Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Croatia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Croatia , 1 June 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3eddc496a.html [accessed 13 July 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.

At least 251,000 Croatian refugees remained outside the country and in need of a durable solution at the end of 2002: the majority in Yugoslavia (228,000) and Bosnia (22,000). Around 990 Croatian nationals applied for asylum in other countries during the year.

Around 17,100 persons were internally displaced in Croatia at the end of the year, down from 23,400 in 2001.

The number of refugees in Croatia at the end of the year dropped to 8,100 from 21,900 in 2001. Most were from Bosnia (7,400) and held temporary protected status.

Asylum Seekers

Croatia is a party to the UN Refugee Convention. The Croatian parliament has drafted but not adopted an asylum law. Until this law is passed, Croatia's Aliens Law governs the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Croatia had 100 new applicants for asylum, including 14 each from Iraq and Iran, and 11 from Pakistan. Officials made decisions on 118 cases, including 18 from the previous year. All were denied.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that asylum procedures were largely inadequate. Border officials were confused about admission to the asylum procedure and the government detained asylum seekers and provided a poor environment for asylum interviews, including a lack of country of origin information for adjudicators and a long and complex appeals process. Croatia, however, is participating in a program to establish an asylum program in compliance with European Union standards, and with assistance from Germany and Slovenia.

Internal Displacement

Of the 17,100 internally displaced persons within Croatia, around 13,700 were ethnic Croats displaced from the Danube Region and other war affected areas, and 3,400 Croatian Serbs from all over the country who remained in the Danube region. Most of the displaced persons lived in private homes, while the others (4,400) were in state-run collective centers throughout Croatia.

During the year, around 6,600 internally displaced persons returned to their places of origin, including 4,600 Croats who returned to the Danube region.

Refugees

More than half of the 18,600 Bosnians with temporary protected status had left Croatia by the end of 2002. Those who remained in Croatia included 4,500 Bosnian Croats, 2,600 Bosnian Muslims, and around 300 persons of other ethnicities.

Most returned to Bosnia, but UNHCR resettled some 1,500 to other countries outside the region, mainly to the United States (1,400).

About 700 Yugoslavs with temporary protected status remained in Croatia at the end of the year, down from 1,400 in 2001. Most were Yugoslav Croats (390), although there were also about 230 Albanians.

During the year, around 11,000 Croatian Serbs participated in organized return to Croatia from Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Nongovernmental organizations working in Croatia also reported spontaneous returns to Croatia, but no numbers were available.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees counts recipients of temporary protection in Croatia among refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection because they have not yet had status determinations.

Impediments to Return

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the general level of security within Croatia has improved, but return of Croatian Serbs continues to be viewed with suspicion by local populations. There were instances of attacks and harassment against Serbs, particularly in war-affected areas, including grenade attacks, a returnee being beaten to death, and death threats.

Discrimination against Croatian Serbs remained rampant. According to a public opinion poll taken during the year, 25 percent of Croatian adults said they would expel all Serbs from Croatia. In areas heavily affected by the war, such as Dalmatia and Slavonia, 44 percent and 35 percent agreed. Political parties antagonistic to Croat Serb returnees enjoyed support, especially in war-affected areas to which Croat Serbs would return. The Croatian government, although making statements favoring return, has only acted under considerable international pressure to implement reforms to expedite return, and has acted cautiously to avoid provoking the nationalist right.

Many habitual permanent residents of Croatia prior to the 1991 war who were not entitled to Croatian citizenship were unable to return. Such persons needed prior permission from the Croatian Ministry of Interior and Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees before repatriating. The Ministry of Interior reportedly often claimed that no records existed of the applicants' pre-conflict residence in Croatia. Ethnic Croats, regardless of their previous nationality, are able to gain Croatian citizenship simply by declaring themselves, in writing, to be Croatian citizens. Non-ethnic Croats must have five years of registered residence in Croatia.

Continuing uneven implementation of the 1997 "convalidation" law deterred many elderly and disabled Serbs from returning. The law had sought to recognize acts and decisions of the Krajina Serb authorities, including documents issued by them during the region's brief secession from Croatia, and thereby allow holders of the documents to apply for public assistance and other state benefits. Convalidation of documents also established work experience. However, most Serb refugees in Yugoslavia and Bosnia were not able to apply for welfare benefits within the limited period provided under the law since they were not in Croatia. Consequently, they risked losing their pensions or disability insurance proceeds – a major disincentive to return, given the bleak employment prospects for elderly ethnic Serbs.

Many male Croatian Serb refugees in Yugoslavia who were of military age during the war have not returned for fear of being arbitrarily arrested and accused of war crimes. During the year, 16 repatriating Serbs were detained on return, and charged with war crimes: one received a three-year prison sentence, six were detained pending trial, one was released pending trial, and eight were released without charges. In contrast, treatment of ethnic Croats is generally lenient and war crimes charges against them are seldom brought.

Mines and unexploded ordinances continue to pose a threat to returnees, with over 6,000 square km out of 56,538 square km of Croatia covered in mines.

Finally, Croatia's unemployment rate, around 15–20 percent in the country as a whole – and higher in war-affected areas, is a factor that deters return. Employment discrimination also deters Croatian Serbs who are underrepresented in public sector employment.

Property Rights

In particular, Croatian Serbs face obstacles in obtaining the return of their property. Owners may not repossess property unless the temporary occupants have alternative housing. Human rights groups note that this law was vigorously applied to Croatian Serb returnees, and not applied to ethnic Croats seeking return of their properties. According to the International Crisis Group, this law not only violates the Croatian constitution, but also international norms in that it gives precedence to temporary occupants over rightful owners. Return of ethnic Croats to their pre-war domiciles, on the other hand, has been almost completed since they can more easily evict those who occupy their homes, and those who have not returned note it is mostly bleak economic prospects that hinder their return. In addition, returnees are often required to pay accumulated electricity bills from former temporary occupiers before the electricity is reconnected.

Until 2001, authorities denied reconstruction assistance for cases of destruction by "terrorist acts" or for destruction by the Croatian army, which mostly applied to Serb homes. However, in spring of 2002, authorities began to grant assistance to these persons for the first time.

The most controversial properties are "socially owned apartments" – a legacy of former Yugoslavia's socialist past. When the war broke out in 1991, Croatia passed legislation allowing occupants to purchase socially owned apartments. However, by this time many ethnic Serbs had fled their apartments. Later they were unable to reoccupy them because they couldn't establish ownership. Shortly after hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs were expelled from Croatia in 1995, the government enacted legislation to abolish occupancy rights, requiring the return of the owner or tenant within 90 days of the law's enactment in order to claim the property – impossible for Serb refugees who were unable to return. OSCE estimated that 50,000–60,000 occupancy rights holders were deprived of their occupancy rights. In the Danube region occupancy rights were not cancelled, and many ethnic Croats returnees there have been able to assert their occupancy rights and return to their pre-war homes.

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