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Refugees face a harsh winter act now if aid engineers don't

Winter is still five months away but aid engineers in Albania are becoming acutely aware that planning to shelter thousands of Kosovan refugees in tented camps must start now. Matthew Jones reports.

This week the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Albania began relocating 35,000 of the 440,000 Kosovan refugees who have fled ethnic oppression in Yugoslavia. They are being moved from mountainous northern Albania to the warmer south and west.

UNHCR is anticipating that, even with a rapid end to the conflict between NATO and Yugoslavia, refugees will be unable to return home until after the onset of north Albania's harsh winter. Even if peace does come this summer, many refugees will have to stay in Albania until homes thought to have been destroyed or vandalised by Yugoslav troops are made habitable again.

As winter progresses, many of the new camps in low lying western areas near the coast will also become too cold to house refugees in single-skin tents. To avoid large scale health problems warmer more durable accommodation is needed.

According to UNHCR infrastructure co-ordinator, civil engineer Muhamed Mukalled, the preferred option is to try to keep as many refugees as possible with Albanian host families.

'Albanians have a long tradition of hospitality and this is viewed as by far the best way of dealing with them,' he says.

Around two thirds of the refugees in the country are already in this position, but there are signs that the honeymoon period between hosts and refugees is coming to an end.

Albanian wages are low - as little as £44 a month for a practising surgeon - and families are large. Supporting refugees is proving a heavy financial burden for many.

The UNHCR is offering £6 a month to host families for each refugee they shelter. But some aid workers doubt this will be enough to stop refugees from leaving their hosts or being asked to leave under the emotional strain of living in close confinement. It seems certain that the number of refugees entering the tented camps is likely to rise rather than fall.

There are other solutions and engineers will play an important part in advising the policy makers on the best way forward.

Old factories, warehouses and public buildings left derelict since the civil unrest caused by the fall of communism in 1992 and the collapse of fraudulent pyramid selling schemes in 1997 are being renovated and converted into indoor accommodation at a cost of about £310 per refugee.

Although cramped they are warmer than the tented camps and better serviced in terms of water, electricity and sewerage.

About 35,000 refugees are already being housed in this way and a survey is due to be completed next week to see what extra capacity there is. But aid engineers who have worked in the country for some time believe that the number will be limited.

'Whatever we do to rehabilitate existing buildings I do not think the number we will be able to house will be anything more than 100,000,' says European Community Humanitarian Office special advisor Ben Verbeke.

Another solution being considered is to house the balance of refugees in prefabricated villages. Brown & Root has come up with an ambitious proposal to import high quality portable prefabricated units from Japan which could be transported later to Kosovo (See News). This idea could find favour with UNHCR and the international aid donors, but some aid engineers are urging caution.

'There are a number of policy issues which still need to be resolved. If you put prefab camps close to urban centres we need to know what sort of load they will exert on the crumbling infrastructure already there. If you put them in rural areas providing the infrastructure will be difficult and incredibly expensive,' says Verbeke.

There are also social questions. 'The UNHCR has carried out schemes like this already in Kosovo but it creates jealousy with the older established populations which may not be living in very good accommodation themselves,' says International Committee of the Red Cross engineer Glen Hanna.

One way around this may be to build more permanent prefabricated camps which are viewed as social housing projects to be handed on to the Albanian population once the Kosovars have returned home. New prefabricated villages would then have to be built in Kosovo if the damage to homes is as bad as is being reported.

This may be no more expensive than the portable camp idea since the transportation of the units to Kosovo would be difficult over badly degraded and mountainous roads. It would also give something back to the Albanians.

Another alternative being mooted by Oxfam is to replace tents with rapid- to-construct family shelters which it has developed with Cambridge University.

The shelters would have strong frames made from plastic drinking water pipes and could support a double skin insulated with rock wool or glass fibre. They would be cheap and could be manufactured locally but would not provide the same level of comfort to refugees used to eastern European standards.

Ultimately the solution will depend on the availability of funds from the international community.

'We have to strike a balance between what is feasible and what is possible in terms of resources,' says Mukalled. But in putting forward solutions engineers must consider what is most appropriate not only for the refugees, but also for the rest of Albania.

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