UNHCR to push for refugee returns in the former Yugoslavia

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata will host an international meeting in Geneva on Friday in an effort to boost returns of refugees and displaced people driven from their homes during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The meeting will be attended by officials from the countries of former Yugoslavia as well as from other nations which host refugees from the region and representatives of donor states. Non-governmental and other intergovernmental organisations will also attend this session of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, which has been meeting twice a year in Geneva since 1992.

"A lot has been done since guns fell silent but things are still moving much too slowly. Solutions for nearly 1,8 million people displaced by the war are yet to be found" Ogata said.

"Our message to those concerned is that there can be no lasting peace and stability in the region of former Yugoslavia without the return of refugees and displaced people. At the moment peace rests mainly on the stabilising presence of international troops."

Ogata, who visited the region in April, said displacement issues in the countries of the former Yugoslavia can only be handled through a regional approach. "All these problems are locked together like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle," she said.

UNHCR said it welcomed Croatia's new return plan scheduled to go before the country's legislature this week. Until now only a fraction of the estimated 300,000 ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia who fled to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or Bosnia and Herzegovina have returned home.

Since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in December of 1995, an estimated 450,000 persons have returned to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which still faces the region's worst displacement problem. More than 800,000 people remain displaced within the country and another 600,000 have yet to return from abroad - mainly from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and from Germany.

UNHCR said that over the past year Bosnia and Herzegovina had seen tremendous improvement in freedom of movement between the country's two constituent entities: the Federation and Republika Srpska. But the UN refugee organisation says the breakthrough in returns of ethnic minorities it had hoped for has not yet materialised.

Despite a huge international effort in support of minority returns, returnees still face discriminatory property laws, bureaucratic "red tape" and sometimes ethnically motivated violence.

Since the Dayton Peace Agreement, which gives all refugees and the displaced the right to return home, an estimated total of 48,000 people have returned to areas where they are now in minority, with just 13,000 returning during the first five months of this year, thanks also to UNHCR's one year-old "open cities" initiative, which offers international aid to municipalities supporting minority returns.

Ogata also warned that the conflict in Kosovo, which has driven at least 65,000 people from their homes, should not be allowed to become another Bosnia. "The experience of Bosnia tells us volumes about how hard it is to undo the devastating effects of war and displacement," she said.