Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, New Jersey
Chairman, Committee on Migration
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
April 6, 1999
The U.S. Catholic bishops have twice addressed Serbian aggression and ethnic cleansing, as well as the continuing NATO bombing campaign. This statement focuses upon the flight of refugees out of Kosovo because of Serbian aggression.
The U.S. Catholic bishops are extremely concerned about the plight of Kosovar refugees fleeing the terror enveloping their homeland. Close to one-half million Kosovars have been driven from their homes in recent days by Serbian forces, creating a crisis which threatens to undermine the stability of the surrounding region and put at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons. Justice requires that the Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland be given the opportunity to return to their homes in safety.
In order to avert a humanitarian disaster, the international community must act quickly to protect the Kosovar refugee population and provide basic necessities to those in need. Through the work of Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Church in the United States is helping to meet the immediate humanitarian needs created by this crisis, but a long-term strategy which addresses the plight of the refugees also is required.
Specifically, the Catholic bishops believe that the U.S. government and the international community should take the following steps to alleviate this extremely grave refugee situation:
- Safety of the refugees must be ensured. First and foremost, the United States and its allies should take steps to ensure that fleeing refugees are protected by providing them a secure environment with basic necessities. Many of the refugees have been severely traumatized by their experiences and must feel that they will not be subject to further attacks. Large numbers remain on or near the border of Kosovo, and should be transported to safer areas. Those still inside Kosovo proper should be allowed to cross borders.
- Temporary measures must be taken. The international community must find temporary locations for the Kosovar refugees which allow them to live in dignity until they are able to return to their homes. Asylum in the region must be preserved. We applaud the decision of the Clinton Administration to accept 20,000 refugees for temporary relocation, which, along with similar commitments from other countries, will help alleviate the pressure now on Macedonia and Albania to accommodate the entire population. With such a large number of refugees in this crisis, we believe that the Clinton Administration should consider temporarily accepting more refugees in the days ahead.
- Respect for the Right to Return. Any interim or final settlement to this conflict needs to respect the right of refugees to return to Kosovo. Every effort must be made, to the fullest extent possible, to achieve this goal in any final agreement.
- Plans should be made for long-term durable solutions. While the most desirable result for the refugees and the international community is the eventual return of the refugees to Kosovo, it is not too early to plan for long-term contingencies if voluntary return to their homes is not an option. In this event, resettlement opportunities should be identified within the region. Considering the economic and political fragility of the area, however, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should begin considering criteria for resettlement to other countries, such as the United States, of certain numbers of Kosovar refugees who are unable, for whatever reason, to return to their homeland. For example, some refugees may be so traumatized from their experiences that they will never be able to return and live normal lives. These persons, along with appropriate others, should be given consideration for resettlement as the need arises.
We are concerned, however, that the United States is considering the placement of 20,000 refugees in Guam or at Guantanamo Bay naval base. The ability of Guam to handle a large number of refugees in the appropriate manner is questionable, and the conditions at Guantanamo Bay for handling refugees have been inadequate in the past. The prison-like atmosphere at Guantanamo Naval Base could only exacerbate the trauma and suffering of the Kosovar refugees, who should be placed in a hospitable environment and not in conditions of confinement. As we learned with the experience of Cubans and Haitians placed at Guantanamo in the early 1990s, access to appropriate medical care, housing, and other appropriate social services in this setting is problematic.
The U.S. government should look for locations closer to Kosovo, such as military bases in Europe, as possible temporary homes for the refugees. If this is not possible, locations should be considered in the United States. Any location should have the appropriate basic necessities, such as basic medical care, shelter, and social services, including trauma counseling.
Additionally, the international community should keep families and even villages or towns together in the same location to facilitate mutual support and security. Families who are separated from certain members should be kept close to Kosovo in order to facilitate family reunification.