Policy or Panic? The Flight of Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, March-May 1999

Executive Summary

Why did hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians leave Kosovo from late March to mid-May 1999? Were they fleeing conflict between Yugoslav troops and the Kosovo Liberation Army, were they moving to escape NATO air attacks, or was their departure the result of a campaign of ethnic cleansing?

This report is based on administrative records maintained by Albanian government officials who registered hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians as they passed through the small border post near the village of Morina between March and May 1999. The report also examines other official records of refugee movements as well as surveys conducted in refugee camps in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unlike previous analyses which have relied exclusively on refugee testimonies, this study examines the causes of the refugee exodus by evaluating the statistical patterns of the exodus itself. Using innovative statistical methods, the study breaks new ground for human rights analysis by contextualizing the claims made by witnesses with analysis of objective administrative data.

The study found that refugee flows out of Kosovo occurred in three distinct phases. During the beginning of each phase, the flow of refugees was relatively light. Then the number of refugees leaving Kosovo would rise to a high point (a peak, group of peaks, or plateau) during the middle of the phase, before tapering off toward the end of the phase. During the first phase (24 March – 6 April), most of the refugees came from western and southwestern Kosovo. In the second phase (7 – 23 April), most of the refugees left their homes in the northern and central municipalities. During the final phase (24 April – 11 May), refugees came largely from the western and southern municipalities.

By considering the number of people who left each municipality over time, and comparing those patterns to the times when NATO bomb attacks and alleged mass killings occurred, the study concludes that only a small fraction of Kosovar Albanians fled Kosovo as a direct result of NATO bombing raids. It also concludes that the mass exodus of refugees from Kosovo occurred in patterns so regular that they must have been coordinated. In the context of qualitative accounts given by refugees, the most likely explanation for the migration is that Yugoslav authorities planned and implemented a centrally organized campaign to clear at least certain regions of ethnic Albanians.

The findings of this report suggest that the refugee flows do not necessarily follow sequences of mass killings. As with bombing, mass killings occasionally coincided with heavy refugee flows. However, there are many areas from which many refugees departed but where there were no massacres, and there are other areas in which mass killings were committed yet from which there were relatively few refugees. Finally, this report finds that NATO’s bombing was tactically ineffective at stopping the forced eviction of Kosovar Albanians. While NATO bombing was not the cause of the mass migration, neither did the bombing stop Yugoslav forces from driving hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes.

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AAAS Science and Human Rights Program