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Refugee repatriation difficulties under the microscope

As the deadline for the repatriation of Kosovar refugees approaches, the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees and non-governmental organisations have been looking at the sensitive issue of how to deal with forcible repatriations.

As the deadline for refugees from Kosovo to leave Switzerland and return home approaches, officials from the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees and from non-governmental organisations have been holding talks on how the sensitive issue of forcible repatriations should be dealt with.

There are currently an estimated 34,000 Kosovar refugees in Switzerland who will become eligible for forcible repatriation on June 1st. The Swiss Federal Office for Refugees accepted an invitation from Swiss Labour Assistance, a non-governmental organisation which has reconstruction projects in Kosovo, to take part in a round table discussion on the situation for returnees.

"Of course forcible repatriation is the most difficult part of our job," said Jean Daniel Gerber, head of the federal refugee office, "it's easy to accept people, and put them up here, but when we have to forcibly remove families with young children it's a headache for all concerned."

Non-governmental organisations are especially worried that vulnerable groups, such as single mothers with young children, will be forcibly repatriated although they have no one to help them in Kosovo.

"These groups should be treated differently," said Regine Aeppli of Swiss Labour Assistance, "many women lost their men in the war and so don't have the family structure to support them. But I think Swiss government officials know this; they know they won't be able to send everyone back in a few weeks."

In fact, although the Swiss government has suggested that all the refugees will have left Switzerland by the end of this year, Gerber himself is not so sure. "I think we have to accept that this process could take up to three years," he said.

Meanwhile, questions are being asked about how ready Kosovo is to receive all the returnees. At the end of May Germany, too, will begin forcible repatriation of its 180,000 Kosovar refugees.

"I'm hopeful that we will at least be able to put a roof over the heads of our returnees," said Remo Gautschi of the Swiss Development Agency. "I've just returned from Kosovo and I am very impressed with how hard everyone is working, especially the Kosovars themselves. They are very active."

But according to Hans Koschnik, former European Union administrator in the Bosnian town of Mostar, 'houses are not enough. People need schools for their children, they need local hospitals, and above all they need jobs.'

These are things which will take much longer to achieve; Kosovo currently has an estimated unemployment rate of 85 per cent. Furthermore, a recent study by the United Nations Children's Fund suggested that up to 90 per cent of schools had been destroyed or significantly damaged in the conflict.

"I think it will take at least a generation before we see real peace and stability in Kosovo," said Koschnik. "Above all we need to encourage people to think about the future. It was a mistake by everybody in Bosnia to think always about the past. The answer doesn't lie in the past, it lies in the future."

by Imogen Foulkes

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