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UNHCR urges continued support for the Balkans

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UNHCR urges continued support for the Balkans

26 June 2002

26 June 2002

GENEVA - UNHCR today urged stronger international support for people returning to their pre-war homes in the Balkans in ever larger numbers.

Over the past two years, 159,000 people have gone back to live in areas where they are now a minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Another 150,000 have returned to their homes in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), while 93,000 Croatian Serbs are now back in Croatia. This trend of minority returns is a remarkable reversal of the effects of the wars of the past decade.

In all, a total of 850,000 people - minorities and others - have returned to their homes in Bosnia since 1996. Still, more than 1 million people remain uprooted in the region.

"Over the past two years, we have finally seen significantly larger numbers of people going home," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers. "They deserve our help more than ever."

While recognising the need to address new crises in other parts of the world, Lubbers expressed concern about dwindling financial support for the Balkans at a time when real progress was being made. He urged the international community to support this final push to successfully complete the refugee return programme.

Lubbers said that while UNHCR will continue its scheduled phase-out in the Balkans, premature budget cuts could jeopardise still vital operations.

UNHCR warned that some of the agency's key programmes in Kosovo and Croatia would stop at the end of July unless it receives $4 million by mid-July. This could bring to a standstill UNHCR's efforts to enable the eventual return to Kosovo of an estimated 230,000 people of Serb and Roma origin who fled after the NATO bombing campaign ended Belgrade's control there in 1999. It could also jeopardise UNHCR's efforts to help ethnic Serb refugees returning to their homes in Croatia. UNHCR still faces a $38.8 million shortfall this year for its Balkan operations.

If the current pace of returns continues - and assuming adequate funding is provided - by the end of 2003, most of those uprooted by the Balkan wars of the early 1990s will have gone back or will have found permanent homes in their current place of residence. UNHCR helped millions of people in the region throughout the decade of conflict. With the achievement of the objectives of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the Framework Agreement in FYROM, the agency will gradually reduce its relief operations in most of the Balkans, while continuing its core mandate activities in international protection.

On Thursday (27 June), High Commissioner Lubbers will chair a one-day meeting in Geneva of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group - a body of senior government officials and representatives of international organisations. The group has met on a regular basis since 1992 to guide UNHCR operations in the Balkans.

Thursday's meeting will also be attended by senior officials from the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, including Special Co-ordinator Erhard Busek and Søren Jessen-Petersen, the Pact's top official for refugee issues. Since its establishment in 1999, the Stability Pact has promoted refugee returns as well as overall stability and development of the wider South-East Europe region.