The stream of refugees into Macedonia was reduced to a trickle Thursday after the Macedonian government closed its border at Blace to ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo. The few Kosovar Albanians who passed into Macedonia said several thousand more refugees just inside the province were waiting to get out.
These accounts came on the heels of Wednesday's reports by observers for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that Macedonian police had forced more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians back into Kosovo and into the hands of Serbian police.
After being pushed back to the Kosovo side of the border by Macedonian police, the refugees were forcibly removed and in some cases beaten by Serbian police, according to UNHCR and OSCE observers on hand. The refugees were taken out of sight from the border, and their status is unknown.
Macedonian government officials today denied that police forced refugees back into Kosovo, but they were not clear about the status of the border crossing at Blace. Nikola Kljusev, the minister of defense, said, "The borders are not closed; the borders are controlled." He wouldn't confirm a government policy linking the number of refugees allowed to enter at Blace to the number airlifted to third countries, as some reports have stated.
The Macedonian government did announce one offer of good will, though not without a warning. In response to the current overcrowding in the camps, the government has agreed to enlarge two camps, Senokos and Blace, and has authorized the construction of one additional camp. "After that, no more building," said Boris Trajkovski, Macedonia's deputy foreign minister.
Before Wednesday's closing, a recent influx of refugees swelled the number of Kosovar Albanians in Macedonia to nearly 250,000, according to UNHCR. In this small, land-locked country of 2 million, the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo represent roughly a 12 to 13 percent increase in population. According to Kljusev, "The world experience shows in these situations, if a country faces a 5 to 8 percent increase, destabilization is possible."
Macedonia has been accused of using refugees as a bargaining chip to get more aid from the West. The relief community reacted strongly to Wednesday's border closing, condemning the Macedonian government for leveraging refugees for aid money, and expressed concern about the security and conditions of the refugees caught inside Kosovo.
"We're alarmed; this is the first time since the earlier disaster," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UNHCR, referring to the earlier border closing, when thousands of refugees were stuck in "no-man's land," a muddy, fetid field without food, shelter, or sanitation. A representative from the UNHCR met with Macedonia's interior minister Thursday in an effort to resolve the border dilemma.
Macedonian officials do have cause to worry because this former Yugolsav republic has its own ethnic tensions, which have only been heightened by the influx of refugees. Official government sources list ethnic Albanians, the country's largest minority, as 22 percent of the total pre-crisis population, with ethnic Macedonians as 66 percent. Ethnic Albanians in Skopje dispute those figures, and say the government has routinely undercounted their population.