New housing helps cut the number of collective centres in Serbia

News Stories, 21 August 2008

© UNHCR/V.Petkovic
Members of one of the families from Kosovo explore their new apartment in Vranje, south Serbia.

VRANJE, Serbia, August 21 (UNHCR) Almost a decade after fleeing their village in Kosovo and living in a succession of soulless and dilapidated collective centres, the five members of the Blagojevic family have moved into their own apartment in the southern Serbia town of Vranje.

"It feels good to finally see my own nameplate on the door," said the family patriarch, Zoran Blagojevic, who has also found a job as janitor for the building they have moved into. His son Uros, who was nine when they left Ljubizda village in central Kosovo, has just graduated from a technical school in Vranje and will help Zoran maintain the central heating system.

The family's fortune is also good news for the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees (SCR) and UNHCR, who have been working with donors to close Serbia's remaining 60 collective centres housing some 6,000 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) down from 26,000 in some 340 centres in January 2002.

UNHCR contributed US$440,000 towards the construction of the apartment block that the Blagojevic now live in, along with 15 other refugee families from Kosovo and four vulnerable local families. They will only have to pay for utilities and will receive additional support from local social welfare centres.

The actual building work on land donated by the municipal authorities was conducted by UNHCR partner, Intersos of Italy, which also provided kitchen appliances and furnished the units.

A similar project has just started in the eastern Serbian town of Zajeèar. The finished residential block will provide accommodation for 16 families currently living in Zajeèar's two collective centres.

These two projects will put a small, but important dent in the number of people, including refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and internally displaced people from Kosovo, still in collective centres and without jobs.

The SCR, in line with government policy, began five years ago the process of closing collective centres and moving the displaced into acceptable accommodation with the help of UNHCR and other international partners.

UNHCR has since assisted in the closure, or conversion into homes for the elderly, of more than 280 collective centres and helped find durable solutions for thousands of refugees and IDPs.

In a bid to reinvigorate the process, UNHCR and the SCR last October set up a special task force, which has identified 30 small collective centres for closure and proposed solutions with donor help for the people living there. The recent opening of the 20-apartment building in Vranje is part of this new drive.

But despite the construction of hundreds of apartments to date and the launch of a range of assistance programmes for former collective centre residents, completion of the project is still some way off.

One major reason is that a large proportion of residents in the remaining collective centres are extremely vulnerable and not eligible for assistance programmes. They include the elderly and the chronically ill.

And most of those in the collective centres cannot return to Kosovo or to their homes in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. But closure of the last collective centres will remain high on UNHCR's agenda for the rest of the year and beyond.

Serbia hosts some 97,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and slightly more than 205,000 IDPs from Kosovo. There are also an estimated 17,000 stateless people in the country.

By Vesna Petkovic in Vranje, Serbia




Serbia: Europe's forgotten refugees

A study of the lives of three Europeans who have been living as refugees in Serbia for more than 15 years.

Serbia is the only European country with a protracted refugee population. More than 90,000 refugees from Croatia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina remain there, victims of wars that erupted after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

These long-term refugees live under appalling conditions in dingy apartments and overcrowded collective centres – the nearest thing to refugee camps in modern Europe.

This set of pictures tells the story of three displaced people, the problems they face and their hopes for the future.

Serbia: Europe's forgotten refugees

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie met with forcibly displaced people on April 5, 2010 during her first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, called for steps to end the continued suffering of these victims of the Bosnian War after hearing their harrowing tales and seeing their grim living conditions.

Jolie was clearly moved by the spirit - and the ordeal - of the people she met and she pledged to highlight their case. Most of the people she talked to have been living in exile since the end of the 1992-1995 conflict. Jolie visited collective centres in the towns of Gorazde and Rogatica, where the inhabitants lack basic services such as running water.

The actress spent some time with a group of women who were raped or tortured during the war. Their tales left a deep impression on her. She also met a family of refugee returnees who were still waiting to move into their village home near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad.

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

Prince Soniyiki, from Nigerian to "Croatian" in three years

Prince Wale Soniyiki, 29, is the poster boy for Croatia's refugee system. When Prince (that's his real name, not a royal title) arrived here from Nigeria three years ago, he felt like a "complete nobody." Today he has a good job, speaks the language fluently and is a well-known advocate for asylum-seekers, whose voices are rarely heard in Croatian society. Prince fled Nigeria in December 2011 after a bloody terrorist attack killed his brothers. A circuitous route through Libya and Italy eventually led him to Croatia.

Croatia, which joined the European Union in 2013, has a well-functioning asylum system. But it's rarely tested because nearly all asylum-seekers and refugees move on to other European countries, partly because integration into society is not easy. Prince, though, is making a life here. Two years ago he founded "Africans Living in Croatia" to help others like him integrate and to help Croatians better understand migrants. His passionate work grabbed the attention of the owner of a tuna farming company, who offered him a job on his boat on the Adriatic coast.

Prince Soniyiki, from Nigerian to "Croatian" in three years

Croatia: Tea and campfires to beat the chillPlay video

Croatia: Tea and campfires to beat the chill

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Serbia: Overstretched Borders

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