Report 23 / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Going Nowhere Fast

Apart from stopping the fighting, silencing the guns and separating forces, the single clearest promise of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) was that Bosnian refugees and internally displaced persons would be able to return home.

Executive Summary

Apart from stopping the fighting, silencing the guns and separating forces, the single clearest promise of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) was that Bosnian refugees and internally displaced persons would be able to return home.  However, the number of returnees has to date fallen far short of expectations.  More than sixteen months after the DPA came into force, only about 250,000 refugees and internally displaced persons have actually made it home, almost exclusively to areas in which they form part of the majority group.  And even that figure portrays an artificially rosy picture, since a further 80,000 people have been displaced in the same period, largely during the transfer of territory between the two Entities.

About 400,000 out of some 1.2 million Bosnian refugees at the beginning of 1996 have already found durable solutions, whether by repatriating, being granted a more permanent status in host countries, starting the process of acquiring citizenship, or actually obtaining citizenship.  That leaves a little over 815,000 still seeking solutions, of whom the greatest number are located in Germany (315,000), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (253,000) and Croatia (160,000).  In addition, some 750,000 remain displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina, of whom roughly 450,000 are in the Federation and 300,000 in Republika Srpska (RS Entity).  And a further 48,000 Croatian Serbs have settled in the RS Entity.

Displaced persons face a host of obstacles to return.  Some conditions—such as the severely depleted housing stock, war-time property laws and a devastated economy—plague all returnees.  Others impose a particular burden on people seeking to return to areas where they would be in the minority.  These include in particular the security and political situations—exacerbated in most areas by the continuance in power of nationalist authorities and in some areas of indicted or suspected war criminals – as well as discrimination, inadequate and sometimes intentionally distorted information about conditions in the areas to which people hope to return, and inadequate or hostile schooling for their children.

That so few displaced Bosnians have succeeded in returning to their homes is not for want of trying.  In the course of 1996 a whole host of schemes, some bold and imaginative, have been tried to get the process under way.  These include targeting special areas; repairing housing; selecting pilot projects; organising assessment visits; blacklisting obstructionist municipalities; linking together associations of displaced persons of all ethnic backgrounds in a single country-wide lobby group (the Coalition for Return); running free bus services between key cities across the former front lines; and resettling the Zone of Separation (ZOS), the land along the Inter-Entity Boundary Line between the RS Entity and the Federation.

Of these initiatives, some have achieved notable successes.  More than 283,000 passengers have taken advantage of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) free bus service to cross former confrontation lines.  And members of the Coalition for Return have begun to lobby the authorities where they are currently living on behalf of other displaced persons of different ethnic backgrounds in an effort to change the political climate for return.  However, the fact that international agencies have had to focus so much effort on the ZOS, probably the most heavily mined and devastated tract of land least-suited to returns in the entire country, is indicative of the overall lack of progress.

In practice, minority returns have been consistently obstructed by the nationalist political parties in power.  After all, the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to areas in which they form a minority conflicts head-on with the explicit war aims of the Bosnian Serb leadership, which were secession and creation of an “ethnically pure” state, as well as with the more covert aims of the Bosnian Croat authorities.  In order to prevent minority returns, the media have generated a climate of hostility to returnees, assessment visits have been blocked, and houses systematically destroyed.

Despite political obstructionism within Bosnia and Herzegovina, host countries are determined to repatriate Bosnian refugees.  In late 1996, starting with Germany, Western European states began proceedings to deport Bosnian refugees, regardless of their place of origin.  As a result, UNHCR expects up to 200,000 refugees to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina, half from Germany, during 1997.  Some 160,000 (mostly Bosniacs) are expected to return to the Federation, and another 40,000 to the RS Entity.  Repatriating refugees are expected to dislodge at least 50,000 internally displaced persons who are currently occupying the refugees’ homes.  This is in addition to the 20,000 who are still living in collective centres.

The international community’s main source of leverage to accomplish repatriation targets is economic conditionality.  Reconstruction funds should therefore be carefully tailored to promote minority returns as well as to enable majority returns on a significant scale.  To this end, all housing and infrastructure reconstruction programmes must be linked to minority returns.  Moreover, in order to ensure the smooth reintegration of returnees into Bosnian society and minimise resentment, assistance should also be channelled to the receiving communities.  The benefits of accepting minority displaced persons back into the community must be tangible and well advertised.  But for this to work, all donors must be committed to the policy.  It is counter-productive if intransigent local authorities are able to take advantage of “competitive” donors.

Only 40,000 of up to half a million housing units damaged during the war have been repaired during the past year.  Accommodating 200,000 returning refugees requires massive expansion of existing shelter projects.  Some 50-60,000 additional dwellings must be repaired, whereas, at present, funding is available for only 18,000 units.  The funding shortfall in this area is $320 million.  In addition, without substantial progress in de-mining, reconstruction of housing will be hampered.

The Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees was established under Annex 7 of the DPA to determine the rights of persons to real property from which they have been displaced and is key to the successful return of minorities and majorities alike.  The Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, which already funds the Office of the High Representative, should also fund the Commission through regular assessments.  Meanwhile, donor governments should immediately commit the $3.1 million to meet the Commission’s minimum needs.  Also, both Entities must repeal property laws which discriminate against displaced persons and inhibit their return.

The Brcko Supervisor has announced the plan through which he intends to expedite the voluntary return of non-Serb displaced persons to Brcko, and the voluntary return of Serbs now resident in Brcko to their former homes in the Federation.  He has outlined a straightforward and equitable procedure for launching a systematic return process that hastens the return of displaced persons to their homes, both in Brcko and in the Federation.  The plan stands a good chance of unravelling one of the most complex issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its implementation should be the highest priority for the international community in 1997.

Leaving responsibility for guaranteeing the security of returning minorities to local authorities, many of whom ethnically cleansed them from their respective regions in the first place, severely compromises the return process.  If minorities are to return home with a modicum of security, SFOR has to interpret its mandate in a more robust manner.  When, for example, minority-owned houses are destroyed, SFOR should remove an equal number of tanks from cantonment sites in the Entity in which the incident occurred and destroy them.  A “tank for a house” response would be measured, proportionate, easy to explain and transparently fair.  Furthermore, the RS Entity must agree to vet its police force according to the IPTF guidelines.

Even if the above measures are implemented, it is naive to expect a large number of returns unless there is a fundamental shift in the political climate from one of separation to one of reconciliation.  Any strategy to help minorities back to their homes must therefore also be one which seeks to break the vice-like grip of the nationalist parties on Bosnian society.  To this end, the issue of war crimes must be tackled head-on and those indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia must be arrested, surrendered to the Tribunal, and prosecuted.  In addition, since the nationalist cancer extends beyond those individuals who have already been indicted and there are obstructionist officials at all levels, a DPA Implementation Council must be formed with the power to dismiss such people.

Municipal elections, which are scheduled for 13 and 14 September, can be an effective tool against the nationalist parties, but only if the international community is prepared to insist on minimum conditions to make them free and fair.  Critically, the electoral engineering which took place with the registration process in 1996 must not be repeated.  Since obstruction of minority returns clearly has an impact on the conditions for free, fair and democratic elections, disqualification of candidates can be a powerful tool with which to stimulate the return process.

Sarajevo, 1 May 1997

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