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

Phase 3 - 24 April to 11 May

More than 67,000 Kosovar Albanians entered Albania during this phase, a rate approximately two thirds that of the previous period. On average during Phase 3, fewer people were crossing the border into Albania and they had been in transit longer, compared to Phases 1 and 2: 48% of the refugees entering Albania during Phase 3 had left their homes before 24 April. The daily flows tended to be more even and consistent than the previous Phases (see Graph 1.1). Most of these new refugees departed from the southern region of Kosovo, especially from Prizren.

Mass killings documented by the OSCE and human rights organizations declined slightly during Phase 3, but nonetheless massacres were documented in Gnijlane, Suva Reka, and around Pristina. Human Rights Watch reported that there were mass killings in around Glogovac and other acts of violence against civilians in Djakovica and Vucitrn.31 As the weather improved, NATO attacks increased substantially relative to Phases 1 and 2, with heavy bombing in Pristina and Djakovica, and lower intensity in Prizren, Mitrovica, Lipljan, Pec, and Gnijlane (see Map 4.1).

Graph 4.1: Number of Kosovar Albanians leaving their homes and bombing patterns, by two-day period, for four municipalities (Pristina, Suva Reka, Prizren, and Pec)

About 36,000 people left their homes during Phase 3, and nearly all of them exited Kosovo during this same period. The relationship between people leaving home and people crossing the border is more complicated in Phase 3 than at earlier times. People who left their homes during Phase 3 tended to exit Kosovo more quickly than people who left their homes at earlier times. While 88% of the people who left their homes during Phase 1 exited Kosovo during Phase 1, the corresponding proportion for Phase 3 is 96%.

Map 4.1: Phase 3, 24 April-11 May
View Map 4.1
Note: Maps open in seperate windows.
Map 4.2: Refugee flow by municipality, 24 March-11 May
View Map 24.2

This difference between leaving home and crossing the border during Phase 3 is partly a result of so many people having left their homes during Phase 1. Even though a relatively small proportion of the people who left home in Phase 1 were still in transit during Phase 3, the absolute numbers of these refugees were still sufficient to dominate the border-crossing flow during Phase 3: half of the people who crossed the border in late April and early May had left their homes much earlier. It may also be that some of the people who left home during Phase 3 were still in transit in Kosovo when the border registry ended on 28 May (very few people entered Albania during June). Such people would obviously have never been registered as crossing an international border, and so they would not have influenced the analysis of transit times, thereby artificially depressing the estimated transit times for Phase 3. Notwithstanding these limitations, it seems that conditions that were detaining refugees from being able to exit Kosovo during Phases 1 and 2 were reduced during Phase 3, allowing people to exit more expeditiously.

The preponderance of new refugees came from southern municipalities, with Prizren contributing the largest number. After Prizren, the two municipalities immediately to its north -- Suva Reka and Orahovac -- had the heaviest outmigration, followed by Mitrovica (see Map 4.2).

As in previous phases, the bombing did not correspond to migration patterns in sequences that would support the claim that the bombing had motivated people to leave (see Graph 4.1). Mass killings and bombing seem to have occurred in significantly different areas from migration.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Pristina had been bombed more often than any other area. Nonetheless the bulk of migrations out of the municipality had occurred in Phase 1, and nearly constant bombing throughout the rest of the conflict does not seem to be related to ongoing exodus. Thousands of people chose to remain in Pristina throughout the war.

In Suva Reka, another location of major outmigration, nearly all of the refugees departed long before the first bombs fell in early May. In Pec, NATO attacked in the middle of the period of heavy outflow during Phase 1, then again during a relatively low flow in mid-April, and then before and after the early May peak in Phase 3.

Considering all of Kosovo, Prizren was the municipality with the heaviest outmigration during the conflict, and it was here that the bombing-migration pattern is perhaps most closely linked. The first bomb attack occurred on 27-28 March at the peak of Phase 1, a two-day period when more than 16,800 people left Prizren. Although more than 9,400 people had left in the four days prior to NATO’s attack, many more people left in the days following.

NATO hit targets around Prizren immediately after the bad-weather break in early April. This attack came slightly after the end of Phase 1 and during a period of relatively low outmigration flows. NATO attacks occurred on 5, 7, and 11 April, but flow levels during 7-13 April remained less than 1,000 people leaving Prizren per two-day period. After a very small increase in refugee departures in mid-April, refugee movements peaked again at the end of the month, 28 April-1 May. These flows could have been motivated by NATO attacks that occurred just prior, on 25 and 27 April. We are not sure. If the mid-April flows had increased with the coincident bombing attacks, it would be clearer that bombing was motivating refugee departures.

Given the lack of connection between the mid-April NATO attacks and subsequent refugee departures, a better explanation of refugee departure from Prizren is that departures followed the same pattern in Prizren as in other southern and western municipalities. In the broad terms suggested by the Phases presented in this report, Prizren’s pattern was similar to the patterns found in its neighbor to the north, Suva Reka, and to Pec in the far west, and to a lesser extent, Pristina. These municipalities (like others shown in Graph 2.1) had their heaviest flows in Phase 1 before 6 April, followed by a weeks-long period of relative calm, and then a renewed surge of refugees departing during Phase 3 in late April and early May (Pristina does not show this later increase). This pattern was different from the pattern of refugee outflow found in Mitrovica and Lipljan (shown in Graph 3.1). Other municipalities in the noth-central region showed the same pattern as Mitrovica, including Srbica, Vucitrn, and Kosovo Polje. In these north-central municipalities, the heaviest outflow occurred in the middle period of Phase 2.

After 11 May, total refugee flows through Morina never rose above the low thousands, and most days numbered in the dozens. Both Macedonia and Albania developed interim structures to manage the enormous numbers of refugees in those countries, and massive international assistance kept the situations from becoming desperate. Although the conflict between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia continued until late June, by mid-May the refugee crisis had stabilized.


31 “Ethnic Cleansing” in the Glogovac Municipality, New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999; also HRW Kosovo Flash #34 & #40. Return to Text

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