Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

The Balkan Refugee Crisis

The magnitude and complexity of the unfolding refugee crisis in the Balkans is hard to overstate.  One and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo since the start of this year. 

Executive Summary

The magnitude and complexity of the unfolding refugee crisis in the Balkans is hard to overstate.  One and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo since the start of this year.  These latest victims of Balkan conflict join the ranks of a further one and a half million other refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

While many of those expelled from Kosovo are anxious to return home as soon as possible, the obstacles in the way of their return are formidable.  Creating the conditions necessary for large scale return[fn]'Return' refers to all return back to place of origin, from exile as well as internal displacement.  'Repatriation' is only used for return from exile.Hide Footnote  will take a long time and require enormous resources.

This report argues in favour of providing temporary protection[fn]Refugee status was never intended to be permanent. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives room for granting of international protection on a temporary basis through its ‘cessation clause’.Hide Footnote  for refugees in the region, with the aim of them returning home at the earliest opportunity.  Temporary protection is necessary to maintain pressure on Belgrade and demonstrate our commitment to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing.  But this report argues for more realism in relation to the length of time it will take to reverse the present refugee flow.  Lessons from Croatia and Bosnia have demonstrated that there is no such thing as fast voluntary return in the wake of war and ethnic cleansing[fn]Only 20% of the refugees and IDPs had returned to their homes in Bosnia-Herzogovina 16 months after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In the same period only 10 % of damaged houses were repaired. ICG report: "Going nowhere fast", 1 May 1997.Hide Footnote .  Perhaps induced, but most likely not voluntary.  Non-voluntary return of refugees is a very sensitive issue.  The international community can only try to circumvent it by striving to put in place the necessary conditions that would make return acceptable to Kosovo refugees.  This report discusses these key conditions and calls for the establishment of a comprehensive repatriation plan.  Strong regional management structures must be established by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to develop, co-ordinate and implement the strategy for the return process.

Specifically, the report recommends that the international community focus on the following action points:

  • Maintain and promote the temporary status of refugees;
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy for the return of all refugees and IDPs;
  • Keep the refugees in the region, in so far as possible;
  • Plan for the early return for refugees evacuated to third countries;
  • Prepare for spontaneous return;
  • Plan according to realistic time frame;
  • Keep refugees informed;
  • Give equal attention to short- and long-term needs;
  • Involve the local opulation in the return process;
  • Develop regional humanitarian solutions and structures;
  • Mobilise up-front funding of return efforts;
  • Include the whole region in economic recovery planning;
  • Keep the roles of humanitarian aid workers and the military separate;
  • Include binding return mechanisms in the future peace agreement; and
  • Synchronise European refugee policy.

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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