Minority Return or Mass Relocation?
Minority Return or Mass Relocation?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

Minority Return or Mass Relocation?

International organisations working to help displaced Bosnians return to their pre-war homes – arguably the most important element of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) – have declared 1998 the “year of minority returns”.

Executive Summary

International organisations working to help displaced Bosnians return to their pre-war homes -- arguably the most important element of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) -- have declared 1998 the “year of minority returns”.  Four months into the year, however, there is the distinct possibility that 1998 may instead prove to be the “year of mass relocation”.  This need not be the case.  The political climate in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) has shifted in recent months and, despite major set-backs, including in Drvar, minority return success stories are already beginning to emerge.  In order to turn the current trickle of minority returns into a steady flow, the lessons of past failures and successes have to be learned.

The ethnic cleansing which characterised the wars of Yugoslav dissolution did not end with the final cease-fire.  Instead, hard-line Serb and Croat leaders continued their campaigns of ethnic separation and consolidation after the DPA came into force - terrorising “their” people into leaving areas outside the control of “their” armies and offering incentives for resettlement in strategic areas.  This was especially evident in Sarajevo where over 60,000 Serbs abandoned their homes in suburbs which were surrendered to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in February and March of 1996.  This is also the policy of the Bosnian Croat HDZ (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica), which organises violence against minority returnees and promotes strategic resettlements of displaced Croats in non-Croat houses.

Early in the peace process, return and return-related reconstruction was entrusted to agencies with non-political mandates, in particular the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank.  They and their implementing partners focused on the easiest tasks -- helping displaced persons to return to areas in which they belonged to the majority ethnic group -- and worked closely together with local authorities, themselves often the greatest obstacle to minority return.  This policy shifted in the course of 1997.  Led by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), international agencies abandoned the deferential approach to Bosnia’s nationalist leaders and are, instead, taking them on.  This new policy has already borne fruit and, among other advances, led to the appointment of Milorad Dodik, a moderate Prime Minister in Republika Srpska.

Of the over 1.3 million refugees at the end of hostilities, some 208,000 had, according to the UNHCR, returned to Bosnia by the end of 1997, though often not to their own homes. Another 504,000 had acquired permanent status abroad, leaving 612,000 refugees in need of solutions.  Of the over 1 million Bosnians displaced internally, a net total of 153,000 had returned to their homes, almost all to areas controlled by their own ethnic group.  Only 45,500 had returned to areas in which they formed a minority, of whom a paltry 2,200 had returned to Republika Srpska (plus 2,400 to Brcko’s Zone of Separation).  Most of the remaining 612,000 refugees and 816,000 internally displaced Bosnians would be in the minority if they returned to their homes.  Alternatively, they could be relocated in areas in which they belong to the ethnic majority.

Relocation is the preferred solution of Bosnia’s nationalist parties which urge further ethnic consolidation accompanied by property exchanges and the construction of new accommodation.  Despite the nationalists’ rhetoric of “voluntary relocation”, displaced Bosnians have little choice in matters as a result of their precarious existence and the level of official manipulation.  Further, relocation makes it increasingly difficult for those who, nevertheless, wish to return home, as is their right under the DPA, to do so.  Relocation risks leaving a frustrated, hate-filled and despairing population, which never had a chance to return to their homes, and abandoning entirely the concept of multi-ethnicity in Bosnia.

Germany is host to the largest number of refugees in Western Europe.  Of some 345,000 who fled there during the war, about 100,000 had returned by the end of 1997.  German refugee policy is made largely by the Länder (state) governments.  Given that Bosnian refugees cost the Länder more than 200 million DM a month, the desire to repatriate as many and as fast as possible is obvious.

German policy is to encourage voluntary repatriation by a variety of means, including incentive packages and repatriation assistance.  In addition, the threat of being forcibly repatriated is real: some 1,000 Bosnians were deported in 1997; and tens of thousands of refugees from Republika Srpska have received notice that they must leave Germany before July 1998 or risk deportation.  German policy-makers argue that they have already been extremely generous to Bosnian refugees; that the appointment of a new Prime Minister has transformed conditions for return in Republika Srpska; and that increased Western aid to that entity makes minority returns immediately possible.  While an intelligent and co-ordinated international policy may in time pave the way for the return of refugees to Republika Srpska, officials on the ground warn that hasty and ill-prepared returns will destabilise the entity and that, unless the German governments work within an international framework, they will undermine prospects for minority returns.

To date, five main strategies have been pursued for minority return in different parts of the country.  These are the “Open Cities Initiative”; formally drafted regional return plans; political support for returns initiated by displaced persons; return conferences in Sarajevo and Banja Luka; and internationally-supervised returns to Brcko.

Though the “Open Cities Initiative” forms the backbone of UNHCR’s policy towards minority returns and 80 percent of the agency’s 1998 funds are earmarked for the programme, the results have been disappointing.  The initiative has failed to increase minority returns or to channel significant assistance to municipalities deemed “open” as compared to those not included in the initiative.  The initiative suffers from several defects, including the lack of a transparent selection procedure; inadequate monitoring; and failure to address issues such as property rights violations, housing shortages and double occupancy.

The late Senior Deputy High Representative Gerd Wagner helped open the Central Bosnia Canton to minority returns in August 1997 by brokering an agreement between senior Croat and Bosniac officials following large-scale violence in Jajce.  This was then institutionalised into a return plan. Recent developments in Central Bosnia have been cautiously encouraging. However, a number of new planning mechanisms and bodies geared to returns have been set up in recent months, which will inevitably depend on the good will of the authorities.  Where this good will is lacking, planning mechanisms will be time-consuming and achieve little.

Displaced persons associations have generated comparatively large-scale minority returns, including to Drvar and Jajce. The groundwork for returns to these two areas was laid by effective displaced persons associations and return initially took place without international assistance.  Although returnees face personal danger, they appear to consider this a risk worth taking.  However, faced with fresh outbreaks of ethnic violence, these return movements relied on a determined international response to maintain the momentum.  While this was the case in Jajce in 1997, violence in Drvar in April 1998, targeted at returnees and international organisations, led to no such response.  Some international organisations insinuated that the main fault lay with the returnees and those who encouraged them to return too rapidly, and not with the organisers of the violence. The lack of reaction bodes ill for similar return efforts to Stolac, Prozor-Rama, Prijedor and Sanski Most.

A highly-visible return conference took place in Sarajevo in February 1998 hosted by the OHR, the US Government and the European Commission.  The conference led to key amendments in the hitherto discriminatory property legislation and to the formation of the Sarajevo Housing Commission, intended to curb the misallocation of housing.  Overall, however, the results of the conference have been disappointing.  Another return conference was held on 28 April in Banja Luka.

In Brcko, a contested municipality whose fate is still to be decided by international arbitration, an international supervisor is overseeing returns.  As a result, some 930 Bosniac and Croat families have returned to their homes in Republika Srpska and the pace of return has accelerated since the change in regime in that entity.  Nevertheless, the most difficult challenge -- initiating minority returns to Brcko town -- lies ahead.  Further, Brcko’s unique position and the intense commitment of resources to the area mean that it is not a model which can be repeated elsewhere in Bosnia.

Important lessons can be drawn from the various approaches tried to date.  First, the key actors in making minority returns successful are not local authorities or international organisations, but the displaced persons themselves.  The Coalition for Return, formed in October 1996 by the OHR, has been a low-budget, high-impact initiative.  The North-West Reconstruction and Return Task Force (RRTF) has been particularly effective in harnessing the creative energy of displaced persons in supporting minority return.  Second, successful minority return is in general the return of groups, not of isolated individuals.  Third, in all cases of successful minority return security risks could not be eliminated but could be contained.  In cases of violent obstruction, a robust and immediate response by SFOR and other members of the international community has been crucial.  Fourth, an inter-agency approach -- modelled on the work of the North-West RRTF -- is essential.

In order to build on the experience of the first two years of the peace process and make the “year of minority return” more than just a hollow promise, ICG urges the following:

  • robust response by the international community to the violence at the end of April in Drvar, including significant measures against the HDZ and those in Croatia ultimately responsible for the HDZ’s obstruction of DPA implementation in Bosnia;
  • credible pressure against Croatia to allow the return of Croatian Serbs to their homes, including the threat of sanctions;
  • improved security framework for minority returnees, including the recruitment of minority police officers, the removal of security personnel who fail to respond effectively to violence against returnees, and the deployment of international troops with experience in dealing with crowds of hostile civilians;
  • a stop to deportations when a refugee’s home municipality is not open to minority returns and the refugee has no other choice but to relocate upon return;
  • fundamental reform of the Open Cities Initiative, including tighter criteria for selection, substantially improved monitoring, and reallocation of resources;
  • increased support for the Coalition for Return and other displaced persons associations;
  • identification of opportunities for sustainable minority return based on consultations with displaced persons associations;
  • improved targeting of resources to areas where minorities are returning or are likely to return and creation of a flexible fund with the capacity to disburse rapidly when breakthroughs in minority returns occur;
  • improved co-ordination of international political intervention, backed by willingness to exert financial, diplomatic and military pressure; and
  • increased resources and authority for regional RRTFs, to enable them to pursue a pro-active approach.

Sarajevo, 14 May 1998

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