The world should not walk away from the Balkans, say aid officials
GENEVA, June 27 (UNHCR) - Top international officials have warned that dwindling funds for humanitarian work in the Balkans could jeopardise refugee returns and the overall stability of a region still reeling from the aftermath of a series of devastating conflicts.
On Thursday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers told a news conference in Geneva that there have been some encouraging developments in the Balkans and that they merited international support. He said that over the past two years, 159,000 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have gone back to areas controlled by their former adversaries. "Finally there is a momentum. Some of the infamous 'ethnic cleansing' is being undone. People who go back to live deserve our help," he urged.
He said that in all, 850,000 people - minorities and others - have returned to their homes in Bosnia since 1996. The High Commissioner added that tens of thousands of people have also gone back home in other areas of the Balkans, like Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
But he emphasised that not all the news was good - more than a million people remained uprooted by the Balkan conflicts, with Serbia hosting the region's largest displaced population, of nearly 700,000 ethnic Serbs who had fled the war in Croatia and Bosnia and the more recent conflict in Kosovo.
Lubbers said UNHCR faces a funding shortage of almost $39 million this year. He warned that unless $4 million is made available within the next two weeks, the agency would have to cut key programmes in Croatia and Kosovo by the end of July.
Erhard Busek, the head of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe - a Brussels-based international group promoting long-term stability and development of the wider Balkan region - echoed Lubbers' concern. Speaking at the same news conference, Busek warned that refugee returns were essential for stability of the Balkan region. "There can be no true stability without refugee returns," he said.
Søren Jessen-Petersen, the Stability Pact's top refugee affairs official, with long experience in the Balkans, said it would be a mistake to walk away from the Balkans now, as things were finally starting to improve. "We simply must see it through," he said.
On Thursday, dozens of international officials and government representatives gathered in Geneva for a one-day meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group - a UNHCR-led body which has guided the agency's work in the Balkans since 1992.