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Extremely Vulnerable Individuals: The Need for Continuing International Support in Light of the Difficulties to Reintegration Upon Return

Extremely Vulnerable Individuals: The Need for Continuing International Support in Light of the Difficulties to Reintegration Upon Return

1 August 1999


The joint report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on 26 July 1999 constituted a preliminary overview of the situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo covering events up to 19 July 1999. Given the volatile environment, UNHCR and OSCE field staff have continued to identify, monitor and assess the position of various minority populations, such material providing the basis for this update.

The murder of 14 Serb farmers while harvesting in Lipljan municipality on 23 July 1999 focused world attention on the serious predicament faced by certain minority communities in Kosovo. The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) and the Commander of the international security presence known as KFOR issued strong statements condemning this brutal act and the international community's will to secure the safety of all inhabitants of Kosovo regardless of ethnicity.


With approximately 830,000 persons currently internally displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter 'BH'), there continue to be extreme challenges for reintegration of returning refugees. These challenges include returning refugees finding themselves in situations of internal displacement, as well as limited accommodation to house returnees, problems associated with residence registration procedures and correlative access to scarce social services and pensions, high unemployment, absence of health services in some areas, overcrowded local social welfare institutions, and long delays for people seeking to repossess their pre-conflict home because it is either occupied, damaged and/or destroyed. For extremely vulnerable individuals ("EVIs"), these challenges are often insurmountable. Due to age, physical or mental disability, lack of support network (orphans or single heads of household), victims of violence (including sexual violence) and torture, ex-detainees, and other traumatised individuals, reintegration into local society becomes nearly impossible.

While the legal framework obliges the State of BH and the two Entity governments "to create in their territories the political, economic and social conditions conducive to the voluntary return and harmonious reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, without preference for any particular group", as well as to provide "short-term repatriation assistance ... to all returning refugees ... who are in need ... to enable families and individuals returning to re-establish their lives and livelihoods in local communities" (per Annex 7 to the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina [hereinafter 'GFAP']), this is not generally the reality.

Broadly, the four main obstacles to return to one's pre-conflict property are that one's property is occupied by another person, one's property is damaged or destroyed and reconstruction assistance is required, or for employment or security considerations. Thus, many refugees cannot return to their pre-conflict homes immediately upon return and become internally displaced. The repatriation of refugees to situations of internal displacement has far-reaching consequences, which frustrates the search for durable solutions and forecasts future instability. One, it adds more individuals to the already large internally displaced population. Two, it increases pressure on limited housing available for temporary re-allocation and over-stretched absorption capacities. Finally, it means that generous repatriation grants are not invested in rebuilding new lives but rather, they are used for basic subsistence, such as paying rent. Interim solutions to the accommodation shortage has meant that persons must identify accommodation with family or friends, rent or be accommodated on a temporary basis in Transit Centres or unofficial centres. The slowness and obstructionism in the property return process means that many returnees find themselves in such a predicament for extended periods of time.

In spite the fact that at 31 August 1999, there were a total of 109 official Collective Centres (hereinafter 'CCs') operating in BH (50 in the Federation and 59 in the RS) housing a total population of 11,498 displaced persons (5,203 in the Federation and 6,295 in the RS), access to such CCs is not usually available to returning refugees. CCs were intended for the use of internally displaced persons who remained in BH throughout the war and not for returning refugees. With the current withdrawal of UNHCR financial support, most areas in the Federation and the RS are not admitting persons to CCs. Such displaced persons may find accommodation, however, in a Transit Centre (hereinafter 'TC') in the Federation, although approval by the relevant authority is required.1 Unfortunately, in the RS, no TCs exist, so there is usually a difficult struggle to locate some other form of accommodation, and CCs are used, on an exceptional basis, as the only available alternative, or unofficial CCs emerge. Some of the unofficial CCs, where returnees may find themselves, having been rejected from accessing official CCs or TCs, are over-crowded, poorly sanitised and they are not serviced (e.g. no electricity, no food assistance). In addition, many CCs (official and unofficial) and TCs are often geographically removed from cities and towns, which prevents residents from finding jobs, attending schools, or accessing medical treatment.

For EVIs, the issue of housing is critical. It represents stability and permanence, and a sense of community and security.

The accommodation shortage has also lead to cases of hostile relocation as a result of internal displacement. Hostile relocation is the deliberate placement of groups of persons in housing belonging to another ethnic group in order to secure control over territory and to disrupt the minority return process. This practice is clearly contrary to the GFAP.

Registration of one's residence in a municipality is essential in order to access social and other services offered by that municipality. Material and social welfare problems ensue if one is denied the right to register, either as a displaced person/temporary resident or as a permanent resident. Complications arise as the procedures require proof of temporary or permanent accommodation in the municipality where the returnee wishes to register in order to access such aforementioned services. Many persons fear de-registering from one municipality to another, or changing their permanent residence address on their ID Cards, fearing that they will have difficulties in repossessing their property if they do so. In the RS, where returnees require accommodation and there is none available in their pre-conflict municipality, the authorities have the power to accommodate persons in areas where geographical and other conditions are the same or similar to those in their place of origin. While this serves as an interim measure, it can lead to forced relocation or local settlement, diminishing the rights of refugees to return to their pre-conflict homes. In the Federation a different problem arises with authorities often refusing to assist persons, or provide them with accommodation, who have returned outside organised return procedures. In addition, the registration process creates enormous difficulties with respect to pensions. In both the Republika Srpska and the Federation, entitlement to pensions is directly linked to permanent residence on the territory of the RS or the Federation (and in the Federation, it is also linked to actual repossession of property). A person who is returned to the Federation or who finds their pre-conflict home no longer on RS territory but in the Federation, will not be able to receive a pension from the RS. And this person will not be able to receive a pension from the Federation because s/he never paid contributions to a fund in the Federation.

Moreover, access to other social services for EVIs is limited and difficult. The World Food Programme stopped distributing food on 1 July 1999, and now Catholic Relief Services has taken over the role, although they are providing food assistance to only 11,900 beneficiaries accommodated in official CCs. Moreover, while social welfare legislation attempts to outline appropriate criteria for assistance, the municipalities and Cantons/regions do not have the finances to fulfil their obligations under the law. Social welfare institutions are under-resourced and places are limited.

Unless one is able to pay the full amount of such care, s/he will probably not be accommodated.

In addition, while there is a comprehensive framework for health insurance, the fact on the ground remains that only primary health care is covered, and not hospital or specialised treatment, and that often returnees and others are required to make a contribution to the cost even if they are insured. Moreover, public health facilities are under-staffed and poorly resourced, while private institutions require full payments. Due to the fact of age, disability or illness, health and medical services are vital to EVIs. In the current circumstances, EVIs may be denied the treatment which they require.

Threats to the safety of persons and property continues to be a real concern for persons returning to particular areas. For EVIs in particular, this is one of the most significant reasons for not wanting to return to pre-conflict municipalities, especially if they are without family and community support. For traumatised individuals, it is often an absolute bar to their reintegration upon return.


UNHCR encourages host States to pursue the following policy:

  • For EVIs who do not wish to return, to continue to provide protection to EVIs in the respective host country with a view to normalising their status, by reviewing the particular circumstances of individual cases and carrying out an assessment of their returnability. In that context, it must be noted that keeping their legal status uncertain or temporary only, exacerbates the vulnerability of EVIs. Protection in the host State should be extended in the spirit of humanitarianism and international co-operation.
  • Host States facilitate the return of EVIs wishing to return by providing them with accurate information; this in order to ensure an informed decision, in line with GFAP and by providing the required form of material assistance to ease the return process and to assure the economic sustainability of the returning EVIs. Host States should identify (where not already done) EVIs under their protection, appropriately liaise with the authorities in BH, actively involve UNHCR, together with local and other international organisations, as appropriate, to create conditions for return in safety and dignity and to formulate the required support structures for returning EVIs. Without such support networks, the reintegration process is seriously threatened. Where necessary, financial inputs should be made by host States to provide temporary accommodation while the returnees own houses are made habitable or while awaiting repossession, especially with the closure of CCs. EVIs are individuals in need of social assistance as a result of mental or physical disability or handicap, trauma, age, loss of spouse, combined with poverty. In order to make the return process sustainable, assistance and support should be provided.

1 As at 31 August 1999, there were a total of 9 TCs in the Federation, housing a total of 530 displaced persons. With total capacity being 1072, there was only space available for another 542 persons. (UNHCR, Operations Unit, Office of the Chief of Mission, 31 August 1999)