United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Croatia, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8bb28.html [accessed 29 September 2016]
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Croatia hosted 167,035 registered refugees as of November 1996, overwhelmingly from Bosnia and Hercegovina (hereafter referred to as "Bosnia"). In addition to Bosnians, some 6,688 ethnic Croat refugees from Serbia also received asylum in Croatia. The Croatian government's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR) reported that about 20,000 Bosnian refugees repatriated from Croatia during the year. The Croatian authorities forcibly repatriated at least 46 Bosnian refugees during the first week of February. Late in the year, the government announced plans to withdraw refugee status for about 40,000 Bosnian Muslims and Croats originating from areas of the Bosnian Muslim-Croat Federation where members of their ethnicity group were in the majority. No significant influxes of refugees to Croatia took place during 1996. ODPR estimated that about 114,000 persons remained internally displaced in government-controlled portions of Croatia at the end of 1996. Most were ethnic Croats who fled their homes in the Krajina and eastern and western Slavonia when ethnic Serb rebels wrested control of these regions from Croatia in 1991. During 1996, however, about 85,000 displaced Croats were able to return or relocate to the Krajina and western Slavonia, according to ODPR estimates. The Croatian government recaptured western Slavonia from the ethnic Serb rebels in May 1995, and the Krajina later that August, thereby enabling the Croat returns. Since Croatia seized the Krajina, ODPR said that the government has permitted about 25,000 Bosnian refugees displaced from the Banja Luka area to settle in the region on a "temporary basis." Some sources place the number of Bosnian Croats in the Krajina as high as 55,000. ODPR registered 85,510 displaced persons as former residents of eastern Slavonia. The Croatian government plans for them to return to their homes when eastern Slavonia reverts to Croatian control, expected in July 1997. Not figured into ODPR's tally of internally displaced persons are an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Serbs who were displaced from other areas of Croatia and currently reside in eastern Slavonia. ODPR reported that 13,173 ethnic Serbs who had sought refuge in the present Yugoslavia returned to their homes in western Slavonia and the Krajina during the first 11 months of 1996. The United Nations and the U.S. Department of State, among others, contradicted this assertion, however, saying that only 1,000 to 3,000 ethnic Serbs had in fact been able to return by year's end. The applications of about 20,500 additional Croatian refugees in the present Yugoslavia (almost exclusively ethnic Serbs) remained pending a Croatian government decision on their return at the beginning of December. UNHCR estimated that about 300,000 Croatian refugees (mostly ethnic Serbs) remained in the present Yugoslavia at year's end. ODPR said that about 5,000 Croatian refugees also returned from Germany during 1996. Eastern Slavonia As mandated under a November 12, 1995 agreement between Croatia and rebel Serbs, the United Nations in 1996 deployed a 5,000-troop force to eastern Slavonia to oversee the region's transfer from rebel Serb to Croatian government control within a maximum period of two years. The UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) on January 15 began deployment to eastern Slavonia to supervise the region's reintegration into Croatia. UNTAES was charged with demilitarizing the region, establishing a temporary police force, facilitating the return of refugees and displaced persons, overseeing elections, and restoring the most crucial elements of the region's infrastructure before handing eastern Slavonia over to Croatia. UNTAES declared eastern Slavonia to be demilitarized on June 27, despite difficulties encountered in collecting small arms. Relations between Serb residents of eastern Slavonia and Croatia remained tense during 1996, reflecting the continued uncertainty surrounding the region's imminent return to Croatian control. The likely return of about 85,000 Croats displaced from eastern Slavonia during the 1991 war, the uncertain future of some 60,000 to 80,000 ethnic Serbs displaced from other regions of Croatia to eastern Slavonia (many of whom were squatting in Croat houses), and the Croatian government's broader commitment to respecting Serb rights once the region reverts to Croatian control remained the most contentious, unresolved issues at year's end. In May 1996, the eastern Slavonian Joint Implementation Committee on Refugees and Displaced Persons (involving both Croat and Serb representatives), together with UNHCR, agreed to set up several pilot return projects for both Croat and ethnic Serb displaced persons. However, the projects had produced few tangible results by year's end. In August, the Croatian government announced that it would not accept a Serb majority in the region and that it would initiate large-scale returns of Croat displaced persons to the region when it reverts to Croatian control, expected in July 1997. The Croatian government also said that it was not committed to the principle that ethnic Serbs who had moved to eastern Slavonia after 1991 would be permitted to remain there once it reassumes control of the region. Repatriation to Croatia Croatia normalized relations with the present Yugoslavia on August 23, 1996. Relenting to considerable international pressure, Croatia on October 5 also passed a comprehensive amnesty law, which exempts from prosecution all persons who fought on the rebel Serb side during the 1991 war, with the exception of indicted war criminals. Both were important preconditions for the repatriation of some 300,000 ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia, many of whom fled the Krajina region when the Croatian army recaptured it from ethnic Serb rebels in August 1995. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch and other independent observers reported that the Croatian government continued to erect barriers in the way of ethnic Serbs wishing to repatriate in 1996. At year's end, according to ODPR, the Croatian government had received applications from some 34,000 refugees (mostly ethnic Serbs) in the present Yugoslavia who wished to repatriate. Although ODPR said that 13,173 ethnic Serb refugees had repatriated to Croatia by December, other reports suggested that far fewer, between 1,000 and 3,000 refugees, had actually returned. UNHCR estimated that 61 percent of the applicants Croatia approved for return were more than 60 years old. Few ethnic Serbs who repatriated actually returned to their former homes in the newly recaptured regions of Croatia, but instead joined relatives elsewhere in Croatia. Moreover, almost all the refugees who filed applications for return to Croatia during 1996 reportedly did so on the basis of family reunification. Refugees without family links in Croatia faced far greater obstacles to their repatriation due to the Croatian government's stringent requirements regarding proof of Croatian citizenship, according to an August 1996 Human Rights Watch report. These requirements effectively have left many Croatian refugees without citizenship, the report charged. The insecure situation on the ground in the Krajina and western Slavonia also has acted as a barrier to large-scale repatriation. According to international observers, Croatian government troops condoned and committed widespread abuses in the Krajina, including looting, arson, and killing, in the months after Croatia recaptured the region. Despite Croatian government statements declaring that ethnic Serbs need not fear for their safety in the recaptured regions, some 80 elderly Serb civilians were executed in the Krajina between November 1995 and April 1996. Extremists opposed to the return of Croatian Serbs continued to commit murder and other acts of persecution and terror in the Krajina throughout 1996 with impunity, according to human rights groups in the area. Further complicating the repatriation of Krajina and western Slavonian Serbs is the presence of some 85,000 displaced Croats and up to 55,000 Bosnian Croat refugees who returned, relocated, or were accommodated in these areas. Bosnian Refugees At least 11,000 of the estimated 20,000 Bosnian refuges who repatriated during 1996 belonged to an unusual group of Bosnian Muslims, supporters of Fikret Abdic, who had broken ranks with the Bosnian government to forge a separate accommodation with the Bosnian Serbs in the Bihac region. About 22,000 Abdic supporters and their families sought asylum in Croatia in August 1995, after their towns of Velika Kadusa and Cazin fell to the Bosnian government. They established an encampment in a wetland marsh valley near the Croatian town of Kupljensko. On February 2, 1996, the Croatian authorities forcibly repatriated at least 46 refugees from the Kupljensko refugee camp because they allegedly failed to pay taxes for their camp-run businesses. Most of an additional 23 other persons whom the authorities arrested in the incident were released. In a February 21, 1996 letter to the Croatian minister of internal affairs, USCR urged the Croatian government to halt the involuntary returns, particularly in light of reports that some refugees affiliated with Abdic who had repatriated earlier had suffered grave human rights abuses following their return. Between August 1995 and the end of 1996, about 18,000 refugees affiliated with Abdic had returned to their homes in Velika Kadusa and Cazin, leaving a residual population of about 4,000 persons who decided against repatriation. The most significant returns took place late in 1995 and in the first several months of 1996. UNHCR reported in the spring of 1996 that some of the returnees were subject to harassment upon return to Velika Kadusa and Cazin. Despite Bosnian government pledges to ensure the safety of Abdic supports returning to their homes, these agreements reportedly did not translate into improved security on the ground in Velika Kadusa and Cazin. Few refugees affiliated with Abdic returned after June 1996. The Croatian authorities closed Kupljensko refugee camp in August, transferring its remaining inhabitants to other refugee camps in Gasinci and on Obanjan Island. Other Bosnian refugees who repatriated from Croatia returned to Sanski Most, Kljuc, central Bosnia, Sarajevo, Glamoc, Drvar, Kupres, and Jajce, according to ODPR.