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Return to Uncertainty: Kosovo’s Internally Displaced and The Return Process
Return to Uncertainty: Kosovo’s Internally Displaced and The Return Process
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Report 139 / Europe & Central Asia

Return to Uncertainty: Kosovo’s Internally Displaced and The Return Process

The right of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo is indisputable, and has become a top priority of the international community, and the United Nations Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

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Executive Summary

The right of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo is indisputable, and has become a top priority of the international community, and the United Nations Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

If handled well, return could improve relations among ethnic groups, strengthen the position of minority communities already living in the province, and contribute to a gradual denouement among previously conflicting communities. However, if returns are overly politicised and mismanaged, they have the potential to jeopardize the already precarious existence of minorities. In short, the way returns are planned and implemented is critical to the long-term sustainability of the process.

The record of the international community on the returns process has been mixed. Out of more than 230,000 displaced individuals, only 5,800 have returned. While it is still only three years after the war, Kosovo presents a very challenging environment for return. Freedom of movement, access to housing and land, employment opportunities, availability of public services for minorities, and the attitudes of the receiving community are all barriers.

To address these challenges, UNMIK’s Office of Returns and Communities (ORC) has developed a new strategy and restructured the manner in which it coordinates projects. While the strategy has not been fully implemented, it is largely a step in the right direction. Now the ORC has to ensure that it avoids the  bureaucratisation   of  the  returns process and maintains a close working relationship with its key partners – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and KFOR – as well as manages the tricky political dimensions caused by the shadow of final status.

The unresolved nature of Kosovo’s status affects returns in two ways. First, it politicises the issue of Serb returnees. For the international community, the return of Serbs to their homes would ensure that the 1999 NATO intervention and the subsequent international presence did not lead to the creation of a mono-ethnic Kosovo. Moreover, it would help convince the Security Council that the time is ripe to begin final status discussions. Meanwhile, the Serbian government requires returns for its own political objective – the partition or cantonisation of Kosovo.

Secondly, the focus of the diplomatic community has largely been on the numbers of individuals returning, rather than ensuring that the process is conducted according to international principles. These dictate that return should be voluntary; conducted in safety, dignity, and security; and the risks be monitored.

Several incidents – although rare – are disturbing reminders that returnees are not coming back to a welcoming environment. In July 2002, a chilling poster of a young Albanian child being killed (presumably by a Serb) appeared on the streets of major cities in Kosovo with the subtitle “Don’t let the criminals return”. In October, Serb returnees came to Peje/Pec by bus for pension registration. This caused a protest that escalated into stone-throwing and petrol bombs. While Albanian leaders have universally condemned  such  events,  their  activities  to  support returns have rarely been more than rhetorical. Although Prime Minister Rexhepi has been exemplary in support of minority communities and returnees, President Rugova has remained silent and inactive. Given the predominance of his LDK party  in municipal and central structures, his leadership on this issue is sorely needed.

A multitude of actors – from international agencies to non-governmental organisations – are engaged in returns. This report outlines the extreme divergence of returns policy and methods in two regions - the Peje/Pec area and the Gjilan/Gnjilane region. While these areas are quite different, a comparison of the return process in the two provides lessons that are applicable throughout Kosovo.

While both have seen relatively equal numbers of returns, conditions are not conducive in the Peje/Pec region. In projects to date, the international community paid more attention to numbers and less to preparing the conditions for return. The villages lacked access to essential services, dialogue with the receiving community did not take place, and income generation and access to public services were not addressed until after returnees arrived. In Gjilan/Gnjilane, dialogue with the receiving community, support to income generation activities, and access to public services were dealt with as part of the overall planning for returns. The manner in which return is conducted has a huge impact on relations among communities, the conditions returnees experience, and the overall sustainability of the process.

A comparison of these two locations reveals that sustainable return requires close attention to the application of international principles, smart security, strong coordination mechanisms, and the support of the receiving community. The success of the Gjilane/Gnjilane region also demonstrates that return in conditions of safety and dignity is possible in Kosovo at this time – but there must be careful planning and thought.

The late success of the returns process in Bosnia demonstrates that progress is not necessarily linear, and time must often pass before significant advances are made. The international community must be realistic in its expectations for Kosovo. While it is unclear how many IDPs will return, it is highly unlikely that large numbers of displaced will come back in the near future. However, all must be given the opportunity to exercise this right to return in safety and in dignity.

Pristina/Brussels, 13 December 2002

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue

Online Event to discuss Crisis Group's report "Relaunching the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue", in which we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

Thirteen years after Kosovo broke away from Serbia, the two countries remain mired in mutual non-recognition, with deleterious effects on both. The parties need to move past technicalities to tackle the main issues at stake: Pristina’s independence and Belgrade’s influence over Kosovo’s Serbian minority.

In this conversation, we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue (Online Event, 28th January 2021)