GENEVA -- The exodus resulting from war and suffering in the former Yugoslavia is presenting Europe with its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, prompting urgent appeals from U.N. refugee officials for a political solution.
Roughly 2.3 million people have fled from towns and villages in the former federation of six republics since the country began to disintegrate in June 1991, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of the displaced people are from Croatia or from Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose moves toward independence have met with fierce resistance from Serbian fighters backed by the Yugoslav army.
Another 850,000 people are trapped in their homes in four Bosnian towns -- Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, and Gorazde -- besieged by Serbian nationalist forces, the U.N. agency says.
The high commissioner for refugees, Sadako Ogata of Japan, has called an international conference of foreign and deputy foreign ministers for next Wednesday at her headquarters in Geneva to galvanize support for the agency's relief work and to push government leaders, particularly in Europe, to intensify their search for a political solution.
"The burden on the host countries is becoming unbearable," Mrs. Ogata said in her call for the conference, and "the plight of the displaced is increasingly desperate."
Of the 2.3 million refugees, more than 400,000 have fled to countries outside the former Yugoslavia's borders. Germany has admitted the largest number, 200,000, followed by Hungary, with 60,000; Austria, with 50,000; and Sweden, with 40,000, according to unofficial government estimates provided to the U.N. agency.
More than 1.8 million refugees are living precariously within countries of the former Yugoslav federation: roughly 700,000 in Croatia, including areas of the republic designated as protected refugee zones by the United Nations; 630,000 in Bosnia-Herzegovina; 375,000 in Serbia; and smaller numbers in Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
Officials at the refugee commissioner's headquarters view the Yugoslav catastrophe as a chilling reminder of World War II and ** its aftermath, when millions of people were uprooted by military destruction or by policies of persecution under Hitler and Stalin.
Most of the people displaced in the former Yugoslavia "are the very refugees the 1951 Geneva Convention was written to protect," Mrs. Ogata wrote in an article in today's issue of the German weekly Die Zeit. "The vast majority of these refugees have been brutally driven from their homes by a reprehensible practice known as 'ethnic cleansing.' "