High Commissioner Guterres urges swift end to displacement chapter in Western Balkans

News Stories, 28 August 2009

© UNHCR photo
On his visit to Bosnia, returnees in Srebrenica told High Commissioner António Guterres they are still waiting for help in rebuilding their homes.

BELGRADE, Serbia, August 28 (UNHCR) Drawing attention to the lingering problem of refugees reluctant or unable to return to their homes 14 years after hostilities ended in the Western Balkans, UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres said, "it is time to close the chapter of refugees in this region once and for all."

Speaking from Belgrade on his last leg of a four day visit that also took him to Zagreb, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and a number of towns where refugees and displaced are housed, Guterres said there remained an "unacceptable situation for refugees and IDPs," including thousands displaced from Kosovo, for which urgent solutions needed to be found.

After years residing in single room housing barracks called 'collective centres', those most traumatized or physically and mentally fragile pose the greatest challenge, as they await conditions for return to improve, or for the option to integrate locally to materialize. "It is not enough to rebuild a house, they need to rebuild our confidence," one refugee from Croatia told Guterres during his visit to the collective centre "PIM" near Belgrade. "Our neighbours need to want us back."

The High Commissioner identified the Western Balkans as one of the five priority regions around the world with a protracted refugee situation during his December 2008 annual "Dialogue" meeting, attended by 80 countries. High level delegations from Croatia and Serbia met separately with the High Commissioner in Geneva, each pledging to bring renewed incentives to find durable solutions for these long uprooted people.

During his meetings this week with the Presidents and Prime Ministers in each capital, Guterres emerged encouraged that, although the problems were complex, slow but steady progress was being made. He expressed his belief that the scale of the problem and the number of residual cases were now manageable. Voluntary return is the preferred solution, he said, and people will be less reluctant to return home if attractive and sustainable conditions are created.

According to Government of Croatia data, some 90,000 refugees returned from Serbia to Croatia since 1996. However, a 2007 UNHCR study indicated that only about half of the returnees remained in Croatia. The Government of Croatia has put in place housing schemes to assist returnees with reconstruction of their former homes, or the construction or purchase of new ones. The issue of lost 'occupancy /tenancy rights', remains the greatest impediment to return for many among the refugees in BiH and Serbia. The Government of Croatia is also working to resolve the issue of 'convalidation' of pension and disability insurance rights.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, nearly all claimed properties, including private property and occupancy/tenancy rights have been restored to their original owners since 2005. Some 7,000 registered refugees from Croatia continue to reside in BiH who are also in need of a resolution of their plight.

With a significant proportion of refugees and internally displaced persons from the region increasingly unlikely to return to their homes, Guterres proposed the establishment of an international trust fund to which all three governments and international donors would contribute, to enable a mechanism for fair and just compensation for lost property rights and facilitate local integration. "We need to recognize that while return remains the most preferred option, return must be voluntary. The reality is that significant numbers of people, especially the elderly or the ill, will never go back," Guterres said.

According to the most recent statistics, there are now 86,185 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in Serbia. Among those are some 25,000 persons who are registered both as returnees in Croatia and as refugees in Serbia. There are, however, discrepancies in statistics. In order to get a better handle on the individual cases and circumstances behind these numbers, UNHCR offices in both countries are reviewing the number of refugees and returnees and verifying their status, while assisting the Government of Croatia to review some 9,500 rejected applications for reconstruction or housing care solutions.

During the High Commissioner's visit to BiH, it was clear that the implementation of Annex VII of the Dayton Peace Agreement, had reached a virtual standstill. To revive the process, the BiH government, together with UNHCR and the international community since 2007 worked toward developing a "revised strategy" to implement Annex VII, in a joint effort to bring the displacement problem to a humane end. The revised strategy marks the first time BiH authorities recognized the need to provide compensation for destroyed dwellings and local integration assistance for IDPs who are not in a position to return. A political deadlock has, however, prevented the adoption of the strategy in BiH's Upper House of Parliament. The High Commissioner, in his meetings with the Prime Ministers in both the Federation and the Republica Srpska, received assurances that any obstacles in the adoption of the revised strategy would soon be removed.

Following his visit to a dilapidated collective centre in Srebrenica where displaced Bosnian Serbs were living without proper sanitation facilities in cramped one-room apartments, the High Commissioner said, "these people are living in appalling conditions. They are elderly, sick and vulnerable and need urgent help and long-term solutions." He underlined that voluntary return remains the preferred option, but that infrastructure and welfare systems in the county are dramatically uneven.

During his visit to Srebrenica, the High Commissioner laid a wreath at the Potocari Memorial to pay respect to the victims of the genocide of July 1995. He also visited the mother of two sons killed there, whose run-down house on a hill overlooking the memorial and the graves of her sons still lacks water and electricity. Through UNHCR efforts, the house will finally be reconstructed this autumn.

The conflict in BiH displaced some 2.2 million persons almost half the population. Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which devoted an entire annex addressing displacement, concerted international efforts enabled a significant number of people to return. The overall trend, however, indicates that significant numbers of the displaced remained in or moved to areas where their ethnic group is in the majority.

UNHCR teams in all three countries are working with governments, NGOs and the displaced to provide voluntary repatriation support, economic sustainability assistance and free legal aid. The goal is to help the three countries to finally resolve their tragic wartime legacy of displacement by the end of 2011.

By Melissa Fleming in Belgrade, Serbia