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Great Seal Julia V. Taft
Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
Question-and-Answer Session
With the U.S. Information Agency
Washington, DC, October 2, 1998

Released by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, October 8, 1998

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U.S. Government Humanitarian Assistance in Kosovo

As the crisis in Kosovo has worsened in recent months, the U.S. Government has devoted more attention and resources to help protect and assist a large population of internally displaced persons and refugees throughout the region. In this interview, Julia V. Taft, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, answers questions about U.S. Government humanitarian assistance and concerns in Kosovo.

Mrs. Taft's Bureau, PRM, has primary responsibility within the U.S. Government for formulating policies on population, refugees, and migration, and for administering U.S. refugee assistance and admissions programs. PRM administers and monitors U.S. contributions to multilateral organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to protect and assist refugees abroad.

QUESTION: We know the U.S. plays a major role in NATO, which could carry out armed attacks against Serbian forces in Kosovo. Yet what has the U.S. done to help the people in Kosovo who have been displaced or otherwise affected by hostilities?

MRS. TAFT: Since the crisis began in February, the U.S. Government, including the State Department, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, has committed more than $58 million in financial and material support to relief agencies providing humanitarian assistance to victims of the conflict in Kosovo. Much of this assistance has been provided since the crisis widened in the last few months. For instance, on September 9 President Clinton authorized $20 million in emergency funds to aid refugees and displaced persons in Kosovo.

U.S. Government humanitarian assistance includes direct financial contributions, commodities, and equipment, which have been provided to international and non-governmental organizations working to help conflict victims within the province and those who have fled across national boundaries.

QUESTION: How many people are in need of assistance? What are the dangers?

MRS. TAFT: We estimate there are at least 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kosovo. Of these, at least 50,000, and perhaps up to 100,000, are literally without adequate shelter, living on the hillsides and in the forests of Kosovo. These victims are the most vulnerable because, as winter weather descends, they face exposure to the elements and disease. Unless they can return to their homes, or otherwise be provided adequate food, shelter, and safety, we fear many may die.

Elsewhere in the region, we estimate there are 44,000 IDPs in Montenegro, 17,000-20,000 refugees in Albania, and 8,000-10,000 refugees in Bosnia. By and large, these people are not in imminent danger, and they are receiving adequate assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and relief agencies.

QUESTION: What kind of assistance are relief agencies providing in Kosovo?

MRS. TAFT: Typically, our financial contributions enable relief agencies to purchase food, clothing, medicine, and shelter material--basic materials yet all vital to the well-being of people who have been forced to flee their homes. We have used the $20 million in emergency funds authorized by the President to support the activities of UNHCR, the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, and several NGOs, the International Rescue Committee, World Vision Relief and Development, Child Advocacy International, and International Medical Corps.

These funds, among other things, will enable relief organizations to buy medical supplies and carry out immunizations; provide shelter material--plastic sheeting, wood sheets, strips, hammers, nails, tape--for tens of thousands of IDPs and returnees; provide short-term rations for IDPs; and provide immediate, on-site emergency and preventive child health care for returning children.

One need we are responding to is to help feed Kosovar Albanians and Montenegrins who have housed displaced persons. Besides sharing their homes, they've shared their food. Yet food--especially in Kosovo--is difficult to come by in light of operations of the Serb forces and an informal blockade of commercial food deliveries.

QUESTION: Will the efforts you described be sufficient to avert a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo?

MRS. TAFT: They would be if the security situation were to improve. People won't return to their homes while they are terrified. Until there is a complete cease-fire, and President Milosevic completely withdraws the military and Interior Ministry forces that have repressed and persecuted innocent non-combatants, frightened people will hesitate to return home, where they would have shelter and be more accessible to aid agencies. Moreover, Serb authorities must allow relief organizations and supplies free and unimpeded access in Kosovo. This point is specifically cited in Resolution 1199, which the UN Security Council adopted on September 23.

Serb road-check points, police harassment, and police movements have hindered the work of relief agencies, and land mines on roads have slowed delivery of humanitarian materials. The brutal slaying of three local aid workers in August underscored how dangerous the environment is, even for those who are doing humanitarian work. In at least one recent instance, relief workers also were killed and injured by a mine. In addition, numerous administrative obstacles have hindered aid distribution. Relief agencies have faced unnecessary delays in getting visas from the Serb authorities for humanitarian workers to enter Kosovo. And clearance of equipment and supplies through customs needs to occur more speedily.

Without a cease-fire and without access to conflict victims, the threat of a large-scale humanitarian disaster in Kosovo grows greater each day.

QUESTION: Won't humanitarian relief efforts be halted, or at least interrupted, if NATO launches armed attacks against Serb forces in Kosovo? How is this issue being addressed?

MRS. TAFT: We know there will be a decrease of relief work if NATO attacks prove necessary. We have recommended to NGOs and international organizations that they ensure their staff are evacuated to safety well before any military action begins. However, we believe it is necessary to stop the aggression--through political or military means--to gain full humanitarian access, as well as end repression of citizens. If we did not take all means necessary to stop the aggression, we would be settling for the limited access and regular harassment of humanitarian workers that has become the norm in Kosovo.

QUESTION: If military force is used, won't civilians, including internally displaced persons, be caught in the middle?

MRS. TAFT: The object of any NATO military action would be FRY military targets. Of course, every effort would be made to avoid civilian casualties. NATO and UNHCR are increasing their communication with each other, and are keeping one another briefed on the situation. It is an unfortunate but irrefutable fact that President Milosevic's policies of attacking his own fellow citizens, on such a large and brutal scale, have led to the current situation.

QUESTION: Why are you so intent in helping Kosovar Albanians when Serbia-Montenegro hosts hundreds of thousands of Serbs who fled from Croatia?

MRS. TAFT: We have always been concerned with Serb refugees and have supported UNHCR in recent years to help these refugees. On a recent visit to a Serb refugee camp, I was dismayed by the need for additional relief, and PRM has provided an additional $6.1 million to UNHCR in response to an appeal to aid these needy refugees.

[end of document]

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