Bosnia’s Refugee Logjam Breaks: Is the International Community Ready?
Bosnia’s Refugee Logjam Breaks: Is the International Community Ready?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

Bosnia’s Refugee Logjam Breaks: Is the International Community Ready?

The return of refugees to areas where they are an ethnic minority is crucial if Bosnia is to be re-established as a successful multiethnic society and the effects of wartime ethnic cleansing are to be reversed.

Executive Summary

After four and a half years of concerted efforts by the international community, significant numbers of minority refugees are returning spontaneously to areas of Bosnia controlled by heretofore hostile ethnic majorities. This provides an opportunity to reverse wartime ethnic cleansing and make substantial progress toward achieving a core goal of the international community and the Dayton Peace Agreement. The requirement for modestly increased reconstruction and security assistance to facilitate this process, however, poses a challenge for governments and international aid and security organisations, many of which are seeking to wind down their Bosnia commitments. Absent such international community support and increased Bosnian government co-operation, the ceiling for returns may be low, and could jeopardise the success of current and future return efforts.

In the first four months of 2000, the number of minority refugees returning to their pre-war homes without targeted assistance from the international community has increased nearly four-fold over 1999 levels, to 12,579. The reasons for the increase in returns include refugee impatience, a change in the psychology of the majority and minority populations, Bosnian government policies, and increased international community willingness to use the powers vested in the Office of the High Representative to remove obstructionist officials and implement property laws.

With many potential spontaneous returnees waiting to see the success of current efforts, numbers are likely to increase significantly in June and July, traditionally the peak months for return. Many of these returns are occurring in the previously impenetrable hard-core Serb nationalist heartland of eastern Republika Srpska. In addition to Bosniaks, both Serbs and Croats are also returning to their pre-war homes, challenging assumptions about the political appeal of pro-partition policies and ethnic separatism.

With its efforts in Bosnia bearing fruit, the international community needs to improve its capability to support these long-awaited returns through reconstruction assistance and security, while the Bosnian government must focus on self-sustainability. Lack of donor support for reconstruction and other infrastructure projects would compel many returnees to de-mine and de-booby-trap their own homes, and reconstruct their homes and schools, roads, water, sewage and electrical systems from their own limited or non-existent funds. Although the security situation is improving gradually, continued attacks on minority returnees have underlined SFOR's uneven record in providing security for returnees. The Bosnian government must accept primary responsibility for overcoming its failure to implement economic reform measures that could make returns self-sustaining through job creation and agricultural programs.

Despite pledges of new money from the Stability Pact, available donor aid may be sufficient to support reconstruction in only 10 per cent of the spontaneous returns to date, with heavier requirements looming this summer. Just when refugee returns are beginning to increase, major donors, such as the European Union, lag far behind – in some cases years – in the expenditure of pledged aid. To date, only the U.S. and a few smaller bilateral donors, such as The Netherlands, have proven able to target aid rapidly and effectively at needed areas. As a result, some refugees who returned to their homes two years ago are still waiting for assistance to reconstruct their homes and provide electricity and running water.

The international community and Bosnian government must quickly take advantage of this window of opportunity. Successful support of this year's refugee returns will encourage other refugees to return during the course of the next 18 months. This can provide a platform for moving to the next phase of Dayton implementation and, by demonstrating progress in an area that affects neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, set the stage for greater regional stability. Success in expanding minority refugee returns will bring the international community significantly closer to succeeding in its mission in Bosnia and achieving its broader regional goals.

Sarajevo/Washington/Brussels, 30 May 2000

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.



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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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