UN refugee agency to help Bosnia set up asylum system
SARAJEVO/GENEVA, Feb. 11 (UNHCR) - The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees said today it will gradually shift the focus of its work in Bosnia and Herzegovina from refugee returns to helping the country set up its own asylum system.
UNHCR's representative in Bosnia, Udo Janz, told a news conference in Sarajevo Wednesday that nearly one million people had returned to their homes since the Bosnian war ended more than eight years ago. Janz said they included more than 400,000 people who had gone back to areas that are controlled by their former adversaries. As the war ended, there were 2.2 million people uprooted by the longest and bloodiest of the Balkans' conflicts of the 1990s.
Janz described the returns as "real and tangible progress." He said many of the returns were made possible by Bosnia's property law which allowed former owners to claim back their pre-war property. He said the property law was now almost fully implemented.
Janz said the pace of returns slowed last year, with 54,315 people retuning to their homes, down from a record 107,909 the year before. He said UNHCR will continue to push for more returns but it will also gradually shift to helping the young Bosnian state deal with such issues as asylum system and legislation as more and more refugees seek asylum and protection there.
UNHCR first established an office in Bosnia in 1991, even before the conflict began. The agency's involvement peaked in 1995 when UNHCR ran a huge relief operation benefiting an estimated 1.5 million people. The effort included overland convoys and the Sarajevo airlift - the longest-lasting air bridge in history. After the Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to war in Bosnia, UNHCR focused on the return of refugees and displaced people - a task entrusted to the agency under the peace accord.