Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2018, 07:53 GMT

Reversal of Fortune: Serbia's Refugee Crisis

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 2000
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 21, No. 1
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Reversal of Fortune: Serbia's Refugee Crisis, 1 January 2000, Refugee Reports, Vol. 21, No. 1, available at: [accessed 24 January 2018]
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.

What a difference a year makes. Before NATO's bombs fell in late March 1999, Kosovo's ethnic Serb population–estimated at the time at about 200,000–enjoyed a position of dominance and privilege over Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians. Today, the ethnic Albanian refugees have returned with a sense of triumph, and, all too often, a hunger for revenge. Most of the Serbs, Roma ("gypsies"), and other minorities have fled; those who remain in Kosovo are mostly concentrated in a few enclaves. Serbs and Roma are unsafe traveling between enclaves or going out at night. Speaking Serbian on the street in any of Kosovo's cities brings the threat of on-the-spot murder. Ethnically motivated disappearances and arson continue to be reported.

In December, Refugee Reports traveled to Serbia and Montenegro to assess the conditions of the latest group to be violently displaced by the Balkan wars. Refugee Reports heard the testimonies of the Balkans' newest victims and reports on the impact of this, and earlier waves of refugees, on a besieged and wounded society.


The Yugoslav government says that 229,600 people have been displaced from Kosovo into Serbia-proper (199,600, as of November 26, 1999) and Montenegro (30,000, as of January 28, 2000). This number is, however, open to dispute. The Kosovo Serb National Council claims that there are still about 100,000 Serbs living in Kosovo. Added together, this would be a larger number than the estimated 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo before the war, casting obvious doubt on the accuracy of the count, or of the pre-war estimate.

Further confusing the numbers picture is the estimate that up to 50,000 Roma have fled Kosovo as well, and, by some accounts, that up to 25,000 are still living in Kosovo.

Undoubtedly, there is some double counting of the displaced population. They have not remained still. Many have moved several times since leaving Kosovo, staying briefly with family or friends in one place before moving to more stable accommodations elsewhere. During the summer, the Serbian authorities blocked the movement of displaced people from Kosovo into Belgrade. Although such restrictions have been lifted, municipalities continue to jockey to avoid hosting more of the displaced.

Displaced people from Kosovo are only the most recent of the waves of refugees who have been entering the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) since the beginning of the Balkan wars in 1991. Almost all of the earlier waves of refugees are also ethnic Serbs. The last refugee census in FRY occurred in 1996. At that time, the authorities registered 566,275 refugees, of whom 537,937 were in Serbia and 28,338 in Montenegro. Nearly 300,000 originated in Croatia, and about 250,000 were from Bosnia. By 1999, few of these refugees had repatriated (less than 2,000) or been resettled in third countries (less than 4,000). About 42,000 had been granted FRY citizenship, and were regarded as having locally integrated in Yugoslavia.

In late 1997 and early 1998, another 50,000 refugees entered Serbia from the eastern Slavonia region of Croatia, which borders Serbia, as that segment of Croatia reverted to Croatian government control.

As of November 1999, the government refugee figures totaled 504,100, of whom 480,900 were in Serbia and 23,200 in Montenegro. The drop of more than 60,000 in the total reflects a decrease in the estimate of the number of refugees from Bosnia. The border with the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska is open, and travel from FRY is visa-free. During the bombing campaign, it is believed that many Bosnian refugees may have relocated to Republika Srpska, even though they originated in Federation areas, where they would be in the minority. (Persons originating in Serb controlled areas of Bosnia are excluded from refugee status in FRY.)

Although of questionable accuracy, the official, combined total of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia and internally displaced people from Kosovo comes to more than 700,000. Whatever the actual number, the presence of uprooted people in Serbia is clearly part of the landscape. A Bosnian refugee now living in Vojvodina who had settled in Kosovo only to be displaced from there as well, observed, "When I walk through this country, I meet more refugees than citizens."

General Conditions

In Serbia, looks can be deceiving. The Serbs are a proud people, and do not want to show a foreigner, particularly an American, that they are suffering. They are also a society used to a relatively high standard of living. Their needs, therefore, are not always immediately obvious. Generally (the notable exception being Roma), refugees and internally displaced people appear to be in good health, to have clean accommodations, and to be adequately clothed.

Yet, current estimates place unemployment in Serbia at more than 30 percent, and joblessness among refugees and displaced people is likely to be at least twice that percentage. Many factories were damaged or destroyed by NATO bombing, and in many cases were functioning poorly before being knocked out of commission. Agricultural production is also down.

As is true of the population generally – and particularly true of its vulnerable segments, such as the elderly, the infirm, and single women with children – the main problem for refugees and displaced people is the lack of jobs and income. They simply have no earning power. A person who earns the average Serbian income of 80 Deutsche marks (DM) (about $40) per month cannot afford 150 to 250 DM (between $75 and $125) per month for food.

Although needy refugees are receiving food aid, the problem is not principally a lack of food; food assistance, in effect, serves as an income supplement, saving money that would otherwise be spent on food. The capacity for food production in Serbia has not diminished, according to a World Food Program (WFP) official, but because the government has set prices for staples at a low level, producers of sugar, vegetable oil, and milk have either stopped production or sell their products elsewhere or on the black market (at prices that the poor cannot afford).

The Yugoslav government is now paying retirees their pensions four months late. Elderly refugees from Croatia have not been able to claim their pensions from the Croatian government, despite having paid into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's (SFRY) social security system during their working lives, before the break up of Yugoslavia and Croatian independence.

In actuality, even if retirees did receive their pensions, that would not cover living expenses. Some pensioners have received coupons for firewood, for example, but lack the money to hire someone to transport the wood to their homes.

The government's social welfare system has essentially collapsed, and the rolls of "social cases" continue to grow. Some 33 percent of the population is reportedly living below the poverty level. The percentage among the uprooted is undoubtedly higher.

Although health care is supposedly free, decent and timely health care usually comes at a high (bribed) price. There is a critical shortage of pharmaceuticals. The problem stems, in part, from President Slobodan Milosevic's takeover of the country's leading pharmaceutical firm, ICN, and a near monopoly of the pharmaceutical industry by the JUL party, the extreme nationalist party headed by Mira Markovic, President Milosevic's wife.

Some economists predict either more price fixing and malnutrition or another round of hyperinflation and heightened economic instability. Some predictions are dire, including warnings that the death rate among vulnerable groups, such as pensioners, could increase sharply.

Conditions in Collective Centers

Refugees and internally displaced persons in collective centers generally live in poorer conditions than those Refugee Reports visited in private accommodations. Collective centers have an advantage: residents pay no rent or utilities and receive food and other humanitarian assistance regularly. On the other hand, most collective centers are grim. They often lack privacy, and the people living in them, especially the refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, tend to be elderly. Heating is sometimes poor, in part, because the centers were not constructed for residential purposes.

Collective centers vary widely in quality and population density. Some, including converted schools and hospitals, are not especially overcrowded and provide separate rooms for families. Others, often former "cultural centers," are dismal, drafty, and crowded.

Among the worst Refugee Reports visited is a collective center for refugees in Kraljevo, a large, single room holding 44 people, many of whom had been living together in this same space since 1992. A former dance hall, its high ceiling prevents heat retention, and the room temperature inside can fall below 15°C (about 58° F) in the winter. Lacking windows, the room is dark in mid-afternoon. Incongruously, a disco ball still hangs from the ceiling and music is piped in over a loudspeaker. Surrealistically, as Refugee Reports conducted interviews with the center's residents, Bob Dylan's voice commented on the scene: How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

The residents look old and haggard. A sense of hopelessness pervades the place. A middle-aged man from Gospic, a town in the Croatian Krajina region, has been here with his mother since August 1995. She suffers from diabetes. "When we first came, CARE helped," he says. "We haven't seen them for five or six months." [CARE had been very active in Serbia, and had continued operating during the bombing until three of its workers, including two international staff members, were arrested and accused of spying. With the local staff member still in jail during Refugee Reports' visit (he was released shortly afterwards), CARE was just resuming many of its suspended activities.] "There's no work. No heating fuel."

Another man comments, "The heating is the same as last year," meaning it was just as bad then. He now joins the conversation. "I don't have a house anymore. I have no place to return to. I have no opportunities here. I have been here four to five years. I don't have citizenship. I can't stay." He asks about resettlement to the United States. Refugee Reports tells him that he does not appear to meet the U.S. resettlement criteria. The man shrugs.

Refugee Reports asks another person what her most important needs are. The question stuns her. After a moment of reflection, she says, "We need everything. I can't decide what is most important. Maybe gloves." A moment passes. "What I would most want is a new house where I knew it was safe."

Within the same municipality stands one of the better collective centers, Moshin Cingaj, a converted motel housing 38 people, all displaced from Kosovo. Each family has its own living space. Oxfam and Swiss Disaster Relief provide regular assistance. The municipality has supplied the residents with boards for constructing interior walls. The building has new stoves and a water boiler for heat. The residents meet with Refugee Reports in a separate common room.

The families, mostly from Pec and Suva Reka, have lived in the center for about two months, although they left Kosovo in mid-June. They also have complaints, but not as desperate, or as hopeless, as those in the neighboring collective center. They complain about the food, which they are not able to prepare themselves. As with other collective centers, hot meals are delivered daily. They leave much to be desired. "We have forgotten what meat is," says a young woman in black (a sign of mourning). She also complains about the scarcity of medicines and the lack of jobs. "Even 20-year-old boys have no work," she says. They lack documents for renewing driver's licenses and school records. The children go to the public schools, but they have difficulty buying school supplies.

Whether one lives in a decent collective center or a bad one seems to be a matter of dumb luck. Refugee Reports visited a relatively nice collective center on the Avala mountain outside Belgrade, a former psychiatric hospital. Just down the road, Refugee Reports dropped in on another collective center, a converted restaurant, now home to 129 people from the same village in Kosovo as those in the neighboring collective center. Cots were crowded together with no partitions separating them. The residents wore their winter coats indoors. Because of a three-way dispute between the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, "the owner" of the restaurant, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over the "rent" for the facility, the heat was turned off. (It is not a privately owned facility, but "socially owned," so ownership is at least indirectly governmental, yet the problem apparently stems, in part, from a disagreement between the restaurant "owner" and the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees.)

The residents express anxiety that the winter cold will intensify and that the building won't provide sufficient protection from the falling temperatures. Some sleep in the restaurant porch, cots flat against plate glass windows. They ask for wood planks to cover the drafty windows. In this case, the municipality has not agreed to provide boards, and no one else has responded to their request. The residents say that ten of the children have contracted pneumonia.

An old woman sees foreign visitors and becomes agitated. She shouts, "At the end of the 20th century, a father and son should not be made to sleep in the same bed."

The residents are angry, suspicious. They say that the people in the collective center just down the road receive more food and warmer winter clothing. They say that the Red Cross, which had supplied canned food, has stopped. They accuse the Red Cross of delivering "old clothes in bad condition."

Strangely, they express fear that ethnic Albanians "roaming freely" about Serbia will attack them, and say that ethnic Albanians should not be allowed to cross from Kosovo into Serbia-proper. Have they actually seen any ethnic Albanians here? "Someone was photographing our cars." They explain that the Albanians accuse them of stealing their cars when they left Kosovo. "We fear tomorrow that someone could drop a bomb here," says a middle-aged man wearing a camouflage vest, who acts as the group's unofficial leader. Resentment and anger about his current situation are directed toward ethnic Albanians he believes are moving about Serbia-proper. "Albanians can walk freely in Belgrade and come here, but we can't walk freely in Serbia and find jobs."

Comparable Conditions for Refugees and Displaced People

It is hard to distinguish between conditions for the "old caseload" refugees from Bosnia and Croatia and those for the newer arrivals from Kosovo. In both cases, the quality of their living conditions is dictated less by their length of stay or by their status as refugees or internally displaced, but rather by their own resources, including the precious existence of relatives in Serbia or Montenegro willing and able to help. Another obvious factor is whether the displaced person is an ethnic Serb, the overwhelming majority, or Roma. (See "Roma, Caught in the Middle".)

In general, people living in collective centers are worse off than those living in private accommodations. They lack the means – a job, savings, or family – that would enable them to live in a private home. Often, they are elderly or lacking the skills in demand in an economy where jobs are scarce.

In some collective centers that Refugee Reports visited, refugees and internally displaced people were mixed together, along with local "social cases" – unemployed people who have not been displaced directly by war and violence, but who represent a growing segment of a population with high rates of joblessness and little purchasing power for necessities such as food, rent, and utilities.

One location with such a mixture was a converted workers barracks on the grounds of the Sartid steel factory in the municipality of Smederevo, east of Belgrade. Of the 1,000 forced migrants living in the Sartid barracks, about one-third are refugees from the Krajina region of Croatia and about two-thirds recent arrivals from Kosovo. The factory has housed refugees since 1992.

The 30-year-old barracks are run down – the roofs, doors, and windows are barely maintained. The camp has frequent power failures. The camp manager, an employee of the factory, said, "We have done what is necessary for people who need water, sanitation, and heat," but, he said, at most, the center could only be propped up through this winter. "This will not last another winter," he said.

Sartid is a "socially owned" company, one of many enterprises that show Yugoslavia still clinging to its socialist past, even as it enters a transitional era of economic uncertainty and instability. In fact, most of the displaced had been Sartid employees in Kosovo, putting their names high on the list for acceptance. Refugee Reports asked the camp manager whether the factory could employ the refugees and displaced. He shook his head. The factory, only slightly damaged by NATO bombing, is not running at full capacity, he said. He blamed the factory's woes on international economic sanctions, which prohibit international commerce and investment with Serbia (with exceptions for humanitarian aid). Many local people, including those living in the same barracks as the refugees and internally displaced, lack jobs as well.

Despite the poor conditions at Sartid, there is a waiting list to get in. Perhaps the strongest indication that the economy is failing is that those wanting to enter the collective center are refugees and displaced people who, until now, have lived in private accommodations. The camp manager explains, "Something is happening in reverse. People are wanting to live in the collective center rather than with a host family. There are a lot who would like to come to this center. They would get free food and no rent. The camp itself is overcrowded. Conditions in the camp are not better, but people outside the camp can't afford to pay for food, rent, utilities."

Refugee Reports visits the barracks and meets a displaced person from Kosovo who had spent two months living with his sister before moving here. She could no longer afford to keep him, his wife, and their children in her place. He is embittered, sarcastic, but willing to talk. He says that the camp's water and sanitation system need to be rehabilitated. The children have no winter clothes; no one has money. He says that there is a need for psychological support, "but I don't feel the need personally." Seeing Refugee Reports taking notes, he dictates a message: "We are tired of NATO and tired of American harassment."

Possibilities for Return

Many refugees and internally displaced people express an interest in return, but, when pressed, often qualify their wishes in ways that make them sound unrealistic.

The most noticeable difference in attitudes toward return is not between refugees from Bosnia or Croatia and the displaced from Kosovo or between men and women, but rather generational. Older people, generally, seem more interested in return. Younger ones, on the other hand, tend not only to see greater obstacles to return, but perhaps to see greater opportunity in not returning.

In a collective center in Cacak, an old man tells Refugee Reports that he obtained his Croatian passport and returned on his own a month ago to see his lost property in Sisak in the Krajina region of Croatia. "Everything was burned down," he said. He digs out a photograph of his old house. "It's all burned out now. No roof. No doors. But the walls are still intact. It could be rebuilt." He prefers to go back as part of an organized return program, perhaps in the spring.

"Only an insane person would not think of return," he says.

But many sane people, in fact, would not consider returning at all. In the same Cacak collective center a woman dressed in black from Trnava tells Refugee Reports, "My husband was hanged there. I could not return." She can't go back. But she also feels that she can't remain in the collective center year after year. "Every bird needs its nest," she says.

Even those who take active steps to return often find their way blocked. An 80-year-old refugee from Lika, a town in the Croatian Krajina, now a resident of a collective center in Kraljevo, told Refugee Reports that he had applied four times to repatriate. "I do not have my Croatian citizenship papers. I applied. I filled out the forms. I never got back a reply." He said that he had a large house, but that he does not have any documents proving his ownership. "I would only go back to my own place," he said, "not to any other place."

He says, "There is little work here, none for older people. There is no solution but to go home." Will his adult children go back as well, Refugee Reports asks. "Younger people might fear return," he says. "My wife and I will go back, not the rest of the family."

For many, the major obstacle to return is fear for personal safety. One refugee who originally fled from Sarajevo, and from there went to Istok, Kosovo, expressed doubt about any guarantees for his safety in either place. "What legal provision would allow us to return to Sarajevo or Kosovo?" he asked bitterly. "I would trade both for a bottle of whiskey."

Several refugees expressed concern that they might be falsely charged with war crimes if they returned. A bearded refugee from Knin, the capital of the Krajina region of Croatia, perhaps in his 30s, living in a dismal one-room collective center in Subotica near the Hungarian border, said, "I can't go home. There is no work. I wouldn't be safe. They have lists of war criminals. I worked for the railroad. I never hurt anyone, but I could be accused."

Return To Kosovo?

Internally displaced persons are generally less concerned than refugees about war crimes accusations per se. Their greater concern is the general level of danger for non-ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. A man living in a collective center in Belgrade says, "Those returning to Mitrovica [a divided city in northern Kosovo with Serbs occupying the town north of the Ibar River] are getting killed. I don't know if there is pressure to return, but people are afraid to return." He added, "We would all go back with the army."

People displaced from Kosovo accuse the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) of committing crimes against them. Many said that they would not feel safe unless the Serb police and army returned in force, and punished those who had committed crimes. The young woman in black in the Moshin Cingaj collective center in Kraljevo said, "I would like to go home, but it would be possible to live with Albanians only if the Serb army and police came back."

She said, "I believe in a peaceful solution, some sort of a deal. But that means first to get the immigrants from Albania out of Kosovo, the people with blood on their hands."

The woman in black said, "I have nothing against my neighbors, but I would not live with people with blood on their hands. My brother was killed. He was supplying the army with food. On the way from the village, he was ambushed. Terrorists were hiding in the woods and watching as Serbs went by. There were neighbors who knew the location. We know who did it. Maybe we could live with our neighbors again if we knew that the people who did the crimes would be punished."

Andras Riedlmayer of Harvard University, who traveled to Kosovo in October to survey damage to religious and cultural heritage sites, saw evidence that some Serbs were returning. He spoke with an American KFOR soldier guarding an Orthodox chapel on a dirt road south of Vitina. The soldier said that his unit had escorted several convoys of 80 to 90 cars of returning displaced people in October from the Serbian border to their villages in the U.S. zone.

Riedlmayer told Refugee Reports, "We were told by both Serb and Albanian residents of Gnjilane, as well as by KFOR soldiers, that tension between residents of differing ethnic backgrounds was relatively 'manageable.' There were daily 'incidents' such as arguments and fist-fights in the marketplace, but more serious violence had decreased considerably since the summer when there had been nightly explosions and several murders a week."

Others have a far more negative view of current ethnic conflict within Kosovo. Paul Polansky, an American who has written several books about gypsies (the term he prefers, as he correctly identifies the term "Roma" as a subgroup of gypsies), accompanied a group of about 500 gypsies on a trek from a camp in which they felt threatened in Mitrovica (in northern Kosovo) to seek asylum in Macedonia (across Kosovo's southern border). As they walked along the roadsides, Polansky said ethnic Albanians in passing cars spat at them, threw stones, and made threatening gestures (such as running a finger across the throat).

Among both refugees and internally displaced persons are people, usually the elderly, who express feeling intense connection to their lost properties. Many people insisted that they were interested only in returning to their original homes, and categorically rejected relocating. "I was born in the same house as my father, my grandfather, and my great grandfather," says a man displaced from Musutiste, a mixed Serb and Albanian village in Kosovo. "I do not think we stand a chance here. There is no money. We can't earn a living."

Would you go anywhere else, Refugee Reports asked him, even another part of Kosovo? "I would never move to another part of Kosovo," he said, "only to the place where my father's and grandfathers' graves are."

A young man also living in the collective center (perhaps the old man's son) had been listening quietly to the interview. But hearing this, he spoke: "I'd go to Australia. I'd go to any country that would take me."

Integrating Locally: Citizenship

The prospects for significant repatriation, in the absence of more fundamental political changes, appear poor for most of the refugees living in Serbia. Sharing language, culture, and ethnic identity with the local population, however, the overwhelming majority of refugees ought to be able to integrate with the local population. The obstacles are both economic and legal.

FRY's citizenship law did not come into effect until June 1997. So far, about 42,000 refugees have become naturalized FRY citizens, and another 41,000 have applied for citizenship. Although no refugee applicants have been denied outright, the grant of citizenship is not automatic. Furthermore, the government suspended the processing of citizenship applications during the NATO bombing. Government officials said that FRY's citizenship application records were destroyed in the bombing. By year's end, it had not resumed processing applications.

FRY does not permit dual citizenship. Many refugees who still have property claims in Croatia are particularly reluctant to surrender their Croatian citizenship, fearing they might forfeit the chance to be compensated for their losses.

Some of the younger Croatian refugees have another reason for not wanting to surrender their Croatian passports for FRY ones. Many want to leave Yugoslavia, and visa-free travel from FRY is not open to the more attractive countries of preferred destination, such as Germany, which does not require visas from persons traveling on Croatian passports.

Documents for Internally Displaced People

Unlike refugees, the people displaced from Kosovo are already Yugoslav citizens. That does not mean, however, that they have no problem with documents. In fact, many of the internally displaced cite lack of residence documents as their chief complaint. Such documents are routinely issued by one's local municipality, and have generally been required for health care, education, driver's licenses, and passports.

In general, people moving from one municipality to another are expected to deregister from the place they are leaving before registering in a new location. This was not possible for people fleeing Kosovo on short notice, however. Retrieving personal documents has been very difficult. In seven Kosovo municipalities, these documents are completely missing.

"Let me be frank," said a man displaced from Suva Reka, now living in the Avala Pension collective center in Belgrade municipality. "Our biggest problem is with documents. We cannot get documents. If an old document expires, we can't renew it. We cannot work. We can't get a driver's license or register our vehicles. If an employer sees we are from Kosovo, he won't give us a job."

The need for documents to gain access to health care was quickly resolved when the Ministry of Health waived the requirement to show such documents. Although the Ministry of Education was slower to respond, it has now allowed displaced children to register for school without the proper residence documents.

Refugees and Displaced People in Private Homes

Although the overwhelming majority of refugees and internally displaced persons – about 90 percent – are living in private accommodations, the lack of housing – along with the lack of jobs – remains a principal obstacle to local integration. Refugees living in private accommodations divide into three groups:

  1. The majority of the refugees and displaced people are living with family or friends, and may or may not be paying rent, depending on their ability to pay.
  2. Many refugees (fewer among the displaced) have moved out of the homes of family and friends, and are now paying rent. In order to afford to rent, such persons usually have jobs or other sources of income.
  3. Finally, a relatively small, but not insignificant, portion of refugees and displaced people live in homes they have constructed themselves. In the case of the internally displaced from Kosovo, some built homes (or partially built them) in Serbia-proper in advance of their flight.

Although the majority live with relatives and friends, finding and visiting such people is often difficult precisely because they are living in someone else's home.

Refugee Reports was able to visit with one family that appeared to be making the transition from living with relatives to living on their own. They live in Kursumlija, a municipality bordering Kosovo. Refugee Reports met them, not in their home, but in a health clinic where they were bringing a sick child.

Even if the people renting privately are supposedly better off than those in collective centers, it is clear that their existence is also precarious. The father, an economist from Pristina, said that ten of his relatives had been living in the Kursumlija house when his family of six moved in. "The house was not good or bad," he said. "We could squeeze in."

Finally, he said, it did get too crowded, and the host family itself moved out. "They are letting us stay alone in the house for free this winter," he said, suggesting that by spring the relatives will probably be expecting him to pay. So far, he has no job and no money. "The house is in a remote village, a far distance from school, so the kids don't go to school. The youngest has the flu. He has lung trouble. I can't get antibiotics. They wouldn't be available even if I could afford them."

The refugees who are able to find work, pay rent, and live in a home not shared with local residents, often complain of the high rental costs. Refugee Reports met with refugee families renting private homes in the municipality of Kula in the Vojvodina region near the Croatian border. A family of ten is renting a two-room home for 150 DM a month (about $75). The family includes two middle-aged brothers and their father, as well as their wives and children. Although the house appears comfortable and sufficiently equipped, the family expresses worry that they will not have enough firewood to keep it heated through the winter. Its location, far from the nearest school, makes attending classes difficult for the children.

Some refugee families appear virtually indistinguishable from the local community. Another Croatian family in Kula lives in a comfortable home. The man works as a mechanic in a local agricultural firm. After arriving in late 1997 from eastern Slavonia, the family initially moved in with friends in Urbas, where they rented part of the house. He had a job opportunity in Kula, and moved here. "I've made new friends here. I'd like to stay," he says.

He differs from his neighbors – those who are not also refugees – only by virtue of his background. He had lived in Dvor, the northern part of the Krajina. He worked on the family farm, as well as in a factory, and, as with all men his age, served in the army.

During Operation Storm in 1995, his family was swept into Banja Luka in Serb-controlled Bosnia. From there, the family moved to Bijeljina, also in Repubika Srpska. Lacking a job and housing, they didn't stay long, however, moving again, back into the last Serb-controlled part of Croatia, eastern Slavonia. They occupied the abandoned house of an ethnic Hungarian family. There, he worked in a sewing factory. By January 1997, it was clear to everyone that eastern Slavonia would revert to Croatian control within a year. The factory collapsed and he and his family moved out. "I guessed that there would be no jobs for Serbs," he said, "and that the Hungarian family would come back to reclaim their home."

Other refugees renting homes barely scrape by. Refugee Reports visited a Roma family living in a small dwelling, concrete walls, rusted tin roof, windows made from plastic sheets. Located in a tightly packed Roma ghetto in the Mali Leskovac industrial outskirts of Belgrade, their home is set in a muddy, potholed alley. The slum is called "Deponija," which translates to "garbage dump." (See "Roma, Caught in the Middle".)

The family of 14 pays 50 DM a month (about $25) to a private owner for this two-room slum dwelling. And, they had to pay the first eight month's rent, 400 DM (about $200) in advance. They borrowed the money.

The family huddles around a stove provided by UNHCR, supplementing their meager diet with staples (flour and oil) provided by the Red Cross, and other humanitarian goods provided by a Roma association. Despite the assistance, a nine-year-old boy is obviously malnourished, looking the size of an American child half that age.

"We owned three large houses in Kosovo in the town of Srbica," says a young man, who nervously dominates the interview. He says that there is no work, no way to earn money to pay the rent. "It takes money to make money." He adds, "There is no glass for the window, no door, no wood for heat, not enough food."

His elderly father starts to say that he is afraid to leave the house. Four days ago, "skinheads" came into the neighborhood and killed a "Shiptar" – the word for an Albanian. The son hushes him, saying, "We don't want to talk about that. We feel free to walk outside. We have no problems." He refuses to have his picture taken.

A brother who works for the Belgrade police, they say, comes often. Although the brother helps them out now, their problems started, the young man believes, because people in Srbica knew about the brother in Belgrade. The KLA demanded that another brother, now also displaced, join their forces. The family was singled out, the young man said, because of the brother working for the Belgrade police. The family fled in December 1997, returned three months later, and then fled again.

The children speak only Albanian. They can't go to school now, their father explains, because they don't speak Serbian. "We have had enough of this misery," he says. "We want to return to our home in Kosovo." He would only return to his own home. Nowhere else will do. But, "we will remain here until the army or the police return to Kosovo. Only the Serb police and military would make us feel safe."

Prospects for Local Integration

Assessing realistically their prospects for return or resettlement, many refugees are reconciled to staying in Serbia. Even so, they need help in integrating.

A middle-aged refugee from Croatia in a collective center in Pancevo tells Refugee Reports, "I won't return. My house was destroyed. It's not so much a safety issue," he says. "It would be difficult to start from scratch." He adds that his son, who lost a leg in the war, would never go back.

Despite severe unemployment among refugees in Serbia, he thinks he has a better chance here than back in the Krajina. "I can get seasonal agricultural work, some temporary construction work."

He says, "I would prefer to be relocated somewhere else in Serbia where I could have land to build a house and farm."

If he's lucky, he may get his wish. Some refugees have been able to build their own homes. Refugee Reports visited with a few of these families both in Montenegro and Vojvodina. In some cases, homes were well furnished with telephones, televisions, refrigerators, etc.

In agriculturally rich Vojvodina, a region bordering Croatia and Hungary with a large concentration of refugees of Croatian origin, some municipalities are cooperating with international humanitarian organizations to provide building materials to refugees who have decided to integrate locally.

The program is open to certain refugees who apply for Yugoslav citizenship. The municipality promises a job to one member of the family and the family members build a home on land provided by the municipality. After they build the house, they are required to turn in their refugee cards, rendering them ineligible for humanitarian assistance. After ten year's occupancy, they will be considered co-owners of the property with the municipality.

Although this is still a modest program, the refugees who participate in it seem to be delighted with the chance to establish new roots, and it appears to provide a good model for others who see no prospects for return. "I am more than happy with this situation," said a refugee from Banovici, Bosnia, who had been living with a private family in Kula municipality since 1992.


Relatively few refugees have been resettled from Serbia to third countries. Since 1992, about 15,000 refugees have been resettled out of FRY, about half of whom to the United States.

Under the current procedures, to be considered for U.S. resettlement, the principal applicant of a family must first establish his or her refugee claim. In the FRY context, this means that the person has fled from another country, almost always Bosnia or Croatia; internally displaced people from Kosovo are not eligible.

The United States resettled 2,149 refugees from FRY in 1999, fewer than anticipated. During the first four months of 1999, UNHCR conducted no status determination interviews because of the emergency. At that time, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) were able to move some refugees already in the resettlement pipeline via Hungary. Since then, however, the process of interviewing and moving refugees has become more complicated.

Because the United States and FRY have severed diplomatic relations, U.S. officials are no longer conducting refugee status interviews in Serbia or Montenegro. As before, however, IOM prepares cases for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Now, however, the INS interviews take place just across the border, in Timisoara, Romania, and refugees approved by the INS for U.S. resettlement fly to the United States from there. By the end of 1999, UNHCR and IOM had arranged for about 4,000 resettlement interviews in Timisoara.

At the present time, all candidates for U.S. resettlement must be referred by UNHCR, which in doing so follows strict criteria for "priority one" (P-1) cases set forth by the U.S. government (see Refugee Reports, Vol. 20, No. 12.) These are cases of compelling concern, such as torture victims, persons at risk of refoulement or otherwise in danger in their first asylum country, and persons in urgent need of medical care.

Once a refugee leaves Serbia under UNHCR's auspices, the governments of FRY and Romania consider him or her to be wholly UNHCR's responsibility. Romania will not allow refugees to remain, nor will Serbia allow them to return. If, for any reason, the INS rejects the applicant, UNHCR is duty bound to find another country willing to resettle the refugee. Places are not readily available, and other countries – the Nordics, in particular, which are usually generous in offering resettlement places – are sensitive about serving as a back up for cases rejected by the United States.

Since the bombing campaign, the U.S. program has largely been confined to two groups of refugees. The first group, most of whom originally fled from the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995, are "double refugees". In 1995, the FRY authorities placed thousands of newly arriving refugees in Kosovo, putting about 14,000 of them in collective centers, as part of an effort to alter the demographic composition of Kosovo by introducing more ethnic Serbs into the province. Many of the refugees living in these collective centers were in grave danger when tensions and violence escalated in 1998 and 1999. UNHCR and the U.S. government had already identified them as being in need of resettlement before all but about 600 of them fled from Kosovo following the entry of KFOR and the return of the ethnic Albanian refugees.

The others still being resettled in the United States are ethnic Serb refugees originating from the Bosnian Federation, the predominantly Muslim and Croat part of Bosnia, who meet the criteria established as priority two (P-2) by the U.S. government (including former detainees, members of ethnically mixed marriages, victims of torture, and surviving spouses of persons killed in detention) whose status UNHCR has upgraded to P-1. UNHCR has "converted" about 20 percent of the existing P-2 caseload into the P-1 category.

In theory, a third group would be eligible: refugees originating from Bosnia who have close relatives from the United States (spouses, unmarried children, and parents) who submit Affidavits of Relationship (AORs) on their behalf. However, because no refugee processing post exists within the FRY and because UNHCR is unwilling to be responsible for non P-1 cases in Romania, potential priority three (P-3) cases (like P-2 cases) cannot gain access to the system. (Beginning April 1, 2000, Bosnians will no longer be eligible for P-3 processing. See "PRM to Terminate Filing of Affidavits of Relationship for Bosnian Refugees Under Priority Three".)

Because UNHCR considers those persons who arrive from Muslim or Croat-controlled regions of Bosnia and Croatia as prima facie refugees, its protection officers do not conduct individual refugee status determination interviews. However, if making a P-1 resettlement referral, they must do so. Before referring such cases to the INS in Romania, UNHCR must also be virtually certain that the INS will agree with its assessment and grant the case. Consequently, UNHCR has converted relatively few P-2 or P-3 refugee cases into P-1s.

Humanitarian Assistance Pipeline

The existing network for distributing humanitarian aid in the FRY operates almost exclusively through the Yugoslav Red Cross (YRC). The Red Cross system has had a virtual monopoly, and no other agency comes close to it in terms of a national network for aid distribution, particularly at the local level.

When the new influx from Kosovo erupted in the summer, the YRC did not have the capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance. Through the help of international agencies, including the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UNHCR, and WFP, it significantly improved its capacity to deliver aid. From delivering 3,000 metric tons of aid in August, the YRC delivered 20,000 metric tons in November, and plans to continue at that level through 2000.

Nevertheless, the YRC has proven controversial. During the conflict in Kosovo, it was exclusively associated with the Serb community. Its critics have accused it of wrongful conduct from corruption to participation in ethnic cleansing. Its defenders in Serbia say it is the only effective humanitarian organization capable of delivering the quantity of assistance demanded by the humanitarian needs of the country.

In late 1999, allegations surfaced that the YRC branch in Zemun, a Belgrade municipality, had diverted hygiene packets and rice intended for refugees. The European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) and IFRC investigators confirmed the allegations.

As it turned out, however, the diversion was neither surreptitious nor for profit in the local market. On the contrary, the board of the Zemun Red Cross branch voted on October 18 to make a one-time grant of hygiene parcels and rice to school employees in the municipality because of their "irregular and low incomes and very bad living standard."

According to the local Red Cross branch, the school employees had not been paid since May 1999. The schools are used for distributing Red Cross aid to its beneficiary lists. Additional parcels were distributed to 250 employees of the "Teleoptik" factory in Zemun and to 300 employees of a shoe factory there. The Red Cross reportedly used warehouses located at both factories to store humanitarian assistance.

ECHO visited 13 Red Cross branches in the Belgrade area, and found that similar diversion had occurred in 8 of the 13. This suggests that the problem is systemic and not limited to Zemun. All branches in question were temporarily closed, according to ECHO.

The Yugoslav Red Cross has agreed, in principle, to an independent audit.

In a December 2 memo to all Red Cross municipal branch offices, the Secretary General of the YRC, Dr. Rade Dubajic, summarized the YRC executive board's November 25 decisions. On the one hand, the board stated that "aid cannot be distributed to persons who do not fit the criteria." It said, "We have received some serious complaints by the donors in regard to the obvious cases of disrespecting the set criteria in certain municipal Red Cross branches and distributing the assistance to the people that cannot be the beneficiaries of the international humanitarian aid."

On the other hand, the same memorandum directed local branches not to cooperate with "international humanitarian organizations" in their monitoring efforts. It prohibited international humanitarian organizations from obtaining lists of beneficiaries, from meeting with municipal Red Cross branches without prior YRC permission, and prohibited local branches from filling out forms or questionnaires from international humanitarian organizations without consulting with the YRC or the Serbian Red Cross.

Alternative Distribution Networks?

Refugee Reports examined alternative distribution avenues, including the Serbian Orthodox Church, Caritas, CARE, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). All showed potential for increased involvement, depending on donor interest. Some of the NGOs have had major humanitarian assistance operations in Kosovo that could be replicated in Serbia-proper.

Such international NGOs could coordinate their activities and provide direct assistance to collective centers. But, in the short term at least, they would have great difficulty in reaching most of the refugees and displaced persons in private accommodations without using local Red Cross branches.

Despite problems associated with some local Red Cross branches, Refugee Reports found that the local branches often operate independently of central authorities and seem to have good rapport with the local beneficiary populations.

Refugee Reports visited key opposition municipalities in various parts of the country – Kraljevo, Nis, Cacak, Novi Pazar, Sombor – and found that all had good relations with their local Red Cross branches. Although opposition municipality officials complained about the higher echelons of the Yugoslav and Serbian Red Cross, they had only praise for the local branches, and interacted collegially with them.

Most often, local opposition officials complained of actions at the government level. For example, Sombor, an opposition municipality in Vojvodina bordering Croatia, has attempted a local integration project to help refugees construct private homes (see Prospects for Local Integration above). Sombor has not received any support for infrastructure development, roads, water lines, sewage, or electricity to support this initiative.

Despite other problems opposition municipalities have, Refugee Reports found no substantiation of the charge that food and humanitarian assistance per se are being manipulated in ways that deny such aid to needy populations in these municipalities or that directs the aid into opposition municipalities in order to draw more uprooted people into them. (January 2000)

(Editor's note: The author would like to thank Eric Angles for his research and editorial assistance.)

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2000)

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