Protracted Refugee Situation: The continuing struggle of Europe's forgotten refugees

News Stories, 12 January 2009

© UNHCR/M.Jankovic
Miljo Miljic and his family left their hometown of Tuzla with almost nothing.

RIPANJ, Serbia, January 12 (UNHCR) Miljo Miljic and his family live in a spartan apartment in the Serbian village of Ripanj. There are no family photos, no paintings, no book collection, no heirlooms no possessions recalling their former lives in their hometown of Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"We didn't take anything with us because we didn't have time. We had to run for our lives. The only thing that comes to mind in such a situation is to save your children and your own life," says Miljo. "You don't think about the photographs, you don't think about personal documents, clothes, whatever."

Miljo, his wife Milica, son Milutin and daughter Stanislava are refugees, forced to flee Tuzla in 1992. All they have as proof of their past and their identity is a refugee card. Their belongings were left behind as Miljo and his wife, clutching their then infant children, rushed to escape.

More than half-a-million civilians fled to Serbia from Bosnia and Herzegovina and from Croatia in the 1990s conflicts. Considerable success has been achieved on local integration, with over 200,000 former refugees now holding Serbian citizenship. But some 96,000 refugees remain the remnants of Europe's largest protracted refugee situation. Many live in desperate conditions and face a bleak future.

The experience of the Miljic family is quite common. On arrival in Serbia, they were accommodated with 350 other refugees in the Suplja Stena Collective Centre just south of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. It was effectively a refugee camp where they slept in a single room with 27 other people and shared the bathroom, lavatory and kitchen.

Milica says this was the worst period of her life. "It was horrible when we arrived at the collective centre. I thought I'd kill myself, but then we had to look after these two small children," she recalls. Things got a little bit better when the family were given their own room.

They stayed in Suplja Stena until 2003, when the collective centre was privatized and sold. Although the centre was only meant to be a temporary solution for Serbia's refugees, it was still a shock for the Miljic's to be cast out into the street and forced to fend for themselves.

In nearby Ripanj, they found someone willing to rent two rooms and a bathroom. They have been there ever since, but life is still a struggle. "We live from what we earn day-by-day; we never know when the next job will come. It's very difficult to take care of two children and to put them through school," says Miljo. Life is easier in the summer when they find work cleaning holiday homes and gardening, but in the winter it is really difficult to make ends meet.

Miljo and Milica thought about going back to Tuzla, but their old home had been trashed and looted and they did not feel safe. They considered selling the property, but they would never make enough from the sale to build a new place. What's more, their children had grown used to Serbia. So repatriation is not an option; nor is resettlement.

That leaves local integration. But taking Serbian nationality will not guarantee them employment or a new house, while the cash-strapped government cannot afford to give too much under its social welfare programmes. So they are holding onto their refugee cards, which entitle them to basic medical care and occasional humanitarian assistance from UNHCR and its partners.

But Miljo and Milica are aware that one day their refugee status will be revoked because they are no longer deemed to be in danger and the root causes of the Balkan refugee problem have almost ceased to exist. That won't end the problem of finding employment and paying for food, rent and medical bills at a time when they will be near retirement age.

At least they have managed, despite the difficulties, to provide their children with a decent education. This has been their investment in the future. Milutin is still in high school, but Stanislava, who has applied for Serbian citizenship, is doing an internship in a Belgrade hospital after finishing nursing school.

The parents are pinning their hopes on Stanislava finding a decent job, even though unemployment is high in Serbia and the economic outlook is grim. "We only want for our children to complete their schooling, find employment and be better off than we are. I don't think about us anymore," says Miljo.

UNHCR helps where it can, but the refugee agency also has limited resources and the situation is unlikely to improve during the current recession. "I don't think that we'll be able to help everybody," says Lennart Kotsalainen, UNHCR's representative in Serbia, while adding that the government and the international community should at least help the most vulnerable.

The UN refugee agency has recently put renewed stress on finding solutions to protracted refugee situations, which account for some 6 million people worldwide who have been in exile for at least five years many of them for decades. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said last month that political will was a main precondition for finding durable solutions.

He said each protracted situation was unique and solutions must be comprehensive, using a combination of approaches that can include repatriation, local integration, and resettlement to a third country. For Serbians such as the Milic family, a real and lasting solution still seems remote.

By Andrej Mahecic in Ripanj, Serbia