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SERB REFUGEE: We all believe in democracy. We thought, “This is international condemned regime, so if we flee from our country and go to some Western or NATO country, people will help us.”
MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, Kosovo War refugees. And later, the debate over refugee status.
IRENE KAHN: I mean, when it comes to internally displaced, it is really an issue of political will. Like so many other areas, the laws are there, the institutions are there. But if you don’t have the political will to move on these things, then it is very difficult to do something about it.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Recent events in Mitroveca and elsewhere in Kosovo have served to underline the fragile nature of peace in the former Yugoslavia and to discourage many Serbs and Kosovars who fled the region and have not yet returned from doing so. But there is another group of people who fled the Kosovo War, who cannot return to Yugoslavia even if they wanted to. These are the Serbs who deserted the Army or left before they were drafted, rather than fight for a regime they opposed in a war they couldn’t support. Many fled to Hungary, their nearest neighbor, and a member of NATO. They believed they would be welcome in the West because they had abandoned a regime described as criminal. They were not. And as correspondent Max Easterman reports from Budapest, they have found themselves abandoned.
MAX EASTERMAN: When the war broke out in Kosovo many ethnic Serb young men left Yugoslavia because NATO urged them to do so in a propaganda campaign. Others just followed their consciences. Some were already drafted; some were due to be called up. Either way they’d burned their bridges and knew they could not go back. But they didn’t expect to find themselves squatting in a squalid Budapest apartment. On the contrary, they thought they’d help NATO and they’d be rewarded for that courage.
SERB REFUGEE: There was a strong propaganda from NATO during the action. They had a TV, I think it was broadcasted from the Allies, and there was a lot of pamphlets dropping out from the planes that suggested us to run away, not to fight for Milosovec.
EASTERMAN: These pamphlets, did this television, actually say you would be helped if you left?
SERB REFUGEE: They didn’t say it exactly but they gave you only this choice: stay in Serbia and leave your bones in Kosovo, or resist Milosovec and run away from his war and his stupid politics.
EASTERMAN: Did you have a reasonable belief that you would be given some help when you left Serbia?
SERB REFUGEE: Yes. We all believe in democracy. We thought, “This is international condemned regime, so if we flee from our country and go to some Western or NATO country, people will help us.”
EASTERMAN: Did you think you would virtually automatically become refugees?
SERB REFUGEE: Yes. Yes.
[sound of a group of people talking]
EASTERMAN: It was easy enough for these men to get into Hungary; Yugoslavs with a valid passport don’t need a visa. But later, when they applied for asylum, only a tiny minority are granted refugee status, just thirty-seven out of nearly three thousand last year. The rest are either rejected or get what’s called, “Leave to Stay.” These men are effectively trapped in Hungary. Over two hundred of them are here, in an old Russian barracks on the outskirts of the eastern city of Debrecen. It’s now used as a holding center for asylum seekers. They can go out into the town; indeed they can travel to apply to foreign embassies for asylum. But they soon find that such trips are a waste of time and of what little money they still possess. The European Union and other NATO states, like the USA, are just not interested.
SERB REFUGEE: I tried to go to Germany to visit my father. He is there more than twenty-five years. And I try many times to obtain any kind of visa, but German workers in embassy told me that I must go to Belgrade to apply for visa there. I cannot do that of course. But they said that they cannot help me.
SERB REFUGEE: They are just very arrogant. They just said, “What?! You don’t have a passport? You’re not refugee? Sorry, we can’t help you. Bye-bye.”
SERB REFUGEE: I couldn’t come in American embassy. Won’t let me in.
SERB REFUGEE: They won’t let us in.
EASTERMAN: They won’t even let you into the embassy?
SERB REFUGEE: No, no.
EASTERMAN: So you couldn’t even speak to them?
SERB REFUGEE: No. They just said, “Who are you? You are from Serbia. Bye-bye.”
EASTERMAN: How do you feel now?
SERB REFUGEE: Certainly betrayed, because we were expecting some help, but everybody forgotten about us.
SERB REFUGEE: We escaped from one prison into other prison, because we are trapped here. We are just nameless and homeless.
EASTERMAN: The foreign embassies are only obeying the rules, of course. And the Hungarians would be quite within their rights to send back anyone they feel has no cause to remain in Hungary. They haven’t done so yet, realizing perhaps that it mightn’t look too good if the men they did send back were thrown into a Serbian prison for desertion or draft evasion. They could get up to twenty years, or worse, because almost all these men have been actively opposed to the Milosovec regime for years, and they’ve already made enemies in the ruling Socialist Party. Their fear is now that Hungary will run out of patience and force them to go back to Serbia and the very uncertain fate that awaits them there.
SERB REFUGEE: My neighbor told me, “You and your friends, you invited NATO to bomb in Serbia. My son is in Kosovo and fighting for Serbia.”
SERB REFUGEE: “And you will pay for it.”
SERB REFUGEE: “And you will pay for it when the war is over.”
EASTERMAN: Did you receive threats against your life?
SERB REFUGEE: There was once on the telephone, a male voice on the telephone. He said, “You are on my list. I’ll get you.”
EASTERMAN: If there was a democratic government in Serbia, would you go back?
SERB REFUGEE: No.
EASTERMAN: Why not?
SERB REFUGEE: Because my family threatened me.
EASTERMAN: Your family threatened you?
SERB REFUGEE: Yeah. Yeah. My grandfather, my uncle. They kill me.
EASTERMAN: Your grandfather said that?
SERB REFUGEE: Grandfather, yeah.
SERB REFUGEE: I am for him traitor. He tell me that I don’t deserve to live in Serbia, you know.
EASTERMAN: So you believe if you went back your grandfather would kill you?
SERB REFUGEE: Yeah. Yeah. I believe.
EASTERMAN: So far the Hungarian authorities have shown no intention of sending ethnic Serbs back. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights monitoring group, doesn’t believe they will. But their president, Ferenc Koszeg, says it’s equally unlikely they’re going to do anything positive, like giving them refugee status. The reason, he says, is simple.
FERENC KOSZEG: Hungarian behavior is highly influenced by the media of the NATO and it’s quite certain that Hungary will not do anything which is seemingly different from the behavior of the NATO. Hungary is a country which is not very open to accept asylum seekers.
EASTERMAN: So for the Serbs, the ethnic Serbs, the future looks fairly grim?
KOSEG: Yes. It’s true. It’s true.
EASTERMAN: That impression was confirmed when I talked to Istvan Dobo, the head of the Directorate for Asylum Affairs in Hungary’s Immigration Department. Mr. Dobo says Serbs are still arriving claiming to be deserters influenced by NATO’s propaganda. And so he sees no reason to change policy on granting refugee status.
ISTVAN DOBO: First of all, as far as I know, no one permits those Yugoslav citizens, that if they will leave Yugoslavia, they will get refugee status. In any other country, whether it is a NATO member or not. And I also would mention that as far as I know there is no reason to provide any kind of protection just because someone left the army in his country of origin.
EASTERMAN: But do you not think that under the circumstances, the NATO countries, Western European countries, have a moral obligation to these Serbs, to actually take them in and do something about their situation?
ISTVAN DOBO: I could say yes, but unfortunately providing any kind of protection is a legal and not a moral question. But I would emphasize the reason why we rejected these applications, that during the procedure he or she couldn’t prove persecution.
EASTERMAN: But the question is, how does anyone get proof of any threat of persecution in such a situation. The problem for the Serbs really stems from the fact that the Kosovo War ended without a proper treaty. After the Bosnian War, the Dayton Accords provided an amnesty for deserters and draft evaders. There’s nothing like that for Kosovo. Ferenc Koszeg believes NATO was just too confident it would never need to worry about the Serb deserters.
KOSZEG: I think that NATO leadership, NATO countries, were convinced that the war would end with the end of the Milosovec regime, and therefore they were not thinking, what will happen to the people who left the country following their suggestion of NATO. But it did not happen. Milosovec survived the war and nobody can say how long his regime will last. So therefore, I think it’s high time to find a solution for these people who are now in a legal limbo without a real long-term protection.
EASTERMAN: Is this another example of Fortress Europe, in effect?
KOSZEG: Unfortunately it is.
EASTERMAN: The attitude of NATO and the EU to these asylum seekers is beginning to both worry and disgust the NGOs in Hungary and beyond. Stefan Berglund is the representative of the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Budapest. And he’s convinced it’s time the Western democracies accepted that they have a case to answer.
STEFAN BERGLUND: I think if I, during the last ten years, ever saw a real refugee fulfilling all the legal instrument requirements that there are, it would be the Kosovars who fled that conflict. And Hungary did not give refugee status to them. Also, when you look at the draft evaders, we feel quite clear that they would qualify as refugees. And yet they did not.
EASTERMAN: They are saying, that NATO countries, the European Union, and NATO countries, have effectively just washed their hands of them.
BERGLUND: I think that you could say that. I think those persons who instigated a leaflet campaign over the areas concerned do carry a very heavy responsibility.
EASTERMAN: The UNHCR has repeatedly urged the Hungarians to resolve the situation by granting refugee status to all Serbs of military age. But public opinion throughout the EU is against the UNHCR’s line. A fact of which Stefan Berglund is well aware.
BERGLUND: There is still, both in Central Europe, which Hungary represents, and Western Europe, xenophobic tendencies on the increase; which is perhaps best exemplified in elections, which we have seen now in Switzerland and after that in Austria where politicians on the far right have gained new ground.
EASTERMAN: The xenophobes are beginning to win?
BERGLUND: For the time being the xenophobic tendencies in Western and Central Europe are on the rise, yes.
EASTERMAN: And that must be a worry for you.
BERGLUND: Very much so. Very much so.
EASTERMAN: The UNHCR has taken on one asylum case as a test case and is prepared to pursue it to the Hungarian Supreme Court, however long that may take. Almost certainly it will be too long for many of the young Serbs I’ve been meeting. For them time is running out and that fact is now forcing them to rethink their future and to contemplate what so many others have done before them—an illegal border crossing into the European Union.
SERB REFUGEE: I think they have forgotten us at all. And I’m not sure that they care because I don’t see that. But they have prejudices to us because we are Serbs. I mean, Western, not the member states’ governments. I want to still believe that it’s not true, but the time is passing and I’m still here. It means the only solution for me is to go somewhere illegally, maybe to Austria. I think they have a responsibility to us to do something.
SERB REFUGEE: I am losing my life here. I lost best ten years of my life. I fought so many battles with the regime, my and my friends. And every battle was lost for us, for ten years. What did I done for ten years? Nothing. The regime was stronger and stronger, our position was divided, and everything was going downward. But when nobody is listening, when every battle is lost, I just said to myself, “Okay, now it’s time for my life.” And I just forget about my country and I forget about everything. I don’t have any more feeling of patriotism or something like that. I just want to go somewhere where I can live normal and enjoy my life a little bit.
EASTERMAN: Many of these men will, in the end, try to flee into Austria. With anti-immigrant feelings running high in a country that’s recently taken an extreme right-wing party into government, they’re likely to get even less of a welcome there than they had here in Hungary. But whether they stay or go, the EU and NATO governments cannot leave these Serbs on the conscience of Hungary for much longer. If they don’t take them in, they’ll come to them anyway. For Common Ground, I’m Max Easterman.
MCHUGH: Coming up, the debate over refugee status.
Jessen-Petersen: The nature of conflicts have changed over the last ten years, mainly since the end of the Cold War. What we are seeing now is largely internal conflicts with resulting internal displacement.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke recently proposed that the UN High Commission for Refugees expand its role to help internally displaced people, not just refugees who cross international borders. While seemingly a minor change, the issue has provoked opposition within international relief agencies. Some fear that changing the law would lead to violations of national sovereignty and even military intervention in the name of facilitating humanitarian relief. Common Ground‘s special correspondent Reese Ehrlich has more.
EHRLICH: The situation in Kosovo today demonstrates the thin line walked by international relief workers. Before the NATO war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees aided internally displaced Kosovo Albanians fleeing repression by Serbian forces. Today the UNHCR unloads supply trucks to help ethnic Serbs attacked by the US-allied Kosovo Liberation Army.
[sound of people unloading a truck]
JULIAN HERRERA: They’ve come here to seek refuge because they felt threatened. Some of them experienced harassment, verbal and physical.
EHRLICH: Julian Herrera, a UNHCR protection officer in Kosovo, says the ethnic Serbs are under attack by the Kosovo Liberation Army, known by its Albanian initials as the UCK.
HERRERA: Are the UCK fostering a multiethnic province? Are they encouraging the people, and in a real sense, to stay? Unfortunately, some of the statements taken down point the other way.
EHRLICH: In former Yugoslavia, ex-USSR, Central Africa, and elsewhere, humanitarian agencies are increasingly called upon to help people displaced within their own countries. When the UNHCR began operations in 1951, the relief agency only helped refugees who crossed international boundaries. But in the 1990s, civil wars and rebel insurgencies have created an estimated twenty million internally displaced people, or IDPs. In January, US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, expressing his own opinion, proposed an expansion of the UNHCR to cover IDPs. Some officials within the UNHCR, however, oppose expanding their agency’s mandate. Irene Kahn, is UNHCR’s Deputy Director of International Protection.
IRENE KAHN: I don’t think we need to change our mandate. Our mandate is flexible enough. I think what we really need is political will on the part of governments, and we need resources, like to do something about the issue. I mean, when it comes to internally displaced, it is really an issue of political will. Like so many other areas, the laws are there, the institutions are there. But if you don’t have the political will to move on these things, then it is very difficult to do something about it.
EHRLICH: Kahn points out that the UNHCR has helped IDPs since the early 1970s in countries such as Bangladesh. It provides that aid only when asked by the UN and with the permission, or least acquiescence, of the host country. But that’s not adequate, argues Sjoren Jessen-Petersen, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner. He says, in some cases, his organization was unable to respond to humanitarian emergencies because it lacked a legal mandate. He says that was one factor that prevented assistance to 500,000 internal refugees in Peru’s civil war.
Sjoren Jessen-Petersen: Ambassador Holbrooke and others, they are looking for an effective contribution to dealing [with] what is today a very worrying gap in the international system. What I think Ambassador Holbrooke and the others are looking for, that is an international system structure which is much more “protectable.” And it’s believed that UNHCR, by going even further than we have gone so far, because today we are responsible for some six million internal displacements in various parts of the world including Kosovo. But by going even further, maybe we could contribute in filling that gap.
EHRLICH: There has not always been such great international concern for IDPs. During the Cold War, the US and USSR prevented aid to IDPs bearing political embarrassment. For example, there was no major international effort to help IDPs in El Salvador or Guatemala during the US-backed counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s. Similarly, the USSR blocked help to internal refugees during its occupation of Afghanistan. But these days, one superpower has collapsed and the US doesn’t see its interests threatened by every civil war or guerrilla insurgency. The UNHCR’s Jessen-Petersen explains.
Jessen-Petersen: The nature of conflicts have changed over the last ten years, mainly since the end of the Cold War. What we are seeing now is largely internal conflicts with resulting internal displacement. In the past wars between nations, refugees would cross international borders, and we would deal with refugees in fairly stable asylum situations. Today they are internally displaced, in the middle of conflicts. Their numbers have gone up. Linked to that, and that would be the second reason, with better global communication, some of these issues are now better known.
EHRLICH: UNHCR’s Irene Kahn says helping IDPs is far more difficult than aiding traditional refugees. She says helping IDPs should continue on a case-by-case basis when there is an international consensus.
KAHN: There are, of course, enormous political difficulties of trying to help people inside their own country, very often against, from their own governments, or their own people. So taking into account the political difficulties, we also have the enormous difficulty of national sovereignty; many of the governments don’t want international organizations to intervene in their own country. So when you add up all those difficulties, then you can understand why some people feel that perhaps this is a very difficult issue and maybe we should be very cautious.
EHRLICH: If the UNHCR were to officially change its mandate, says Kahn, countries such as Russia and China would object. They fear the refugee issue could be used as an excuse for Western military intervention in Chechnya or Tibet.
KAHN: I think there is concern among some governments that this is yet another way of certain powerful states intervening in domestic situations. This is why it’s very important, as far as UNHCR is concerned, that our work be seen entirely as humanitarian and as a nonpolitical action.
EHRLICH: The issue of national sovereignty is not an easy one to resolve. For example, the military government in Myanmar, once known as Burma, cites national sovereignty as a reason to exclude major projects by international relief agencies. The military wants a free hand to fight separatist rebels and they say the rebels use refugee camps in neighboring Thailand as a safe haven. If relief agencies were to set up such camps inside Myanmar, the argument goes, it would only help the rebels.
[sounds of life at a refugee camp]
EHRLICH: A visit to the Massat refugee camp, just across Myanmar’s border inside Thailand, shows how complicated the situation has become.
[sounds of life at a refugee camp]
EHRLICH: International relief workers oversee distribution of rice to refugees waiting in long lines. The refugees are almost all of the Karen minority. They face tremendous repression by Myanmar’s military government. Camp resident Pastor Robert Kway, explains why many Karen come here.
PASTOR ROBERT KWAY: [speaking via a translator] Many have their homes burned down or their food stocks and home destroyed. So, because of the insecurity and because of the lack of food in the area, then they have to leave their home and then come over to the border for refuge. Another reason that these people, I mean they left their home is because of forced labor. During these years, because the military operation, the military offensive, I mean, thousands of villagers are required all the time to carry supplies from the rear bases to the front. And so everybody in this area, along the line of the communication are affected. So much so that not only men, but even women and children also are required to work.
EHRLICH: Kway and others concede that the Karen National Union, an armed guerrilla group fighting for an independent Karen nation, has tremendous influence on camp residents. Camp leaders concede that KNU guerrillas come across the border to rest up in the camp. And children in camp schools learn that the Karen should have their own separate nation, as in this song sung by a camp leader.
KAREN SONG LEADER: This is a Karen political song. It’s called “This Is Our Land.” It’s talking about Kothwii. Kothwii is the Karen land, called in Karen Kothwi, you see. So this is our land.
[Song leader sings a song in English]:
Kothwi a wondrous motherland
Discovered by our forefather’s clan.
Harmony is land, the Burmans clap from hands
Subjugate and all …..
EHRLICH: At a camp school this student was asked what she has learned in class about her people’s future.
A KAREN STUDENT: I want to see that the Karen has their own country and lives freely as they want.
EHRLICH: Independence for this small territory populated by Karen would splinter Myanmar, an already economically devastated country. No other country supports independence for the Karen minority. And international agencies certainly don’t want to be seen as supporting a guerrilla group, because, among other reasons, it would then become impossible to help refugees displaced inside Myanmar. Yet, they need to help the refugees in the camps. UNHCR’s Jessen-Peterson says the UNHCR has faced this problem before.
Jessen-Petersen: It is very difficult, because very often those who are fighters during the day are, as I say, the uncles and fathers in the evening. Certainly, UNHCR will not go into a place where military training is evident and visible, where arms are all over the camp, and all that. But how do you deal with it? This is clearly a state responsibility. To make sure that refugee camps are maintained as civilian humanitarian, to separate non-civilians from civilians. UNHCR evidently insists on compliance with what are international conventions on that. And also refuses to get involved if there is, what I would call, an obvious militarization.
KAREN SONG LEADER: [singing]
Stone me, oh fair weather
The Bible died.
The land be great for equal rights.
EHRLICH: As the situation in Myanmar demonstrates, the UNHCR faces an increasingly complicated world. Ambassador Holbrooke’s proposal to expand the organization’s mandate is just one more complication. Both supporters and critics of the proposal agree that millions of internal desperately help. Supporters argue that the UNHCR needs to make legal changes to help resolve the problem. Critics say relief agencies can do fine providing aid on a case-by-case basis, as they do now. In either case, however, providing aid to IDPs in faraway places will require a major shift in Western political priorities. The UN refusal to significantly help the Tutsi victims of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, stemmed not from lack of legal mandate, but from a lack of political will. Jessen-Petersen says for the UNHCR to expand its role, the UN must commit a lot more money and resources.
Jessen-Petersen: Before you accept additional responsibilities, you want to make sure that you can deliver. You want to make sure that you are efficient. It is not enough just to accept the job because you are flattered or you were asking for more. If you are not absolutely satisfied that we can make a contribution, that we can be effective, I don’t think it would make sense.
EHRLICH: The Holbrooke proposal is currently being discussed by the US State Department to determine if it should be adopted as US policy. If it is, the proposal will be submitted for a discussion and vote in the UN later this year. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich reporting from Geneva..
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