Kosovo when peace is achieved in the war-torn province.

“Norway is only a temporary home for me and my wife. My homeland will always be Kosovo. The burning and shelling will not change that. We will just have to start all over again,” he adds.

The influx of refugees here, and to other countries in Europe and North America, has posed a political dilemma for the benefactors.

The airlift is helping ease the pressure on the overcrowded refugee camps in countries neighbouring Kosovo but by relocating refugees far from the war zone may give the impression of aiding Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in his ethnic cleansing campaign, some politicians argue.

The leader of the Progressive Party, Carl I. Hagen, declared that money spent on housing the Kosovo Albanians in Norway could have been better used helping refugees in camps in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Hagen said that aid would then reach many more people and would make it easier for the people of Kosovo to return to their homeland. He also questioned whether the refugees wil ever leave Norway.

Such concerns, however, are not shared by other parties in the Norwegian Parliament. They pointed to Norway’s previous history of offering refuge to people seeking political asylum which goes back more than 20 years.

From an average of 500 asylum seekers annually in the years 1980- 1985, the number of political refugees rose sharply in 1986-87 to peak at 8,600. Most of the refugees were from Sri Lanka and Iran.

“The increase can be traced back to similar trends at the time in the rest of Europe,” said Espen Torud, Secretary of the Department of Indigenous, Minority and Immigrant affairs at the Ministry of Local government and Regional Development.

Norway also took in asylum seekers from Chile in the 1980’s – refugees from dictatorial regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

When Yugoslavia split apart in 1991, another big wave of refugees arrived here from Bosnia-Hercegovina – nearly 13,000 arrived in 1993.

Oeystein Gussgard, an official at Norway’s Baerum emergency relief centre, has had 12 years of experience with thousands of refugees passing through the centre. His story is one of inexplicable human tragedies, of people who are forced to start a new life in a country which name they have barely even heard about prior to their arrival in Oslo.

“It was hard living a normal life the first years here. When I came home from work the sorry destiny of these men, women and children at the centre was still on my mind,” Gussgard told IPS. “After a while I realised that I had to focus on being an inspiration to these people. Only in this way could I be able to alleviate the pain and suffering of the refugees.”

Norway can lodge about 2,000 people in its refugee centers.

Although this is not sufficient space for all of the Kosovo Albanians who may come, Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik says the country of 4.4 million people will find room, even if this means asking Norwegians to open their homes to them.

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