Bosnia and Herzegovina welcomes over 1 million returnees

UNHCR has hailed this as a significant milestone in the long process of rebuilding a nation shattered during the 1992-5 war. The agency has also called for continued international support to make the returns sustainable.

Returnees rebuilding Kijevo village in Bosnia and Herzegovina.   © UNHCR/R.Chalasani

GENEVA, Sept 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has welcomed the return of more than 1 million people uprooted by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and appealed to the international community to sustain these returns by continuing reconstruction assistance to the war-torn country.

On Tuesday, UNHCR announced that a total of 1,000,473 people - including 440,147 former refugees and 560,326 internally displaced persons - had returned to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the end of July. More than 2 million fled their homes amid the 1992-5 war.

"The significance of reaching this landmark figure cannot be overstated," said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers. "It demonstrates the determination of so many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina to close this devastating chapter in their lives. It also demonstrates the wider benefits for the international community of devoting considerable effort and resources to resolving the problems in refugees' regions of origin: during the early 1990s Western Europe was receiving hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers a year from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now they are receiving a fraction of that."

Of the total returns, nearly three-quarters went back to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one-quarter to Republika Srpska. Some 20,000 have returned to Brcko District, which is administered separately from the two Entities enshrined in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.

Lubbers added, "While celebrating the return of so many, we should not forget that for a significant proportion of them, it was an extremely hard and courageous decision to make, in the face of a multitude of legal, economic and social difficulties. It is now almost nine years since Dayton and tremendous progress has been achieved, but there are still many difficulties to overcome, and continued support from the international community will remain essential for several years to come."

UNHCR's Representative in Sarajevo, Udo Janz, said that although the overall rate of returns has fallen sharply over the past two years, he was nevertheless encouraged by the high proportion of people returning to areas where they are in a minority - including many of the places that were worst hit by the conflict and the accompanying large-scale killing and atrocities.

"Clearly the situation remains volatile in many parts of the country, so the challenge before us now is to consolidate the returns that have taken place and make them sustainable," said Janz.

A total of 15,470 people returned during the first seven months of 2004. Of these, 10,589 - or two-thirds - were so-called minority returns. There have been significant increases in some areas, including for example in the eastern part of Republika Srpska, including in Bratunac, Srebrenica and Zvornik.

Since 1996, 446,795 people - or just under half the total number of returnees - have returned to municipalities where they are currently in a minority.

"It is vital that the international community, together with the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina at all levels, continue to assist those who have returned or have decided to do so in the future," said Janz. "The property laws, which allowed pre-war owners to repossess their property occupied by others, has been a critical element in this success story. But the returnees still need help to rebuild their destroyed houses. They still need help to earn a living. Such support is especially required for minority returnees."

UNHCR first established an office in Bosnia in 1991, before the conflict broke out. By 1995, the agency was spearheading a huge relief operation benefiting around 1.5 million people. The effort included running relief convoys and the Sarajevo airlift - the longest-running air-bridge in history.

Under the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement, UNHCR shifted its attention to supporting the safe and sustainable return of refugees and the internally displaced. Since then, as part of that effort, the agency has helped reconstruct thousands of houses, assisted returnees with essential domestic items, supported a host of local micro-credit organisations to assist returnees with income-generating activities, helped the Bosnian Women's Initiative to become a local non-governmental organisation, and recently succeeded in transforming the Legal Aid Centre Network into one of Bosnia's foremost NGOs, Vasa Prava (Your Rights).

In total, the UN refugee agency has spent over $500 million in project funds in the country since 1995. But as humanitarian funds in support of the return process are steadily declining, the agency is relying increasingly on the help of development agencies and financial institutions to bridge the gap that lies between humanitarian assistance and sustainable development.

"There is still so much to be done," said Janz. "Outstanding tasks include the repair of essential infrastructure, housing, job creation, and investments in the health and education sectors. It takes a long time to repair a country as badly damaged as this one was - physically, economically and psychologically."

A large number of refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina remain in the region, including around 100,000 living in Serbia and Montenegro and in Croatia. There are believed to be around 50,000 others living in other parts of Europe or elsewhere who have not yet found a durable solution. And a further 313,000 are still displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. The remaining half a million refugees who fled the war are thought to have found a solution, including through citizenship, elsewhere in the world.