Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Croatia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Croatia , 1 June 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8ca40.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Croatia

At the end of 1999, Croatia hosted about 24,000 refugees, including roughly 16,000 Bosnian Croats, 7,000 Bosnian Muslims, and 1,000 refugees from Yugoslavia. Croatia was also home to some 50,000 internally displaced persons, including 38,000 ethnic Croats originally from eastern Slavonia, and 3,000 ethnic Serbs currently in eastern Slavonia and the Dalmatian Coast. The majority of displaced people were accommodated privately.

Croatian authorities recorded about 38,000 refugees and internally displaced persons as having returned to their places of origin in Croatia during the year – and 106,000 since the 1995 Dayton Agreement. This official count may overstate the permanence of such returns; it may also include some de-registered refugees and displaced persons who did not return to their homes. The count does not include about 45,000 ethnic Serbs and 8,500 Roma who left Croatia's eastern Slavonia region in 1998, mostly for Serbia.

Approximately 34,000 ethnic Serb refugees returned from Yugoslavia and Bosnia since the Dayton Agreement (9,000 in 1999, mostly from Yugoslavia), including: 7,000 persons under a 1998 return program; 10,000 family reunion cases and extremely vulnerable individuals identified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and 17,000 spontaneous returns. Virtually all repatriating ethnic Serbs moved back to former UN protected areas.

Another 72,000 internally displaced persons were also recorded as having returned, including 43,000 ethnic Croats returning to eastern Slavonia (17,000 in 1999), and 29,000 ethnic Serbs displaced into eastern Slavonia returning to other areas of Croatia (12,000 in 1999).

More than 340,000 Croatian refugees remained outside the country in need of a durable solution, including 296,000 in Yugoslavia and 40,000 in Bosnia. Croatian nationals lodged 565 asylum applications in other European countries during the year, a decrease of 85 percent from 1998.

Croatia received approximately 2,300 refugees from the Kosovo crisis, 1,200 of whom were ethnic Albanians. Most of those who had no family ties in Croatia reportedly returned home by year's end.

Refugees from Kosovo

Croatia agreed to receive 5,000 Kosovo refugees from Macedonia under UNHCR's humanitarian evacuation program (HEP) in the spring. By the time the conflict ended in June, however, only 1,200 ethnic Albanians had flown to Croatia under the HEP. Another 1,100 Kosovo refugees of other ethnicities had fled the country by other means. Croatia granted the Kosovo refugees temporary protected status. Most stayed with relatives, although Croatia accommodated about 500 at a camp in Gasinci, a facility long used to house Bosnian refugees.

In addition, 293 ethnic Croats from Kosovo were evacuated to Croatia in October after suffering persecution in their village near Pristina. Croatia admitted having refouled a Kosovo Albanian into Yugoslavia, where authorities later mistreated him. On April 11, border guards reportedly refused to allow 18 Kosovo Albanians to enter Croatia.

Refugees from Bosnia

In June 1998, Republika Srpska signed an agreement with Croatia allowing ethnic Croat refugees from Republika Srpska and ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia to exchange homes or seek compensation for their losses. In 1999, only 142 Bosnian Croats repatriated from Croatia to Republika Srpska through this program. However, nearly 3,000 visited Bosnia's Serb-controlled entity to assess the potential for return, and UNHCR believed that 14,500 of the 16,000 ethnic Croat refugees from Bosnia wished to return to their places of origin.

UNHCR identified about 500 Bosnian refugees living in collective centers as vulnerable.

De-registration of Displaced People

In 1999, the Croatian government's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees counted 43 percent fewer refugees and internally displaced persons than in 1998. This reflected mainly the return of internally displaced ethnic Croats (particularly back to eastern and western Slavonia), the de-registration of many internally displaced ethnic Croats who decided not to move back to their repaired homes, and the local integration of ethnic Croat refugees (primarily in the Krajina area).

Since the Dayton Accords, about 140,000 ethnic Croat refugees from Bosnia and Yugoslavia who naturalized (Croatia authorizes dual citizenship) have been de registered. Human rights observers have charged that Croatian authorities de-registered many ethnic Croat refugees after settling them into the abandoned homes and farming land of ethnic Serbs, in an effort to alter the ethnic composition of the Krajina. The Krajina had been a Serb stronghold until a Croat military offensive in 1995 swept up to 200,000 Serbs from the area. These displaced Serbs formed the bulk of the many refugees from Croatia who remained in Yugoslavia (296,000) and Bosnia (40,000) at year's end.

Obstacles to Return

Throughout the year, the international community continued pressuring Croatia to assist refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes as a condition of Croatian integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. Several measures adopted in 1998 to dismantle legal obstacles to return were further implemented in 1999, including an April 1998 protocol on organized refugee return between Croatia and Yugoslavia that UNHCR expected would "improve substantially the prospects of repatriation."

However, laws that discriminated against the original owners of lost or damaged properties, particularly ethnic Serbs, remained in place. Although Croatia removed certain biased provisions from its Law on Expelled Persons and Refugees in December, it upheld its Reconstruction Act, which reserves reconstruction assistance to Croatian citizens whose homes have been destroyed as a result of "Serb aggression." An estimated 170,000 homes belonging to all ethnic groups remained damaged or destroyed in 1999.

In October, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman encouraged Croat refugees from Bosnia occupying the homes of ethnic Serbs to stay. The deep ambivalence in Croatia's attitude toward Serbian return, coupled with the notorious ill will of many local authorities toward ethnic Serbs, slowed the implementation of the return program with Yugoslavia. At year's end, the proportion of ethnic Serbs in Croatia's population of 4.8 million stood at about 4 percent, compared to 12 percent in 1991.

Croatia's amnesty law intended for ethnic Serbs who took up arms during the war remained ambiguous, and still failed to encourage Serb return. Many of the 13,575 individuals on an amnesty list issued in 1998 were not clearly identified. Furthermore, the government claimed in March 1999 to have added 4,739 names to the list, yet did not identify them. In 1999, the government also issued 91 war crime indictments of individuals who had been given amnesty, on the basis of questionable new evidence.

Property repossession procedures remained deeply flawed throughout the year. Flagrant discrimination marred both the length of procedures and the substance of decisions. Housing commissions that were established in 157 municipalities to adjudicate property issues had issued 1,850 repossession orders by October, mostly in eastern Slavonia. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the decisions, saying they favored ethnic Croats in 78 percent of cases. Local authorities often refused to enforce eviction orders against Croats, even in cases of multiple occupancy. In addition, thousands of ethnic Serbs who had abandoned their "socially owned" apartments during the war were unable to regain their lost tenancy rights.

Another major obstacle to return was the uneven implementation of the 1997 "convalidation" law. The law had sought to legitimize administrative documents issued by Krajina Serb authorities during the region's brief secession from Croatian sovereignty. Most Serb refugees in Yugoslavia and Bosnia were not able to apply for welfare benefits within the limited period allotted by the law. Consequently, they risked not receiving their pensions or disability insurance proceeds – a major disincentive to return, given the bleak employment prospects for elderly Serbs.

Political disenfranchisement also hindered refugee return. Croatia's 1999 election law reduced parliamentary representation of the Serb minority to a single seat (from 3 in 1995 and 13 in 1992). Voting procedures were also far more arduous for the 100,000 ethnic Serb refugees in Yugoslavia with Croatian citizenship than for the ethnic Croat "diaspora" living in Bosnia.

(Only about 100 Serbs with Croatian citizenship reportedly voted in Belgrade in Croatia's parliamentary elections, held in January 2000. In February 2000, President-elect of Croatia Stipe Mesic declared that all ethnic Serb refugees had a right to return to Croatia, even without citizenship. This marked a sharp departure from the rhetoric and policy of Croatia under President Tudjman, who died in December.)

Eastern Slavonia

Some 3,000 ethnic Serbs displaced from other areas of Croatia remained in eastern Slavonia at year's end, about 1,000 fewer than one year earlier. In all, about 51,000 ethnic Serbs lived in the region, down from about 60,000 at the end of 1998. The pre-war Serb population had been 70,000, before peaking at 127,000 after the massive displacement of Serbs in 1995 from the Krajina region.

In January 1998, eastern Slavonia reverted to Croatian control. Poor economic conditions in the region compounded Croatia's failure to create an environment congenial to ethnic reconciliation. In 1999, about 12,000 displaced ethnic Serbs returned from eastern Slavonia to their places of origin elsewhere in Croatia. The government reported that some 29,000 ethnic Serbs had similarly returned in recent years.

However, the OSCE stated in September that most Serbian returnees from eastern Slavonia were not able to reoccupy their own homes because of discriminatory property laws and the unwillingness of Croatian authorities to enforce court orders evicting ethnic Croats. Of some 7,000 Serbs who officially returned to the Knin area in the Krajina region in 1999, only a small number managed to recover their property occupied by Bosnian Croat refugees. In April, the mayor of Knin sought to halt the return of ethnic Serbs altogether, violating Croatia's Refugee Return Act.

Another 47,000 Serbs from eastern Slavonia sought refuge in Yugoslavia in recent years. Others left for third countries. A surge in the number of ethnic Serbs emigrating to the United Kingdom led the U.K. to re-impose visa requirements on Croatian nationals in November.

Some 43,000 ethnic Croats had officially returned to their homes in eastern Slavonia by year's end, including 17,000 in 1999 – more than half of the eastern Slavonian population that had been displaced. However, the OSCE noted that not all of the returns appeared to be permanent. Another 38,000 displaced ethnic Croats remained outside the region. About half returned to Vukovar-Srijem, and half to Osijek-Baranja. Housing commissions in eastern Slavonia were particularly active and effective in adjudicating claims by returning ethnic Croats.

As Croats returned to reclaim their properties, they sometimes engaged in "soft evictions" – pressuring ethnic Serbs to vacate the homes they occupied. The level of violence remained high in the region during the year; international monitors recorded 1,017 incidents of ethnically motivated harassment and housing disputes. Among these were 61 physical assaults, including three murders of ethnic Serbs and several grenade attacks. About half of the incidents took place in the Vukovar area, many in the village of Berak.

Some 10,000 Roma lived in eastern Slavonia before the war. When the regime reverted to Croatian control, all but about 1,500 reportedly fled persecution by ethnic Croats who accused them of having sided with Serbs. For instance, 90 percent of Roma families left the village of Popovac, according to one human rights group. Most Roma from the region sought refuge in Yugoslavia.

Repatriation of Croatian Serbs

The government's official return program initiated in 1998 proceeded slowly in 1999. During the year, approximately 9,000 ethnic Serb refugees returned to Croatia, virtually all from Yugoslavia. Another 213 refugees returned from Republika Srpska with international assistance. Most of the 34,000 returnees since the Dayton accords (6,000 with UNHCR assistance) were elderly Serbs whose homes remained habitable and unoccupied – more than 80 percent were more than 60 years old. The majority returned to rural areas of the Krajina, near Sisak, Karlovac, Gospic, Knin, Drnis, and Donji Lapac. UNHCR identified another 10,000 ethnic Serb refugees in Republika Srpska who wished to return to Croatia, but had not done so by year's end.

In September, the OSCE reported that most returnees faced daunting bureaucratic obstacles. Discrimination skewed the distribution of social benefits and reconstruction assistance against them, the OSCE said. Local authorities sometimes punished ethnic Croats who helped Serb returnees by firing them, or denying them humanitarian aid or even baptismal services, the International Helsinki Federation reported.

Ethnic Serb refugees in Bosnia took advantage of procedures set up in 1998 to apply for travel documents. Croatia opened a full-time consulate during the year in Banja Luka (Republika Srpska), and improved consular services in Belgrade (Yugoslavia). A letter issued there allows refugees to travel to Croatia, where they may file an application for citizenship. As of December, 21,010 ethnic Serb refugees had submitted citizenship claims, 19,245 of which met with success. However, the procedure remained slow and arbitrary, based on descent rather than place of birth, and more expensive for Serbs than for ethnic Croats.

In many cases, authorities settled naturalized Bosnian Croat refugees in the abandoned homes of ethnic Serbs, many in the Krajina region. The Croat occupants often provided a harsh reception for ethnic Serbs seeking to return to their homes in the Krajina. Police reportedly often tolerated Croatian harassment of ethnic Serb returnees.

Resettlement

The International Organization for Migration assisted in the resettlement of 10,062 refugees from Croatia in 1999, primarily to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Since 1992, the program has helped 95,351 refugees resettle to third countries.

Asylum Seekers

Croatia cooperated with UNHCR to develop asylum legislation that complies with the UN Refugee Convention, to which Croatia is a party. In the meantime, Croatia's aliens law governed the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers of various nationalities submitted 20 claims during the year. The Ministry of Interior reached 11 decisions, denying all claims. The rejected applicants included eight Iranians, one Nigerian, and two Yugoslav nationals.

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