Human Rights Watch today called on Macedonia to keep its borders open and to provide safe refuge to all those fleeing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo.

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that a train carrying as many as 1,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to Macedonia was sent back to Kosovo by Macedonian authorities on March 30. Human Rights Watch researchers on the ground report long delays and obstacles for refugees crossing into Macedonia from Kosovo.

"It is simply unconscionable to send refugees home when they are fleeing Yugoslav government atrocities in Kosovo," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "It is also a violation of Macedonia's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Macedonia must keep its borders open to those fleeing Kosovo, and provide refugees with swift and safe asylum."

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Macedonia has an obligation not to return any refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened (on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion). Kosovar Albanian refugees denied entry into Macedonia are at serious risk of persecution in Kosovo, and a failure to provide them refuge is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.

The Macedonian government closed its border to all citizens of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from March 22 to March 23, before the NATO bombing began. Since then, 14,000 refugees from Kosovo have entered the country, bringing the total number of refugees in Macedonia to over 30,000.

Human Rights Watch recognizes the legitimate concerns of the Macedonian government about the de-stabilizing effect such large numbers of refugees could have on inter-ethnic relations within Macedonia. But such concerns do not justify closing the border to those fleeing persecution. Instead, Human Rights Watch called on the international community to provide the necessary financial aid and practical assistance to help the Macedonian government cope with this crisis.

"If not handled properly, the refugee flow into Macedonia could tilt that country's fragile ethnic balance," said Kenneth Roth. "The international community must provide Macedonia with the necessary aid and assistance to meet the needs of the thousands of refugees crossing its borders."