Report / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

A Half-Hearted Welcome: Refugee Return to Croatia

Seven years after the end of the war, the issue of refugee return continues to be contentious for Croatia.

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Executive Summary

Seven years after the end of the war, the issue of refugee return continues to be contentious for Croatia. The government that came to power following parliamentary and presidential elections in January and February 2000 inherited an unsatisfactory legacy of discriminatory laws and practices from its predecessor, to the detriment in particular of ethnic Serb displaced persons and refugees. It found that once the universal international relief that greeted its victory over the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) had worn off, international pressure to remove obstacles to refugee return and reintegration had not ended.

That sustained pressure is first of all on human rights grounds but it also reflects concern for regional stability. As a signatory of the Dayton Peace Accord for Bosnia, Croatia committed itself to promoting return throughout the region. While the right to return should be unconditional for all, there are clear practical linkages between return to and within different countries in the region. As Croatian Serb occupants are evicted from homes belonging to Bosniacs or Bosnian Croats in Bosnia, their own right to return is hampered if their homes in Croatia are occupied by other refugees. Further, the prospects for normal, stable relations among the states in the region, as well as among different ethnic groups within those states, will be much set back if the wounds caused by wartime ethnic cleansing are not healed.

While most ethnic-Croats displaced by the conflict in Croatia have returned, less than one-third of the more than 300,000 Croatian Serbs displaced during the conflict have returned. A 1998 government Return Program failed to establish adequate conditions. The effects of discriminatory laws and practices put in place during and after the war continued to prevent them from exercising their rights in key areas.

Ethnic-Serbs have faced discrimination as regards citizenship and residency rights, property and occupancy rights and reconstruction assistance for wartime damage. In Croatia's difficult economic climate, Serbs are particularly disadvantaged by widespread employer discrimination, including in the public sector. Inconsistency in the authorities' approach to war crimes prosecutions and the amnesty for people who engaged in armed rebellion against Croatia has been a further disincentive. While many ethnic-Serbs have, especially prior to 2000, been prosecuted in a politicised environment, with sometimes dubious verdicts, treatment of ethnic Croats has been generally lenient and war crimes cases against them rare.

The more positive attitude of the current Croatian government helped improve the overall climate for Serb return. The security situation is considerably better in most areas. However, the government was slow to end discriminatory practices in property repossession, occupancy rights and reconstruction assistance. A series of initiatives in 2001-2002 superseded the 1998 Return Program, including an Action Plan for Repossession of Property that should give impetus to the sustainable return of Serb refugees. Reportedly reconstruction assistance has, in the second half of 2002, at last begun to be allocated to significant numbers of Serb applicants.

However, the government still refuses to take some key steps demanded by the international community. These include ending the practice whereby Croat temporary occupants of Serb homes cannot be evicted until given alternative accommodation, irrespective of their ability to provide for themselves. Thus the rights of temporary occupants take precedence over the rights of owners, contrary to the Croatian constitution and international standards. Similarly, the government continues to refuse to address the overall issue of occupancy rights – the main property right in urban areas in communist Yugoslavia – which were terminated, in a highly discriminatory manner, for Serbs who fled during the war.

The return and reintegration of Serb refugees and the full recognition of their rights continue to be politically sensitive. Political parties of the nationalist right, broadly antagonistic to Serb return, still enjoy considerable popular support, especially in the war-affected areas to which many would return. In thousands of cases the homes of would-be Serb returnees are occupied by displaced Croats, the majority from Bosnia. Moves to evict them have elicited fierce reactions, which the government has been reluctant to confront.

Facing pressure on one side from the international community to end discrimination and facilitate refugee return, and on the other side from the nationalist right, the government has adopted half-measures designed to appease the international community while failing to fulfil its commitments. Though recent moves suggest a more serious approach, they do not go far enough. The international community should continue to insist that Croatia meet its obligations on return and reintegration in full.

It has taken sustained international pressure for Croatia to legislate and promote return and to reverse discriminatory measures. The government has not yet shown sufficient good will to act without constant pressure and monitoring. A credible international presence, including in the field, needs to be maintained to advise the government on reforms and monitor its practice. It is essential that the international community continue to speak with one voice and give a clear message that return and reintegration and non-discrimination against minorities are taken seriously, and that Croatia cannot expect more progress on European integration until its performance further improves.

Zagreb/Brussels, 13 December 2002

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