Albania (June 1999)
by Koenraad Van Brabant, RRN Coordinator, London June 1999

By late May some 450,000 Kosovar refugees had increased the Albanian population of 3.4 million by some 14 per cent. An estimated 68 per cent of refugees have been taken in by host families or have found their own accommodation; the rest are living in tented camps or ‘collective centres’.

The humanitarian community was ill-prepared for the scenario of comprehensive ethnic cleansing that followed the start of the NATO campaign against Milosevic. Apart from a few already in-country, most international NGOs – many established, others highly ‘ad hoc’ – only established a presence and started programmes in April and May. By the end of May, over 150 NGOs were known to UNHCR in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The following are the current policy and operational challenges.

Relocation: The UN is keen on the voluntary relocation of Kosovar refugees to the south away from the border areas in northeast Albania, notably around Kukes town. The UN cites security, pressure on limited resources (notably water), and its determination to prevent the development of militarised camps that could become a support base for the Kosovo Liberation Army. However, many refugees are unwilling to go further south because they want to stay close to home where it is more likely that relatives still believed to be in Kosovo will be able to find them. Relocation of Muslim Kosovars into more Orthodox south Albania in the medium-term could create friction.

Registration: The government of Albania has signed a general protocol on registration with UNHCR and other key operational partners that spells out their respective roles and responsibilities. It can now recruit coordinators at the level of ‘prefecture’ (a provincial delineation), who in turn will recruit registration clerks. The ministry of local government will register Albanian families hosting refugees. The registration exercise is planned for June 1999.

Protection and Security: Albanian crime – including organised crime – is beginning to impact on the refugees. Already victims of robbery and extortion, most worrying are the reports that refugees are also being targeted by gangs trafficking in Albanian women and children. In 1998 the Italian Ministry of Interior estimated that there were 10–15,000 Albanian sexual workers in Italy, which constitutes two thirds of all foreign sexual commerce. Albanian law has been lax in prosecuting those who exploit prostitution.

In addition, following the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars the drug route from Turkey shifted to Albania: fast speed boats take drugs, trafficked people, illegal migrants and desperate refugees across the Adriatic to Italy. The Albanian police are often indifferent, ineffective or suspected of cooperating with the criminal gangs.

Although certain foreign military contingents provide security for the camps they operate, this is not a general NATO policy. The Albanian government plans to create a new police force especially for camp security, but this will take time and needs funding. Meanwhile, aid agencies are increasingly likely to become targets of opportunistic and organised crime.

Winterisation: Preparing to protect the refugees in anticipation of the fierce winters has to start now. This is politically sensitive: in Macedonia, because of the potentially destabilising presence of the Kosovars; for NATO, because it will send a signal that its campaign against Milosevic is not producing quick results.

Yet even if a peace agreement were to be signed now, the deployment of an international protection force and the clearing of mines in Kosovo – where many houses have been destroyed by the Serbs – would render a rapid, large-scale return of refugees before winter unlikely if not undesirable. Strategic planning for winterisation is currently taking place between the Albanian government and international agencies. Planning scenarios are developed on the basis of different total numbers of refugees, and on whether most can be accommodated through the winter by host families, in renovated public buildings, or in prefabricated shelters.

Support to Host Families: Given the desirability, from a human and financial point of view, to keep most refugees with host families, the UN is considering incentives to host families. The risk is that the relationship between host and refugee is pushed into a purely financial–commercial one.

Economic Support to Albania: Between 1992–96 a structural adjustment programme generated such spectacular growth in GDP that Albania was at times called the ‘Taiwan of the Adriatic’. This growth, however, was not translated into increased social expenditure, and the industrial sector, which collapsed together with communism, remains weak.

The collapse in 1997 of the private financial, so-called ‘pyramid’ schemes (started in 1993 and strongly supported by the government) caused a macroeconomic shock. The IMF, World Bank and European Union are providing macroeconomic support to Albania, but private investor confidence remains low. The Albanian government hopes that the refugee aid will provide a fast track to development, but may discover that much aid is spent in, but not necessarily on, Albania.

Coordination: The Albanian government has created an Emergency Management Group with designated contact persons for line ministries, local authorities, and for coordination of donor aid and customs clearance. Meanwhile the aid organisations are trying to improve the circulation of information, and in April NGO members requested that VOICE develop an information service. Interestingly, ECHO and VOICE together developed a six-month project and both deployed infor-mation officers to Tirana and elsewhere. Another useful step has been the creation, in early May, of a Humanitarian Information Centre in Tirana, where INGOs, Albanian NGOs, UNHCR, NATO and the government all have a presence.

While there have been a number of other initiatives, the overriding problem is the fact that the UN has been sidelined politically by NATO and has also been marginalised in the relief effort. Contrary to the situation in Goma, bilateral donors have prolonged the problem by driving the emergency response through the military and NGOs, offering UNHCR assistance in kind but not in cash. By late May it was clear that UNHCR had to be brought back into a leadership role to fill the ‘coordination vacuum’.

Quality Support and Local Capacities: Not surprisingly, the bilateral character of the first relief effort, the influx of large numbers of new aid agencies, the emphasis on rapid and supply-oriented emergency response, and the absence of UN leadership and limited planning make for varying standards of professionalism in the aid effort. On one level, this humanitarian effort could provide an opportunity for Albanian NGOs and other Albanians to find new employment – provided international agencies invest in staff and counterpart capacity-building. But international agencies also need support to increase the quality and professionalism of their operations.

Faster than before, donors and inter-agency projects and networks are talking about monitoring of performance and accountability: Sphere standards, the Ombudsman function, evaluation and monitoring of the impact of aid on communities of hosts and refugees are only some of the quality references mentioned.

A constructive approach would consist of organising now – in terms of monitoring, information systems, and reflective working groups, seminars and trainings to strengthen the quality of agency performance – while the operational agencies in Albania are still expanding and consolidating their programmes.