Returns to Bosnia and Herzegovina reach 1 million

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The latest UNHCR statistics from Bosnia and Herzegovina show that 1 million former refugees and displaced persons have now returned home. This is a significant and long-awaited milestone in the lengthy process of rebuilding a nation shattered by the 1992-95 war.

In all, 1,000,473 people out of a total of more than 2 million people forcibly displaced during the war had returned to their home areas by the end of July, according to the latest monthly figures released today by UNHCR in Sarajevo. Of these, around 440,000 were refugees who had fled Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 560,000 were forcibly displaced inside the country.

As well as being a landmark in itself, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers believes the scale of the return shows very clearly the wider benefits for the international community of devoting considerable effort and resources to resolving problems in refugees' regions of origin. During the early 1990s, Western Europe was receiving hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers a year from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now they are receiving a fraction of that number.

Nearly three-quarters of the total returned to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one-quarter to Republika Srpska. Some 20,000 have returned to Brcko District, which is administered separately from the two entities enshrined in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.

The High Commissioner notes that for a significant proportion of them, it was an extremely hard and courageous decision to make, in the face of a multitude of legal, economic and social difficulties. It is now almost nine years since Dayton, and tremendous progress has been achieved, but there are still many difficulties to overcome, and continued support from the international community will remain essential for several years to come.

Although the overall rate of returns has fallen sharply over the past two years, we are nevertheless encouraged by the high proportion of people returning to areas where they are in a minority - including many of the places that were worst hit by the conflict and the accompanying large-scale killing and atrocities. But while we celebrate the return of 1 million people, the situation remains volatile in many parts of the country, and there is still a lot of work to be done to consolidate the returns.

During the first seven months of 2004, a total of 15,470 people returned. Of these, 10,589 - or two-thirds - were so-called minority returns, and there have been significant increases in some areas, including in the eastern part of Republika Srpska to places such as Bratunac, Srebrenica and Zvornik. A couple of years ago, there were hardly any minority returns to these areas. Since 1996, a total of 446,795 people - or just under half the total number of returnees - have gone back to places where they are currently in a minority.

In total, UNHCR has spent over $500 million in the country since 1995. But as humanitarian funds in support of the return process steadily decline, we are relying increasingly on the help of development agencies and financial institutions to bridge the gap between assistance and sustainable development.

A large number of refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina remain in the region, including around 100,000 living in Serbia and Montenegro and in Croatia. There are believed to be around 50,000 others living in other parts of Europe or elsewhere who have not yet found a durable solution. And a further 313,000 are still displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. The remaining half a million refugees who fled the war are thought to have found a solution, including through citizenship, elsewhere in the world.