Last Updated: Friday, 31 October 2014, 10:08 GMT

The Protection of Refugees and IDPs in Serbia

Publisher European Council on Refugees and Exiles
Publication Date 1 May 2000
Cite as European Council on Refugees and Exiles, The Protection of Refugees and IDPs in Serbia, 1 May 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6644.html [accessed 31 October 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.

An advocacy information report from the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on Former Yugoslavia;

Based on field and desk research.

March - May 2000

1. Executive summary

Serbia, part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, currently supports one of the largest refugee and IDP populations in Europe. UNHCR figures estimate some 508,000 refugees (from Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia) and 180,000+ internally-displaced persons (IDPs) from Kosovo. These refugees and IDPs survive in a state facing an endemic social, economic and political crisis, and in a region facing high levels of ongoing instability and potential for violent conflict. 

Despite this grave situation, information on the protection needs of Serb refugees and IDPs has not received the high profile given to similar situations in the region. This advocacy information report, undertaken by a mission team supported by the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on former Yugoslavia, seeks to address this information gap, and thus boost efforts at advocacy at a national, regional and international level.

The mission informing this report was undertaken in March 2000, with the team consisting of representatives from the national and international NGO community. This mission was supported by UNHCR in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Norwegian Refugee Council. Additional desk research and consultation was undertaken March-May 2000.

The report stresses that ensuring the protection of refugees and IDPs in Serbia is an immense task. Difficulties faced by international and national actors in supporting refugee and IDP populations within Serbia – against a backdrop of poverty and isolation - are further exacerbated by a complex web of regional and international factors.

The report identifies problems for refugees and IDPs in the areas of shelter, freedom of movement, documentation, access to state services, and access to information on their rights and the services available to them. It points to the importance of promoting 'choice' in return or integration for refugees and IDPs, and welcomes the opportunity now afforded by growing political moderation in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, and by regional initiatives such as the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe. It highlights gaps in co-ordination in the inter-governmental (IGO) and non-governmental (NGO) sector, in communcation between international structures in the region and the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and in the support given to local NGOs and civil society in Serbia. These are addressed in more detail in section 4 of the report; practical recommendations to address these concerns summarised below, and given in more detail in section 5.

Above all, at a time of budget reductions and restructuring among some of the key international actors in the region, the report stresses that protection capacity must be maintained in Serbia (and in countries of return such as Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Kosovo). The capacity for swift humanitarian intervention must be supported. Care needs to be taken to ensure that donor and organisational fatigue does not act against return choice at such a critical period.

This report also highlights the fragile nature of local civil society, and calls for greater intervention and support for local NGOs. It notes that the Roma IDP community in Serbia is often the most marginalised from mainstream NGO and IGO support, and calls for deeper engagement with Roma community NGOs.

Recommendations

The opportunity offered by the Stability Pact and growing political moderation in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina must be seized. However, IGOs, governments and NGOs must not see this opportunity as solely one to promote return; it is rather a critical opportunity to promote real choice for refugees and IDPs in Serbia and across the region. Refugees and IDPs must have the information and opportunity to either return home or look to viable integration solutions in Serbia. In this context, donor governments and bodies to the Stability Pact must fulfil their obligations and fully fund this initiative. The Stability Pact itself must engage more fully with all the actors concerned, including bringing international and local NGOs into its policymaking and implementation processes; 

Any funds earmarked to promote return provided by the Stability Pact, European Union or other donors must be clearly linked to programmes of administrative reform by the governments in countries of return. Bureaucratic and discriminatory blocks must be removed, and the process as a whole speeded up; 

As part of this process of making return more efficient and a more viable option, the mission urges the governments of Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to review entry and exit controls for potential returnees, making more borders 'softer' and encouraging spontaneous return (in turn, UNHCR should support this initiative, and step up access to organised 'go and see' visits for potential returnees); 

The mission urges IGOs and NGOs to increase capacity for cross-border planning and operations, particularly in the case of Kosovo; 

At the same time as making return more accessible and viable, local integration solutions should also be pursued more vigorously. The worst collective centres should be prioritised for closure; shelter solutions which promote refugee/IDP self-help, normalisation of living conditions, or which bring benefit to both refugees/IDPs and the host community should be supported; 

Projects which inform refugees and IDPs on their legal rights (empowering, increasing choice and promoting return) should continue to be supported and thought given as to how to increase their accessibility and reach; 

UNHCR should more vigorously pursue local integration solutions for Kosovo Serb and Roma IDPs, which are not incompatible with ongoing advocacy and work on return rights. This includes advocating such solutions strongly to the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees and the Federal Ministry for Refugees, IDPs and Humanitarian Aid; 

UNMIK, UNHCR and other relevant international bodies and agencies should seek to end the isolation of the Kosovo administration from its neighbours. Dialogue with the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, focused on information-sharing and seeking common solutions to legal problems (such as documentation and property rights), should begin. This should be part of a move toward regional planning as outlined in 5.4.5 above; 

The government of the Republic of Serbia (and its Federal counterparts) should itself seek to engage more pro-actively with its international and national partners in addressing the need for greater freedom of movement (both internally and across borders for returnees), in developing an overall strategic plan for refugees and their integration or return, and in supporting refugee/IDP access to facilities and information; 

Municipalities within Serbia which host high numbers of refugees should be supported and encouraged in making direct links with 'return' municipalities in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; 

In a context of restructuring and budget downsizing, UNHCR should safeguard protection capacity in the field in its Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian operations at a time where such issues will be critical in finding durable solutions for refugees and IDPs in Serbia. Other international agencies should also be careful to protect capacity in the region at a time when increased returns may become a reality. In this context, the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group expresses particular concern at the closure of ECHO offices in both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; 

In this context, intergovernmental bodies and international administrations in the region should take care not to develop policies which act against the promotion of refugee/IDP choice in return (e.g. the OHR's plans for 'firmer' border control at the RS/Serbia border, or property legislation in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo); 

UN OHCHR offers clear added value in protection issues and in general human rights education. Its operation should be supported to as full an extent as possible; 

Effective mechanisms for co-ordinating information flow to refugees and IDPs on the services available to them should be established in the IGO and NGO community. This would seem to be most effectively done by supporting existing networking structures, such as those offered by ICVA, in expanding services to better link fora, and promote information co-ordination not only between NGOs but also to refugees and IDPs; 

International donors should look to the great need for human rights education and civil society development in Serbia as one of the most effective means of promoting long-term stability. The local NGO sector must be supported in building its capacity, both through supporting its access to donors and by international NGO mentoring and partnership. In this context, the need for human rights/civil society education and training in the governmental sector (central and local government structures) should not be overlooked; 

NGO co-ordination at local level should be supported, through ICVA or other appropriate fora. These fora should seek not only to co-ordinate local and international NGO activity in a specific and share information, but also to act as a channel for information to their client groups on the range of services and projects in the area; 

International agencies and local NGOs must do more to liaise and work with Roma NGOs, and in seeking solutions for Roma IDPs from Kosovo. Roma NGOs must be supported in developing their project and advocacy capacities, and in linking effectively with the wider NGO community. 

2. Terms of reference for the mission

Serbia, a constituent republic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, currently hosts one of the biggest populations of refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Europe. The majority, some hundreds of thousands (see 3.2 'Statistical information' below for details) have been in exile for many years – in some cases nine years. This population, broadly defined as refugees under the terms of the 1951 Convention, have recently been joined by around 200,000 Serbs and minorities displaced from Kosovo following the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces in June 1999. 

This massive population survives day-to-day dependent upon international humanitarian aid or their own survival strategies, seemingly with little prospect of durable solutions (humanitarian food aid only reaches those refugees in collective centres, or who are especially vulnerable). The refugees and IDPs also live in a state facing an endemic economic, social and political crisis, in a region still facing high levels of instability and potential for conflict. 

Despite this situation, information on the protection needs of refugees and IDPs in Serbia has not received the high profile given to similar situations in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and now Kosovo. One of purposes of this mission and the resulting report is to try and address this information gap and so boost efforts at advocacy. 

Following discussions with project partners and relevant bodies working with refugee and IDP populations in Serbia, the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on former Yugoslavia undertook a field visit to Serbia in early March 2000. This report is drawn from the evidence gathered by that team, and informed by the information produced by key agencies and bodies involved with the subject groups up to early May 2000. 

The precise focus of the mission and this report is protection issues relating to refugee and IDP populations in Serbia proper, in comparison to agreed international standards. The mission and this report will not address the situation in Montenegro or the internationally-administered territory of Kosovo; nor will it detail the humanitarian aid needs of the refugee, IDP or host communities in Serbia. The central agenda of the mission was to assess refugees' and IDPs' rights (including practical access to those rights) in the following areas: legal status (including registration); access to shelter/housing; access to social services (education, health, welfare benefits); access to means of livelihood; freedom of movement; options for durable solutions. 

This report will seek to make some focused and practical recommendations to key actors in the situation, including intergovernmental and supra-national bodies, international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and national and local government. It also seeks to inform and influence the wider policymaking community. It is intended to disseminate the report as widely as possible – including to appropriate staff in the major refugee and humanitarian aid agencies, United Nations (UN) bodies, European Union (EU) bodies, the Council of Europe (CoE), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and other key academic and policymaking groups and fora.

This report draws from the evidence collected by the Reference Group team which visited Serbia between the 5 and 10 March 2000. The team consisted of: Mike Young (Co-ordinator of the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group); Philip Rudge (independent consultant); Paal Nesse (Head of European Operations for the Norwegian Refugee Council); and Milka Damjanovic (who has worked both with national and international NGOs in Serbia and Bosnia). This core team was supported by Ann Pesic (Country Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies – ICVA – in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the Federal Republic and the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

The mission team undertook field visits in three areas of Serbia: Belgrade; the area of the Vojvodina around Novi Sad; and in southern Serbia around Kraljevo, Kursumlija and Kragujevac. These field visits consisted of both interviews with refugees and IDPs themselves, and with NGOs and governmental and other bodies working with them. The full list of staff and organisations/bodies interviewed during the mission is given in Appendix A. This field research has been augmented by information provided by a wide range of NGO, IGO and media sources (where direct quotations are used in the report, the source is acknowledged). 

The resulting conclusions and recommendations are given in section 5 below, and in the Executive Summary above. 

3. Background information

3.1 Social, economic and political background

Serbia has been characterised as being in a state of 'suppressed conflict.' Its social structures and economic life are in crisis. Any resolutions to the multiple problems currently manifest in Serbia seem far away. In this grave and highly-politicised context, the consequences for refugee and IDP populations are manifold: in their ability to seek some dignity, practical access to state services and means of livelihood in exile; in their prospects of realising return or integration; and in their vulnerability to renewed conflict. 

The Serbian economy is in near-collapse. The consequences of war and international economic sanctions over the past ten years – including the effects of the NATO bombing between 24 March and 9 June last year - have laid waste to industry and devastated average purchasing power. There are periodic shortages of basic goods – presently, medication of any kind is extremely difficult to find, even at inflated grey economy prices – and the availability of milk and bread affected due to market distortion by state price controls. Much of the remaining economic activity – apart from small-scale private agricultural work – remains in the state sector or under the influence of organised crime, and subject to inefficiency, heavy bureaucratic burdens and corruption. Unemployment in 1999 was estimated at around 60%. 

The UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) monitor the socio-economic situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in their monthly 'Humanitarian Risk Analysis' reports (available on the Web at: www.reliefweb.org). In the risk analysis current at the time of the Reference Group mission, the following statistics give some idea of the extent of the social and economic malaise in Serbia: the average monthly salary in Serbia in December 1999 (when paid) amounted to 1,700 Dinars (UK£28.33/US$44.48/88.11DM) and the average pension 1, 050 Dinars (UK£17.50/US$27.48/54.43DM) – the cost of a basic 'shopping basket' of goods monitored by OCHA was at 2,625 Dinars in the state-controlled market and 3,303 Dinars in the grey market; 47% of Serbian municipalities showed municipal average income at below 80% of the national average, and 21% showed municipal average income at 80-100% of the national average; between November 1999 and 31 December 1999, the national average income increased by 7%, while the cost of a 'OCHA shopping basket' of staple goods increased by 7.7% in the state-controlled sector and 10% in the grey economy; the purchasing power of the average salary has decreased by 14% in the state-controlled market and 43% in the grey market according to the same criteria; in 1999, GDP dropped by 32%, inflation increased by 100%, and unemployment increased by 32% in Serbia according to independent experts (official government statistics record a GDP drop of 19.3% and an increase in inflation of 43% - there are no unemployment figures). 

The figures above are exacerbated by factors such as non-payment of salaries and pensions, and the scarcity of many basic goods. In addition, the national infrastructure suffers from both the scarcity of investment in the last ten years and the effects of the NATO action. Electricity supply is fragile – OCHA reports three major failures of supply in the period 25 February to 2 March 2000. Supplies of heating oil to schools, cultural centres, hospitals and residential areas are sporadic (sometimes due to administrative blocks to oil aid supplies crossing the borders into Serbia), and healthcare severely affected by the acute shortage of medicines. 

Serbia remains subject to a wide range of international sanctions – although there are conflicting signals. The European Union (EU) announced at the Lisbon inter-governmental summit (24 March 2000) that sanctions will remain in place as long as the current Federal and state administrations remain in power; though significant sums have been earmarked for Serbia should democratisation occur. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remains outside the EU's Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe. However, the EU has also announced an expansion of its 'Energy for Democracy' programme (supplying heating oil to opposition-controlled municipalities) and the European Communities Humanitarian Office (ECHO) remains a significant donor in humanitarian action inside Serbia. The Republic of Montenegro (the other constituent republic of the FRY) is receiving significant donor support from the international community. Several major international are carriers are restarting services to and from Belgrade, and the block on services by the national carrier, JAT, lifted from late March. The sanctions are having a significant negative effect on the economic and social fabric of Serbia – their effectiveness in promoting change is less obvious. 

This picture of the extent of the economic and social crisis faced by Serbia and its ordinary citizens is important when considering the protection of its refugee and IDP populations. Their problems in seeking means of support while in exile, in accessing rights to education, healthcare or other social services, and in returning to Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegvoina or Kosovo or integrating in Serbia are all greatly exacerbated by the poverty of the host population and the collapse in state services. The vast majority of refugees and IDPs are 'hosted' by Serbian families – as economic conditions worsen, their ability to continue to provide shelter must be in doubt. In addition, refugee and IDP issues are highly politicised – durable solutions remain extremely difficult to attain and are influenced by a complex web of national, regional and international political factors. 

In this context, it is important to note that the international community brings significant resources into Serbia. UN agencies' funding plans for 2000 to underpin humanitarian activity in the FRY amount to some $199.2 million (£136.4 million/431.0 million DM). UNHCR alone accounts for some $71.8 million of this figure. Questions can be asked on the focus for this expenditure within the refugee and IDP context, or whether agencies maximise the political clout these resource bring them – however, from the evidence collected for this report there can be little doubt about the massive scale of the problems to be addressed or the need to maintain and/or increase this expenditure. 

Within Serbia, political life remains characterised by a mixture of conflict, repression and stasis. The current governing coalition at Federal and Serbian levels remains in firm control of the levers of state power, and openly antagonistic to opposition political parties and civil society. Repressive moves against alternative media and democracy/human rights activists are being stepped up as local and parliamentary elections loom. The terms of political discourse are crude and violent in language (and often in action). Among the general populace, there is a feeling of barely-suppressed anxiety and expectations of further armed conflict, bombing and refugee/iDP flows. 

Significant figures within the ruling parties have been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal on former Yugoslavia. Tensions between the current Federal administration and the state government in Montenegro over the future of the federal union are steadily increasing. Relationships between the Serbian state authorities and the international administration in Kosovo are to all purposes non-existent. The situation in the Serbia/Kosovo border area around the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja remains very tense, with armed activity both by extreme ethnic Albanian groups and Serbian military police – there are further population displacements both into Kosovo and deeper into Serbia proper. 

This domestic political situation exists within an even wider and more complex regional context. The potential for the repatriation of ethnic Serb refugees to Croatia remains uncertain, even following the advent of a new government in Zagreb. The situation for the return of ethnic Serbs to areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina where they would be in the minority are even more fragile, and those for Kosovan Serbs at present remote. Integration of refugee and IDP populations in Serbia remains problematic. The ability of significant numbers of Serb refugees to return home is a key measure to promote stability at national and regional levels and ease pressure in Serbia. Return is hedged with so many variables and subject to so many different political factors that to achieve even a modest success will require a level of commitment and co-ordination from international and national actors above and beyond even the significant interventions of the last ten years. But a situation favourable to minority returns remains the key to regional stability, return from Serbia to Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo crucial within that. 

3.2 Statistical information on refugees and IDPs in Serbia

UNHCR statistics put the number of refugees currently within Serbia at 508,000. Their countries of origin are Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The US Committee for Refugees' World Refugee Survey for 1999 lists 279,000 refugees from Croatia and 201,000 from Bosnia-Hercegovina (a total of 480,000). 

In addition to the above, UNHCR estimates there are some 200,000-220,000 internally-displaced persons (IDPs) currently in Serbia who have been forced to flee from Kosovo. The majority of these IDPs are ethnic Serbs, with significant numbers of Roma and other minority groups. Provisional results from the recent IDP registration drive show 180,000 IDPs from Kosovo – it is understood, however, that an unspecified number of IDPs have not registered as such. 

Taken together, this indicates a total population in Serbia of some 708,000 refugees and IDPs. This can be compared to the situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina, with some 40,000 refugees and 836,000 IDPs, and in Croatia with some 27,300 refugees and 61,000 IDPs. Serbia has the largest population of refugees in Europe. 

UNHCR in the FRY however indicate that the current statistics for refugees and IDPs may be inflated. There may be a number of reasons for this. The refugee population in Serbia is subject to flux and movement (particularly within the population which has come from Bosnia-Hercegovina which contains elements that move between the Republika Srpska and Serbia to try and obtain a less punitive standard of living) and registration has proven difficult. A registration effort is currently underway for the IDP population in Serbia, overseen by UNHCR in partnership with Swiss Disaster Relief and the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees. This registration exercise should clarify numbers and be complete by mid-2000. UNHCR is also planning a census of refugee numbers in Serbia in September 2000, and again expects that numbers will fall as a result of this exercise. 

Estimating the numbers of IDPs from Kosovo has proven problematic – particularly in the case of Roma IDPs. Widely varying figures are given by different actors. Provisional results from the recent registration exercise stand at 18,796 Roma IDPs from Kosovo, plus some 583 'Egyptians' (a sub-group among the Roma). 

Since IDPs remain citizens of the FRY, registration is in theory administratively more straightforward – there are, however, numerous practical difficulties in registering, not least the reluctance of some municipalities in allowing IDPs a more settled status in their area and resistance from the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees for political reasons. Recent disturbances in the Kraljevo municipality against the Kosovo Serb and Roma IDPs there underline this tension. IDPs can however gain documentation as a beneficiary of Yugoslav Red Cross aid. 

In terms of 'accomplished' returns, UNHCR in FRY records that only some 5,000 refugees had returned to Croatia and some 1,300 to Bosnia-Hercegovina with their assistance since 1996 – a tiny fraction of the total. 

In addition to the above refugee and IDP groups, Serbia also receives a very small number of asylum applications from nationals of other countries – UNHCR currently recognises 30 'mandate' refugees in the FRY and the branch office in Belgrade handled 59 resettlement cases under the mandate in 1999. 

4. Findings

The mission noted very different experiences on the ground in the north, centre and south of Serbia, and in the level of co-ordination of the international and national organisations involved with refugee and IDP groups in these areas. Overall, the context of tension, anxiety, social and economic malaise was very apparent. Both the refugee and IDP populations were sharply affected by this backdrop – and this was further exacerbated by the highly politicised context in which they are forced to live. The team considered that circumstances were such that readily achievable durable solutions for these groups were simply not apparent. Refugees were caught in the mire of post-Dayton wrangling, while IDPs from Kosovo have experienced the failure of the international administration to safeguard their minority rights within that territory and are now subject in exile to political manipulation by Serbian authorities. 

Such openings as are now becoming apparent will need to be seized with commitment, vigor and purpose by all the partners in order to make a significant change in prospects. The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe is a welcome step forward, but remains vague and problematic in many of its details. The new administration in Croatia, the recent agreement between that new administration and the acting Dodik government in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia on refugee return, and the commitment by all parties within the Kosovo Joint Transitional Authority to a formal statement on toleration and minority rights all offer hope for increased movement in return but need to be tested on the ground before any real weight can be placed upon them. 

Critically, the international community must recommit its political and funding resources during the next twelve months, both to achieving significant return and to promoting durable integration solutions where this is not possible. It would be tragic if, after such a prolonged and massive investment of resources, donor and organisational fatigue led to a withdrawal from full engagement in this crucial period. 

The findings of the mission as they relate to the protection of refugees and IDPs in Serbia are set out below in five areas: issues around the return of refugees to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; issues around the return of IDPs to Kosovo; issues around solutions for both above groups while in Serbia; issues around the co-ordination of inter-governmental (IGO) and non-governmental (NGO) organisations in Serbia; issues around the national, regional and international factors in play. 

In section 5 below, these findings are used to set out specific recommendations to various key actors. These are also given in the Executive Summary above. 

4.1 The return of refugees to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina

This is the critical period in promoting returns to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The advent of the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe is welcome; it represents an opportune initiative in co-ordinating and focusing international engagement in building peace and tolerance in the region. Coupled with the election of a new, more moderate Presidential and parliamentary administration in Croatia, and the signs of political movement in both the Serb and Federation entities in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the seeds are being sown for growing durable return. Maximum use must be made of the new Croatian government's wish to further integrate into Europe and the European Union. 

Refugee return can be seen as a litmus test of their commitment to key European human rights norms. The return of significant numbers of Serb refugees to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina would in turn contribute greatly to the easing of pressure within Serbia and to the chances for regional stability. Most Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia have in the past expressed a wish to return – though the real extent of this is harder to quantify. It may be that, for many refugees, a situation in which they could readily return to Croatia would allow them to deal with property rights and pension matters, providing a better financial basis for re-establishing their lives in Serbia. 

To build this 'return-friendly' situation, however, there will need to be a massive effort in transmuting rhetoric into reality, a change in the attitudes of controlling authorities at central and local levels in the countries of return, and an increase in resources and co-ordination on the ground. There remains widespread scepticism about the will of government authorities in Croatia and in Bosnia-Hercegovina to deliver, and in the real commitment of IGOs and involved European states through the Stability Pact. 

The first requirement is for the international community – in both the IGO and NGO sectors – to forcefully restate the clear requirements of international law as regards the rights of refugees to return and to citizenship. Much of blockage to return to, for example, Croatia has come from national and local government placing manifold administrative delays and hurdles in the way of potential returnees. Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina are first and foremost citizens of those countries, and their rights as such should be fully recognised and acted upon. 

The Stability Pact plans (i.e. for a $55 million grant to Croatia in order to facilitate durable return) can act as a useful template for its partners in national governments and the IGO and NGO communities, on the measures necessary to promote the ability to return for increasing numbers of people. But the Stability Pact and its key partners must do more than that; the mission's experience on the ground (and that of NGOs which are closely involved) has shown that great effort is needed in unblocking the procedures which govern return to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Refugees and the organisations that work with them told the mission that it can take up to a year (and sometimes more) to gather the necessary documents to satisfy bureaucrats within the Croatian state that a particular individual is eligible to return. There are also numerous 'Catch 22' instances where some documents vital to the process are next to impossible to obtain because of practical or bureaucratic blocks. In the procedure agreed between the FRY and Croatia, in which UNHCR plays a logistical role, such applications should take no longer than three months. 

The Stability Pact and its partners must push forcefully for all such administrative blocks and obstructive bureaucracy to be removed – indeed, cash grants to state governments for the promotion of return must be linked to programmes of such administrative reform and the implementation of these reforms closely monitored. Central government structures must be encouraged to push reform of obstructive local authorities at cantonal and municipal levels. Local government structures must be required to issue relevant documents quickly and without discrimination toward ethnic Serb citizens (in the case of return to Croatia and in minority areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina) and ethnic Croat citizens (in the case of return to minority areas in Bosnia-Hercegovina). 

To achieve significant levels of return from Serbia to Croatia and Bosnia will require a high level of international co-ordination and partnership. While mechanisms are in place to co-ordinate humanitarian activity at a national level – e.g. the work of OCHA in the FRY – there is little regional or cross-border co-ordination across all the different international actors in both the IGO and NGO communities. UNHCR – with its unique mandate and lead agency status – obviously has a key role to play (in partnership with other actors such as the OCHA, OSCE and Office of the High Representative [OHR] in Bosnia-Hercegovina) in promoting and ensuring this co-ordination. This area is addressed in some more detail in 4.9 and 4.10 below. 4.6.8 The refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina largely remain at the edges of Serbian society and are subject to social exclusion in a number of areas. They face difficulties with documentation, with accessing healthcare, education and other state services, and with ensuring a means of livelihood. These issues are addressed in some more detail in 4.8 below. 

Many of the Serb refugees interviewed by the team expressed fear about return to Croatia for men aged mid-20s to mid-60s. Their fear was of arrest for alleged war crimes committed during the conflict in Croatia and in the Republika Srpska Krajina and Eastern Slavonia regions. The expectation was that arrest would be arbitrary. While strongly stressing that those properly accused of war crimes must be subject to investigation and trial, the Croatian government should do more to clarify which individuals are being actively sought under indictment and to reassure those refugees who are not that upon return they will not be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention. 

One practical suggestion made by several NGO interviewees to facilitate returns was the introduction of 'softer' border controls between Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and the FRY. Easing the means of travel across the borders would do much to encourage individual return. Presently, such travel has either to be clandestine (facilitated by a bribe of around 170DM to border guards) or subject to a number of bureaucratic and practical hurdles. Any move toward dual citizenship (another potential solution for Serb refugees from Croatia) is a distant prospect and fraught with complications over property rights and refugee status. Relaxation of border controls could achieve a more positive effect without these complications. 

For example, if a potential returnee wishes to travel from Serbia to Croatia to assess the conditions of his/her former home, he/she must not only get a number of approvals, documents and visas from the Croatian authorities, but must also pay for an 'exit visa' from the FRY authorities. All of this takes a considerable period of time and a significant amount of money for travel and fees (which most refugees do not possess). While these obstacles do not apply to those refugees able to take up UNHCR's 'go and see' visit scheme, the capacity of this scheme is limited. Recognition from the relevant government that Serb refugees are Croatian or Bosnian citizens, relaxed entry requirements, and allied moves on the part of FRY authorities to end exit visas and likewise relax border controls on exit and re-entry would greatly assist spontaneous return. 

4.2 The return of IDPs to Kosovo

The prospects for the return of some 200,000 IDPs (both Serb and Roma/other minorities) to Kosovo looks extremely distant at present. Having been forced to flee through the 'abject failure' of the international community to offer protection for these minorities in the territory of Kosovo, they are now subject to political pressure from the FRY and Serbian governments. All of the Kosovan Serb and Roma IDPs interviewed by the team expressed a strong wish to return to their homes in Kosovo – but only when accompanied by the Yugoslav army. 

Serb, Roma and other IDPs from Kosovo are largely concentrated in the south of Serbia – which is also the most economically-depressed area and features significant areas where local government is in the control of the opposition parties. Many municipalities have been uneasy in offering shelter or support to Kosovo IDPs – this has been most acute for the Roma, but has also affected Serbs. This contributes to the marginalisation of Kosovan IDPs. 

Notwithstanding the recent agreement on minority rights and tolerance signed across community lines by all the main political parties involved in the Joint Transitional Authority in Kosovo, it is clear that Serb and Roma IDPs cannot at present return in safety and dignity. Protection by UNMIK and KFOR remains inadequate. The IDPs own attitudes show an inability to admit to the situation in Kosovo for the majority population prior to their flight, or the implications for community relationships should they return. 

While it is clear that return remains unachievable in any significant numbers in the foreseeable future, the international community must remain absolutely committed to the values and reality of a multi-ethnic community in Kosovo. It is vital for future stability in the whole region that strong and pro-active measures continue to be taken to support those minorities still in Kosovo, promote toleration and dialogue, and work toward conditions for return. 

The position of the Serbian and Federal governments has understandably been to give the return of Kosovan Serbs the highest political priority – the Federal Minister for Refugees, Displaced Persons and Humanitarian Aid has characterised this as 'keeping their suitcases packed.' We would urge, however, that the goal of return – which is shared by all the actors – should not affect efforts to provide better conditions for IDPs while they are in Serbia. In our view the two are not incompatible. This situation is most acute for Roma IDPs from Kosovo. Issues around conditions and solutions for both refugee and IDP groups while in exile are discussed in more detail in 4.8 below. 

Practical issues of some concern to many IDPs and NGOs the mission talked to are those of documentation and property rights. The legal regime evolving under international oversight in Kosovo is characterised by confusion and divergance from that in the rest of the FRY. Although the administrative elements of Kosovo municipalities have been transferred into Serbia proper, some of the documentation IDPs from Kosovo need to fully access citizenship rights while in Serbia remains in Kosovo – yet there is no communication between the UN Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) or the Joint Transitional Authority and the relevant authorities within the FRY government. IDPs therefore have few practical means of getting this documentation (aside from limited help provided by UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council) without re-entering Kosovo – which they cannot do for obvious protection reasons. 

Likewise, upholding property rights remains problematic and confused. Contradictory decrees from UNMIK further complicate matters. The establishment of a Property Commission within the UNMIK structure is a step in the right direction, but there is little understanding of how an IDP may approach this Commission while still displaced in Serbia. There is a clear and urgent need for UNMIK and the FRY authorities to establish channels of communication on these matters and look for practical resolutions to aid IDPs in accessing their rights. Similarly, the NGO community must increase its cross-border co-ordination and planning. The current situation prejudices IDPs and does not contribute toward progress on return. There must be solutions available based on the fact that IDPs remain citizens of the FRY, and that UNMIK is mandated to apply pre-1991 FRY legal code. 

The mission noted a number of issues around the situation for Serb and Roma IDPs from Kosovo while in Serbia; these are addressed in 4.8 below. 

4.3 Solutions for refugees and IDPs while in Serbia

The main concerns the mission noted in relation to the situation for refugees and IDP groups in Serbia were those around documentation, shelter and access to information on rights and choices. In addition, there were questions around greater efforts at supporting integration while in exile. Many of these concerns were felt most acutely by Roma IDPs. These are examined below. Linked concerns arising from IGO and NGO co-ordination are addressed more fully in 4.9 below. 

Obtaining the documentation necessary to access services in Serbia proves problematic for refugees and IDPs in several respects. An individual must register with the Commissioner for Refugees in the area where they are living in order to receive aid and access state services such as housing, healthcare and education. The problems tend to occur where refugees are initially registered in the area where they have fled to in the first instance – if they relocate re-registration in the new area is often impossible. 

Practical examples of this were provided to the team by refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina. They had been initially registered in the first area they reached when fleeing over the Bosnian-FRY border, in Vrbacka Banja. They later moved to Pancevo near Belgrade for economic and family reasons – yet they have been unable to obtain a re-registration of their new abode from the local authorities or the Commissioner for Refugees. The bureaucratic process governing change of registration is complicated and requires a lot of documentation – much of which is not obtainable by refugees. 

Without registering this new address, the refugees cannot access healthcare or other services in the Pancevo area. If ill, they are supposed to travel back to Vrbacka Banja to get help. They cannot apply to the Yugoslav Red Cross for aid, since they are not registered in the Pancevo area. They must rely on goodwill in the local hospital for serious illness, and have great difficulty in accessing even the most basic healthcare. 

While the same bureaucratic blocks face Kosovo IDPs, they also face political resistance – obtaining documentation recognising your new place of abode is not supported as the government wishes to maximise pressure to return to Kosovo. As their original place of registration is in Kosovo, many IDPs are effectively barred from accessing healthcare or other services while in Serbia – though registration with the Yugoslav Red Cross ensures emergency humanitarian aid reaches them. 

Shelter remains a key concern for both refugee and IDP groups. Though only 10% of the refugee population is presently housed in collective centres, conditions in some centres are shocking. Refugees can have suffered extremely poor housing conditions for the full nine years they have been in Serbia. The majority housed in 'private' accommodation – i.e. with host families, in self-build accommodation, or their own flats – can suffer from marginalisation, miss out on aid, and live under the threat of eviction for economic reasons. Indeed, in some areas there has been a movement of refugees back into collective centres from private accommodation, as the support structures for centres are more organised and pervasive. 

An example of how degrading conditions in collective centres can be is best illustrated by one centre the team visited in the Kraljevo area. Refugees are housed in one large room – a former village dance hall (in a surreal touch, the disco glitterball still hangs from the ceiling and casts shards of light across the grim interior). The room is damp and cold; some 44/45 people are housed here, in tiny rudimentary partitions, the walls of which are about 8 feet high. There is little to no privacy, and few washing or sanitary facilities. Aid supplies do reach the inhabitants, most of whom have been living in the centre since fleeing Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina (four or five years). In a corner of the room, on a bed left in a corridor between the partitions and without any privacy, an elderly man lay dying. He had several times tried to get medical help at the local hospital; each time he had been sent back to the centre without medical attention. 

Many of the centre's residents are elderly, though there are families with children born in the centre. All expressed a wish to return to their homes, though all felt hopeless. While UNHCR, the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, and some NGOs do have contact with this centre, residents still seemed confused about their rights and about services which would help them explore the possibilities for return. Though UNHCR had 'prioritised' this centre to be closed and the residents relocated to better conditions, there was little sense of timescale or urgency. 

Shelter conditions for both refugee and IDP groups vary enormously – the team visited one centre for Kosovo Serb IDPs a short drive from that described above, in which conditions were much better. It was clean, relatively less cramped in terms of space, and well-served with aid and other NGO services. The residents, though still angry at their displacement, were noticeably more dynamic and organised. But again, one collective centre for refugees from Croatia in the Vojvodina region consisted of one single room in which some 200 people were crammed without any proper sanitary conditions. In private accommodation, some refugee and IDP families have benefited from UNHCR and NGO schemes to pay host families to repair/extend their homes in order to offer shelter, while others live precariously on the frayed goodwill of hosts in cramped and squalid conditions. 

If you are a Serb refugee or IDP, the shelter conditions you must live with depend on a number of factors – your own resources, possible family links, and which municipality or centre you end up in. If you are a Roma IDP, however, your needs for adequate shelter are unlikely to be met. The Roma IDPs were the most marginalised group in terms of national and international attention to their plight and in the services they could access – shelter, help with legal questions, healthcare, and education. 

In both the north (Vojvodina) and south (Kraljevo, Kursumlija and Kragujevac) the team found evidence that Roma IDPs were isolated from the range of services offered to other refugee and IDP groups. In some cases humanitiarian food and sanitary aid was getting through to Roma IDP groups; however, services such as advice on legal or citizenship matters did not appear to penetrate, and there seemed little liaison with Serbian Roma NGOs on behalf of both IGOs and international NGOs. In the Kraljevo area, the local UNHCR office had worked to find shelter for all the Kosovan IDPs but were simply unable to achieve this for Roma groups – in most cases local municipalities or communities objected to the temporary settlement of Roma IDPs in their areas. The local UNHCR office estimated that there were some 6,000 Roma IDPs in their area of responsibility – though, since in many cases the IDPs tended to try and settle in existing Serbian Roma settlements (thus stretching already impoverished communities), it was difficult to pin down reliable figures. 

One particularly shocking example of this marginalisation the team witnessed was a 'settlement' of some 500 – 600 Roma from Kosovo in the centre of Kursumlija, a small town near the Kosovo border. This group, with an element which spoke Albanian and were Muslim, were 'stuck' in 'inhumane living conditions' (as described by the local branch of the Yugoslav Red Cross) because they could find no other place willing to allow them to settle. 

The 'settlement' was within and around a part-built 'cultural centre' – basically a concrete shell without a roof, many internal walls or windows. Families had constructed dark, damp dwellings in small spaces within the shell; there was no heating apart from a few wood-fired stoves, no light, no sanitation, no washing facilities. There were many small children and a high prevalence of illness. In the basement there was a large, deep pool of contaminated water, oil and other undetermined substances. The local Orthodox Church and Yugoslav Red Cross branch were delivering some basic aid in terms of firewood and food, but there was little evidence of other aid or support reaching the group. UNHCR were looking at other shelter solutions (such as winterised tents), but there seemed both confusion and tension between UNHCR and the group's leaders about what exactly was promised. There seemed little sense of urgency in finding a solution. 

The mission was struck by the fact that the establishment and operation of collective centres, in which some 10% of refugees and IDPs were housed, accounted for some 18% of UNHCR's budget for 2000. Clearly, collective centres have many advantages – they can be established relatively swiftly in times of mass influx; residents do not have to pay rental, heating or food costs; and humanitarian aid and other services can be delivered in a focused and efficient way. However, extended stays in collective centres – such as those visited by the mission – can have a deeply degrading effect upon residents and are expensive to run, representing a waste of both human and financial resources. 

The mission would therefore underline the importance of seeking more stable solutions for both refugee and IDP groups in Serbia. It sees no contradiction between strongly advocating for and working toward return to Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Kosovo and finding practical solutions which increase the safety and dignity of refugees and IDPs while in exile. Indeed, returns tend to increase once people feel more stable, integrated and settled. 

As part of advocating a move toward dramatically decreasing the number of refugees and IDPs living in collective centres, the team would strongly promote schemes and projects which supported self-help solutions and the normalisation of living conditions – such as self-build projects. The poverty of the 'host communities' must also be taken into account. Schemes which provide resources for the whole community (e.g. providing cash grants to local families to improve their housing if they host a refugee or IDP family, or improve general water supply facilities) would seem to have a greater chance of promoting durability and integration than those which purely target resources at refugee and IDP groups. Such projects can be achievable with modest resources and represent better value for money than collective centres, decrease any tension caused by targeting resources wholly upon refugee/IDP groups, while boosting the self-esteem of refugees and IDPs. 

In addition to the work undertaken by IGOs such as UNHCR, there are a number of NGO and governmental projects which seek to provide refugees and IDPs with information on their civil/legal rights (the two biggest projects being the Swiss Disaster Relief Network of Humanitarian Legal Offices and the Norwegian Refugee Council's Civil Rights Project, together with a number of others, including the Serbian Democratic Forum, the Humanitarian Law Centre, Refugee Return Service and the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Tolerance). 

These projects are vital in helping refugees and IDPs access their legal rights and in offering choices which promote better integration and/or return; the mission strongly supports their activities. The experience of the mission team in the south would suggest that the form of mobile field units is the most effective in reaching out to refugee and IDP groups (travel to offices based in the main towns can often be impractical for refugees and IDPs because of the expense involved). However, the mission notes that the SDR NHLO network has been vigorous in establishing offices in very many sites right across the country in order to make their services as accessible as possible. 

While the above projects have had a significant impact in improving access to civil and legal rights both in exile and when considering return, the mission noted evidence from its visit that there are still worrying gaps in information about these services reaching refugees and IDPs on the ground. In the Kraljevo area alone during field visits to four income-generating projects, the mission team talked to three refugees who did not know about services they could have easily accessed to get help on acute problems of legal status and in improving living conditions - even though they were in close contact with NGOs and IGOs providing other services. 

Clearly, this raises questions of co-ordination between different IGO and NGO actors in Serbia – particularly in terms of information dissemination. The team noted that this experience was different in the south; information channels in the northern Vojvodina area seemed to function better, though even here there were gaps in reaching particular groups (such as the Roma). These issues around co-ordination and information delivery are discussed in 4.9 below. 

4.4 Co-ordination of IGO and NGO activity in Serbia

The overall co-ordination of IGO and NGO activity in the FRY (excluding Kosovo) is well-structured and serviced, under the oversight of a Humanitarian Co-ordinator and the OCHA. There are regular information-sharing and co-ordination meetings in three different interlinked fora: the Humanitarian Working Group (the perspectives of EU nations, with ECHO, UN agencies, ICRC/IFRC and ICVA), the UN-HOA (UN agencies' perspectives, with ICRC/IFRC and ICVA) and the ICVA meetings (the NGO Council and local fora, bringing together local and international NGOs with UN agencies and ICRC/IFRC). Mechanisms for operational and donor appeal planning seem adequate; though these address mainly IGOs and international NGOs – local NGOs are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to engage in this planning and co-ordination process, and in ready access to funding sources. 

Beneath this co-ordination 'superstructure', co-ordination both within agencies and between them on the ground seemed less smooth, with evident gaps. As outlined above, there was clear evidence that information dissemination on the range of support services available to refugees and IDPs was dysfunctional; liaison between the 'international' sector and local NGOs at a low level. 

It was in this crucial area of 'getting the information out' to refugees and IDPs that the mission felt was of most concern. This highly marginalised and vulnerable group is further disadvantaged if they are uncertain of their rights or of the services they could access to help promote them. Indeed, the 'most needy people are the ones which never find out about support,' according to one leading member of the international community. Agencies must work more closely together in co-ordinating information channels to refugees and IDPs, both in order to identify and plug gaps where certain groups may miss out on much of the information flow (such as Roma IDPs) and to ensure that clients know of the full range of services available to them from a range of different service providers. 

Since there are multiple service providers active in the field – from governmental, IGO and NGO sectors, local and international – the role of co-ordinating information on all available services and making sure it is presented in a format readily usable by service providers in working with refugees and IDPs would seem most appropriately sited with a national-level co-ordinating body able to key into all the sectors and link with local fora. In Serbia, this type of role would be best fulfilled by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, which already plays a full role in collating information on IGO and NGO activity, supported by UNHCR. 

It was also apparent to the team that there is further potential for inter-agency co-ordination below the 'superstructure' described above in 4.9.1. Local NGOs need to be drawn more fully into the process, alongside IGOs and international NGOs as full partners. Local NGOs can be both efficient and sensitive providers, and it is important to build their capacity both operationally and in their ability to partake in advocacy and policy-making networks. Local NGOs, after all, represent the future of civil society in Serbia and will be vital long after the international community disengages. The present funding situation for local NGOs in Serbia is extremely precarious, and their capacity to reach into donor channels needs to be increased. International bodies must engage more fully with local NGOs as supporters, mentors and partners, rather than draining the best-qualified local staff into their own operations. 

But local NGOs themselves need to recognise the need to better co-ordinate their activities. Too often, too many local groups duplicate services or chase the same funding sources. Many of the most active and committed are too dependent on one or two staff. Local NGO fora in the regions of Serbia need to be supported and encouraged, bringing together both national and international NGO involvement in a specific area, and allowing strategic planning and information exchange. Again, ICVA is already developing work in this area and should be supported in its expansion where needed. 

Once again, as in 4.8.10 – 13 above, the Roma seem the most marginalised group in terms of NGO liaison and co-ordination, although ICVA is making progress in establishing pro-active links. There are several active Roma NGOs across the country; these must be supported in developing their own capacities and drawn into the local and national NGO fora. International organisations must be more pro-active and consistent in reaching out to Roma NGOs and supporting their development and mainstreaming. 

4.5 National, regional and international factors

The effect of the general economic and social collapse in Serbia upon refugee and IDP populations cannot be overstressed. Not only does poverty make rights to services that registered refugees and IDPs may enjoy – such as healthcare or education – not available at a practical level, but the levels of poverty and deprivation suffered by the general populace can engender feelings of resentment and anger towards those receiving humanitarian aid. The economic collapse also directly endangers the majority of refugees and IDPs housed in private accommodation by host families. Innovative income-generation schemes, designed to give refugees the opportunity to start their own businesses, wither in the face of market collapse. 

The implication of this dire economic situation, together with the likelihood of ongoing sanctions, means that the significant resources brought into Serbia by the international community to support refugee and IDP groups must be sensitive both the general backdrop and to project viability in this social context. Tightly targeted projects which feed aid only to refugees and IDPs may backfire in stoking resentment in the wider local population; it is little use providing chickens to refugee families on a grant or loan basis if they cannot sell enough eggs at a reasonable price. IGOs and NGOs must be sensitised to this situation. 

The role of local government in Serbia can be key in this, and in the wider context of promoting return or durable solutions in exile. Local municipalities in Serbia are under enormous fiscal and resource pressure – many simply no longer function as service providers. The attitude of the local authority can be key in promoting acceptance of refugee/IDP settlement in their area; likewise, much could be gained from Serbian muncipalities hosting high refugee populations talking across borders to 'return' municipalities in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia. Programmes of engagement, outreach and development undertaken by IGOs and NGOs with local government structures must be continued and stepped up. 

Within Serbia, there is a great need for general human rights education. The present situation of 'suppressed conflict' can be fought by investment in promoting the values of tolerance, pluralism and civil society as widely as possible. Both international and local organisations are already engaged in this vital work – but the scale of need is immense. UN agencies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNHCR have a clear and valuable role to play in supporting this process. OHCHR represents a valuable and committed resource for human rights education in the FRY – though they are hamstrung by seriously inadequate resources. National NGOs and networks engaged in building civil society need greater support and funding. Donors must give serious thought to providing additional support to this wisest of long-term investments in stability. 

UNHCR must continue to play its critical role in ensuring protection, safety and dignity for refugees and IDPs in Serbia. While it could be more pro-active in certain areas – in more vigorously promoting local integration solutions for refugees and especially IDPs, in outreach protection work in the south of Serbia, or in underwriting greater co-ordination and better information flow in the NGO sector – it undoubtedly plays an absolutely key role with major resources at its disposal. 

The mission is therefore concerned about the effects of planned budget cuts from 2000 onward to UNHCR's Balkan operations; while such restructuring of funds is understandable given UNHCR's massive commitment in the region over a decade, care must be taken not to jeopardise the potential for significant returns over the next eighteen months and growing regional stability, or in depleting the agency's protection capacity in the field in Serbia – where there is evidence it is already overstretched. 

On a regional level, it is evident that the lack of communication and co-ordination across borders is detrimental to the protection of refugees and IDPs in Serbia. There is little structured or ongoing planning at a regional level outside the UN agencies, and none that really engages the many international NGOs with a presence in several countries in the region or national NGOs with interests in countries of return. This is particularly true with regard to Kosovo, which seems to exist within a separate box as far as many agencies are concerned. Both NGOs and the inter-governmental sector need to engage more fully in truly regional and cross-border planning and implementation; UNMIK must start establishing links with regional partners and with the government of the FRY itself. 

At the international level, the mission encountered most concern over the planned budget cuts for UNHCR and the closure of key funding sources such as the ECHO offices in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia. Donor and IGO fatigue in the region is a reality; but any withdrawal or downsizing of resources from these crucial co-ordinating and funding bodies bodes ill at this critical time for return and stability. It is hard to see how the Stability Pact processes can at this time fill the gap left by, for example, significant cuts in UNHCR resources in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and the FRY; likewise, the need for swift humanitarian interventions outside the Stability Pact to underpin any significant level of returns in Croatia would suffer if ECHO were not there to provide funding. 

Budget cuts cannot be avoided; however, the mission stresses that within Serbia the international community – and particularly with regard to the protection needs of refugee and IDP groups, among the most vulnerable and excluded in society – is often the sole source of crucial funding. This is especially true of UNHCR and ECHO, which are able to support activities in a planned, focused and timely manner. The scale of need in Serbia is immense; ongoing commitment and engagement from the international community vital. Valuable local NGOs are at great risk of closure. The mission urges UNHCR and ECHO to reassess their budget reduction plans in the light of the present situation, and stress to other international donors the absolute necessity of maintaining at least the present levels of funding and resources over the next eighteen months. 

5. Conclusion and recommendations

Ensuring the protection of refugees and IDPs in Serbia is an immense task. Serbia has the largest refugee population in Europe, together with over 200,000 IDPs. It sits within a region still subject to instability, violent conflict and massive population flows. It is subject to a tough regime of international sanctions, is isolated, and faces social and economic collapse. Durable solutions remain distant. 

The next twelve months will be critical for the chances of long-term stability in the region. The slow march toward political and social normalisation will face some key tests – in whether or not the Stability Pact delivers; in the reality of the new political moderation in Croatia or Bosnia-Hercegovina; in the necessity to flesh out an 'endgame' for international involvement in Kosovo; and in the opportunity to give refugees and IDPs a real choice in returning home or integrating in exile. In many respects, the situation in Serbia contains the most critical of these tests, and is the most crucial to stability. And within Serbia, political and practical solutions for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs are key. 

Listed below (and summarised in section one above) are a number of practical recommendations intended to address the protection needs of refugees and IDPs in Serbia. The ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on former Yugoslavia offers these recommendations as timely advice to the inter-governmental, governmental, international and local NGO communities in ensuring the best standards of protection for these groups but also as a contribution toward building civil society and wider stability. 

Recommendations of the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group advocacy mission on the protection of refugees and IDPs in Serbia

The opportunity offered by the Stability Pact and growing political moderation in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina must be seized. However, IGOs, governments and NGOs must not see this opportunity as solely one to promote return; it is rather a critical opportunity to promote real choice for refugees and IDPs in Serbia and across the region. Refugees and IDPs must have the information and opportunity to either return home or look to viable integration solutions in Serbia; 

In this context, donor governments and bodies to the Stability Pact must fulfil their obligations and fully fund this initiative. The Stability Pact itself must engage more fully with all the actors concerned, including bringing international and local NGOs into its policymaking and implementation processes; 

Any funds earmarked to promote return provided by the Stability Pact, European Union or other donors must be clearly linked to programmes of administrative reform by the governments in countries of return. Bureaucratic and discriminatory blocks must be removed, and the process as a whole speeded up; 

As part of this process of making return more efficient and a more viable option, the mission urges the governments of Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to review entry and exit controls for potential returnees, making more borders 'softer' and encouraging spontaneous return (in turn, UNHCR should support this initiative, and step up access to organised 'go and see' visits for potential returnees); 

The mission urges IGOs and NGOs to increase capacity for cross-border planning and operations, particularly in the case of Kosovo; 

At the same time as making return more accessible and viable, local integration solutions should also be pursued more vigorously. The worst collective centres should be prioritised for closure; shelter solutions which promote refugee/IDP self-help, normalisation of living conditions, or which bring benefit to both refugees/IDPs and the host community should be supported; 

Projects such as those undertaken by Swiss Disaster Relief and the Norwegian Refugee Council and a number of local NGOs, which inform refugees and IDPs on their legal rights (empowering, increasing choice and promoting return) should continue to be supported and thought given as to how to increase their accessibility and reach; 

UNHCR should more vigorously pursue local integration solutions for Kosovo Serb and Roma IDPs, which are not incompatible with ongoing advocacy and work on return rights. This includes advocating such solutions strongly to the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees and the Federal Ministry for Refugees, IDPs and Humanitarian Aid; 

UNMIK, UNHCR and other relevant international bodies and agencies should seek to end the isolation of the Kosovo administration from its neighbours. Dialogue with the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, focused on information-sharing and seeking common solutions to legal problems (such as documentation and property rights), should begin. This should be part of a move toward regional planning as outlined in 5.4.5 above; 

The government of the Republic of Serbia (and its Federal counterparts) should itself seek to engage more pro-actively with its international and national partners in addressing the need for greater freedom of movement (both internally and across borders for returnees), in developing an overall strategic plan for refugees and their integration or return, and in supporting refugee/IDP access to facilities and information; 

Municipalities within Serbia which host high numbers of refugees should be supported and encouraged in making direct links with 'return' municipalities in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; 

In a context of restructuring and budget downsizing, UNHCR should act with caution to safeguard protection capacity in the field in its Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian operations at a time where such issues will be critical in finding durable solutions for refugees and IDPs in Serbia; 

Other international agencies should also be careful to protect capacity in the region at a time when increased returns, particularly to Croatia, may become a reality. In this context, the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group expresses particular concern at the closure of ECHO offices in both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; 

In this context, intergovernmental bodies and international administrations in the region should take care not to develop policies which act against the promotion of refugee/IDP choice in return (e.g. the OHR's plans for 'firmer' border control at the RS/Serbia border, or property legislation in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo); 

UN OHCHR offers clear added value in protection issues and in general human rights education. Its operation should be supported to as full an extent as possible; 

Effective mechanisms for co-ordinating information flow to refugees and IDPs on the services available to them and how to access them should be established in the IGO and NGO community. This would seem to be most effectively done by supporting existing networking structures, such as those offered by ICVA, in expanding services to better link fora, and promote information co-ordination not only between NGOs but also to refugees and IDPs; 

International donors should look to the great need for human rights education and civil society development in Serbia as one of the most effective means of promoting long-term stability. The local NGO sector must be supported in building its capacity, both through supporting its access to donors and by international NGO mentoring and partnership; 

In this context, the need for human rights/civil society education and training in the governmental sector (central and local government structures) should not be overlooked; 

NGO co-ordination at local level should be supported, through ICVA or other appropriate fora. These fora should seek not only to co-ordinate local and international NGO activity in a specific and share information, but also to act as a channel for information to their client groups on the range of services and projects in the area; 

International agencies and local NGOs must do more to liaise and work with Roma NGOs, and in seeking solutions for Roma IDPs from Kosovo. Roma NGOs must be supported in developing their project and advocacy capacities, and in linking effectively with the wider NGO community. 

6. Appendices

6.1 Appendix A:list of organisations and individuals consulted for this report Council for the Protection of the Human Rights of Roma in FRY, Kragujevac – Dejan Nikolic & Miroslav Jovanovic.

Embassy of the Republic of Croatia, Belgrade. 

European Union Humanitarian Office (ECHO) – David Lythgoe. 

Federal Ministry for Refugees, Displaced Persons & Humanitarian Aid, FRY – Minister Morina & Assistant Minister Borisavljevic. 

Group 484, Belgrade. 

Humanitarian Centre for Integration & Tolerance, Novi Sad – Ratko Bubalo. 

Humanitarian Law Centre, Belgrade – Natasha Rasic. 

International Committee of the Red Cross & Crescent (ICRC), Belgrade. 

International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) – Ann Pesic. 

Kraljevo Municipality – Zvonko Obradovic. 

Lastavica hostel, Pancevo – refugee women from Krajina. 

Ministry for Foreign Affairs, FRY – Ambassador Marinkovic. 

Norwegian Refugee Council field office, Novi Sad. 

Norwegian Refugee Council in FRY – Tora Moland Gaarder. 

Norwegian Refugee Council, Civil Rights Project – Dr. Luka Todorovic. 

Novi Sad Municipality Executive Board. 

Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – Robert Painter 

Office of the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, Novi Sad. 

Oxfam GB, Belgrade – Marina Skuric-Prodanovic. 

Serbian Democratic Forum, Belgrade. 

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in FRY – Barbara Davis & staff 

UNHCR Branch office in FRY – Gert Westerveen 

UNHCR field offices in Kraljevo and Novi Sad, FRY 

Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights – Gradimir Nalic. 

Yugoslav Red Cross, Kursumlija branch office. 

Field visits were undertaken to refugee and IDP collective centres and field projects in the Novi Sad, Kraljevo and Kursumlija areas. 


Published by:
The ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on former Yugoslavia
The British Refugee Council
3 Bondway
London SW8 1SJ

Telephone: + 44 207 820 3080
Fax: + 44 207 820 3107
E-mail: refgroup@charity.vfree.com

The ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on former Yugoslavia is funded by the UK National Lottery Charities Board. We acknowledge the support of ICVA in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council in undertaking this activity.


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