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Statement by Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Regional Funding Conference for South-East Europe

Statement by Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Regional Funding Conference for South-East Europe

29 March 2000

Mr. Chairman,

The High Commissioner, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, is today completing a two week trip through South-East Europe, where she has gained a first-hand impression of the situation on the ground. She has asked me to share with you some of her observations resulting from her mission.

In Kosovo, the High Commissioner was pleased to see that efforts are underway to move from the emergency relief phase - which, among other things, has provided shelter for all in need during the first winter after the war - to longer term reconstruction. She also felt, however, that the province-wide housing reconstruction plan needs to be accelerated and given higher priority to ensure that families will be able to move out of their temporary shelters before the next winter. The ongoing departure of the non-Albanian population from Kosovo due to attacks and intimidation continues to be of grave concern, bringing to 200,000 the number of non-Albanians estimated to have left for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, adding to the 500,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia already being hosted in the Federal Republic.

The High Commissioner was impressed by the genuine commitment of the new Government of Croatia to welcome all refugees back to their homes and to restore their civil rights. The recent bi-lateral Banja Luka agreement on the return of 2,000 refugees to and from Bosnia and Croatia is a welcome initiative. In addition, arrangements are being made for the return of 16,000 refugees to Croatia from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. These are positive steps forward which demonstrate that returns are gaining real momentum. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there has been a significant increase in minority returns, with some 2,000 registered minority returns in January alone. This is remarkable not only because it represents more returns in one month than in the first three months of 1999, but also because minorities have been returning to areas where some of the most brutal ethnic cleansing took place during the war. As a result of these encouraging signs, more and more people are signing up to go home.

UNHCR and the Governments of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia have formulated a number of concrete projects which are aimed at dealing with the practical, socio-economic, legal and administrative problems facing those who wish to return. While returns to urban areas depend largely on the implementation of property laws, the vast majority of the proposals under the Stability Pact are for returns to rural areas, often to villages with totally destroyed housing, infrastructure, and economies. These projects will also help with job creation and infrastructure rehabilitation, and are based on the recognition that social and economic security - not only physical security - are crucial prerequisites if return is to be sustainable.

The work of UNHCR cuts across the work of all three Working Tables of the Stability Pact. In this context, we welcome the establishment of the Steering Group on Refugee Return under the very able chairmanship of Mr. Hans Koschnick. As Vice-Chairman of this group, UNHCR will work very closely with Mr. Koschnick to ensure, especially at field level, proper co-ordination and effective reporting back to the Stability Pact on the achievements made. It is essential that through the work of all Tables, efforts are made to assist in the creation of the political, legal and economic environment which will make sustainable return possible.

UNHCR has worked closely with the Governments of the region on these projects, and it is only with their commitment and support that they will work. The international community must do its part by providing the continued financial and political support for this process, and in turn, we expect the countries of the region to step up and fully play their role. This means that States in the region need to continue to make progress in demonstrating the political will to accelerate minority returns, and on the resolution of property issues. Returnees must have non-discriminatory access to education and employment, which are essential to rebuilding their lives. In this context, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina has presented a comprehensive joint State and Entity proposal for the return of 100,000 families. We welcome this initiative, in particular the willingness of the government to bear some of the financial burden of the return process through loans.

Issues of displacement go to the heart of the agenda of the Stability Pact. A lot is already being done. A number of important assistance programmes conducted by the European Commission as quick start projects as well as a number of European and North American bilateral initiatives to support returns are already underway. But the needs go beyond these existing efforts, and beyond allocated budgets, and more needs to be done this year. Additional financial support for return projects over and above the commitments which have already been made is urgently required. We must seize the opportunity of this Funding Conference to honour the commitments made by the countries of the region to increase substantially the number of returns.

Stability in the region cannot be fully achieved unless the problems of forced displacement are solved. Despite considerable progress in return, the unresolved problem of 700,000 refugees and displaced persons in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is clearly an additional obstacle to stability in the region. Another key ingredient for regional stability is the need for economic development in Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to address effectively the consequences of having hosted large numbers of refugees from Kosovo last year.

Through the activities presented in the return projects, lives and communities can be rebuilt. In this way, co-existence among the different ethnic groups will be fostered, and former neighbours may finally live side by side again. Only when that happens can the countries and societies in the region find the stability this Pact is seeking.

We count on your active support to ensure the success of the work of the Stability Pact.

Thank you.