The Continuing Challenge Of Refugee Return In Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Continuing Challenge Of Refugee Return In Bosnia & Herzegovina
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 137 / Europe & Central Asia

The Continuing Challenge Of Refugee Return In Bosnia & Herzegovina

In preparing for and orchestrating the proximity talks that marked the end of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), the authors of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) placed a particularly high priority on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their pre-war homes.

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Executive Summary

In preparing for and orchestrating the proximity talks that marked the end of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), the authors of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) placed a particularly high priority on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their pre-war homes. Annex 7 of the DPA is devoted entirely to ensuring the right of return. The peacemakers hoped that such return might one day reverse the territorial, political and national partition of the country that the DPA otherwise recognised.

While the first four years of peace saw large-scale return by both refugees and internally displaced persons to areas where their own nations were a majority, the chauvinist agendas and entrenched power structures of the nationalist parties kept “minority” returns to a minimum. By 2000, however, there was a surprising reversal. Not only has this trend continued, as ordinary people seek to return to their pre-war homes in ever-larger numbers,but it has begun to alter the prevailing political climate in much of the country.

The results of Bosnia’s fourth post-war general elections on 5 October 2002 seemed to point in the opposite direction. They were widely interpreted by the international media and some of the domestic press as an unalloyed victory for the nationalist parties that made and fought the war – and had done their worst since to preserve its spoils, including the homogenisation achieved by "ethnic cleansing". The outcome was seen as an ominous setback for efforts to put the complex multinational state recreated in Dayton on the path to stability, legitimacy, prosperity and European integration.

The Cassandras overlooked several factors. Not only did support for two of the three nationalist parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Serb Democratic Party (SDS), decline, but the latter faced its most serious challenge to date from the moderate Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). This was sufficient to undermine its longstanding claim to be the natural party of government in “its” entity, Republika Srpska (RS).Moreover, the votes of returnees and potential returnees, voting in absentia, have begun to affect politics, permitting Federation-based parties to claim 17 per cent of the seats in the RS National Assembly in the October elections.

The media also failed to consider that the biggest losers, the multinational Social Democratic Party (SDP) that had led the “Alliance for Change” in the Federation and on the state level, may have done most to contrive their own defeat. In any case, the low turnout (55 per cent) was as much a vote against politics-as-normal as for nationalism.

Perhaps more remarkably, the press missed the story of the more than 367,000 Bosnians who have “voted with their feet” against partition and returned to live as “minorities” in areas governed by former foes. Years of international effort to open up returns through targeted reconstruction assistance – and to ensure that refugees and displaced persons have every opportunity to reclaim pre-war residences – have borne fruit. Official figures show that some 900,000 people have returned to homes from which they fled or were expelled during the war. High Representative Ashdown can reasonably claim that “we’ve invented a new human right here, the right to return after a war.”

The Peace Implementation Council will consider refugee issues in January 2003. There are worrying indications, however, that impressed by recent success in creating and implementing a legal framework for repossessing pre-war housing, it may declare Annex 7 officially “implemented” before the job is done. That would suit the authorities in RS and parts of the Federation who are keen to equate property law implementation with actual return and close the book before creating the conditions that make return sustainable. Yet Annex 7 makes clear that the Bosnian authorities must also create the “political, social and economic conditions conducive to the voluntary return and harmonious reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, without preference for any particular group”.

While highlighting the positive role return has had in moderating nationalist politics in some areas, this report examines why many refugees are not yet in a position to choose freely where they will live. Depressed economic conditions are part of the answer. Discrimination in many municipalities prevents the full realisation of potential returns, threatens the sustainability of achieved returns and encourages returnees who do stay to huddle in enclaves rather than to reintegrate.

The Bosnian authorities’ gradual acquiescence, under pressure, in the right to reclaim pre-war housing has not been matched by willingness to eliminate the institutionalised discrimination that condemns many “minority” returnees to second-class citizenship. While high unemployment afflicts BiH in general, returnees face particular obstacles, including flawed privatisation. Bosnia’s education system, with three separate and politically charged curricula, is another reason often cited by families with children for not returning, as is discrimination in accessing utilities, healthcare and pensions.

Although the security situation has improved considerably, intimidation of “minority” returnees still occurs. Local police, prosecutors and courts often fail to bring those responsible for nationally motivated violence to book. In some parts of the RS a returnee is ten times more likely to be the victim of violent crime than is a local Serb. Even where the actual threat may be low, the continuing presence of putative war criminals – especially if in public office– sends a message to potential returnees.

Nationalist authorities also create economic incentives for “their” people to relocate through the often-illegal distribution of building plots and business premises, with the apparent intention of ensuring that returnees remain a poor minority.

This report also analyses the impact of recent amendments to the constitutions of Bosnia's two entities. These aim to eliminate discrimination by annulling the special constitutional status once accorded Serbs in the RS and Bosniaks and Croats in the Federation and require local administrations to hire returnees according to national quotas, based on the population in the last, pre-war census. If implemented, these amendments will give returnees greater opportunity to defend their interests.

The partial nationalist victory in October prompted some commentators to suggest the time had come for the international community to give up on its multinational experiment in BiH and accept a final partition. The will of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons to return has already rendered such a division nearly impossible, barring more war and “ethnic cleansing”. The experiences of Cyprus, Kashmir and many other cases demonstrate the perils of partition. Bosnian returnees have rejected the nationalist programs, encapsulated in the wartime refrain that “we cannot live with these people anymore”, by returning to their pre-war homes. The viability of the Bosnia n state and the stability of the region depend in large measure upon whether they can stay and prosper.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 13 December 2002

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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