Swiss anticipate Balkan refugee influx

Prizren, one of the main towns in Kosovo vario-press

Switzerland could be directly affected if Kosovo were to fulfil its intention of declaring independence in the next few days.

This content was published on January 31, 2008 - 18:05

There are fears an upsurge of unrest in the Balkans could unleash a further wave of immigrants. The police authorities are preparing an emergency plan to cope with a possible influx.

Since the number of asylum seekers has fallen in recent years, many cantons have closed their reception centres and are in no position to deal with a sudden upsurge, warns Karin Keller-Sutter, deputy head of the cantonal directors of police.

If large numbers of refugees were to appear, they would have to be housed initially in army camps, she told Le Temps newspaper.

But she said that while provisions were being made, it was not possible to predict what would happen in the Balkans.

"There is no 'Balkan plan' as such, even if we need to pay careful attention to what happens in the next few days," she said.

Switzerland is already home to some 340,000 people from the region.

Better cooperation

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey is already on record as supporting the independence of Kosovo.

For its part, the government will decide in due course whether to recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state, according to foreign ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel.

"Clarifying the status of Kosovo is key for stability and security in the region and for the entire population," he told swissinfo.

Knuchel does not expect a renewal of the conflict of the 1990s thanks to Serbia's assurance it will seek a peaceful resolution, and the presence of international peacekeeping forces in the region.

He added that cooperation on judicial and police matters as well as on immigration issues could become easier and more efficient with a sovereign state of Kosovo.

Kosovo independence

Many experts believe that an independent Kosovo is in Switzerland's interest.

Independence would keep the Kosovo Albanians at home, Cyrill Stieger, southeastern Europe expert of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.

He thinks that violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs of the kind seen in Kosovo in 2004 is likely if independence is delayed once more and the pent-up frustration bursts out again.

"If there were to be a renewal of violence, even more people would flee here."

But he warned that independence would not solve Kosovo's problems overnight. It was not only the constant ethnic and political pressure from Serbia which drove the Kosovars from their homeland, but also poverty, he said.

Kosovo is certainly no paradise for investors. But he believes that without independence that will not change.

Freeing Serbia from Kosovo

"It is in Switzerland's basic interest that Kosovo's future legal status should be clarified soon," Holm Sundhaussen, Professor at the Eastern European Institute of the Free University of Berlin argues. "Until this happens everything remains at an impasse."

He described Kosovo as a burden to Serbia, despite the emotional historical ties with the province. "Serbia risks holding up its own development because of Kosovo," he warned.

He makes a comparison with Germany's loss of its territories in eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, an essential prerequisite for the country's new beginning, however painful the experience was at the time.

The entire Balkan area east of Croatia to the Bosphorus covers an area smaller than France, but contains nine states, numerous different ethnic groups and minorities, and faces a plethora of economic and social problems.


History of Kosovo and Serbia

Until the 14th century Kosovo was the centre of the Serbian empire. It occupies a special place in Serbian history as the site of the battle of Kosovo Polje of 1389, in which the Ottomans smashed the Serbian army, and which became a symbol for Serbian resistance to the Ottomans.

During Ottoman rule, which lasted until 1912, much of the Christian Slav population left the province.

When Serbia recovered the province, many Serbian settlers moved in.

After the Second World War Kosovo became an autonomous area within Serbia.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pursued a discriminatory policy against the ethnic Albanian population, excluding them from key positions.

The Serbian army occupied the province in 1999. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the ensuing conflict – many of them to Switzerland. In the summer of 1999 Nato intervention forced the Serbs to withdraw.

Kosovo was placed under a transitional UN administration at the end of the war. Elections held in 2007 brought to power the Albanian Democratic Party, which had promised to declare independence.

Talks on the future status of Kosovo ended in stalemate at the end of 2007. Serbia vowed to resist Kosovo independence.

Serbian presidential elections were held in January 2008 with a run-off due on February 3. Kosovo independence has been an issue in the campaign.

Ethnic Albanians outnumber ethnic Serbs and other minority groups in the province by about nine to one.

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