Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Bosnia and Herzegovina

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Bosnia and Herzegovina , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 22 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.

At the end of 2000, about 518,000 persons were internally displaced in Bosnia, some 263,000 in the predominantly ethnic Muslim and Croat entity known as the Federation, 232,000 in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, and 23,000 in the district of Brcko, shared by the Federation and Republika Srpska. Although this represents a 38 percent drop from the 830,000 internally displaced persons counted in 1999, much of the decrease resulted from a new registration of the displaced rather than from their return to places of origin during 2000.

Bosnia also hosted almost 38,200 refugees – about 24,900 ethnic Serbs from Croatia and 13,300 refugees of various ethnicities from Yugoslavia.

Some 19,000 Bosnian refugees repatriated in 2000, substantially fewer than the 32,000 Bosnians who returned home in 1999. A total of 8,857 Bosnian refugees repatriated through organized return programs during the year, the overwhelming majority (6,920) from Germany. Smaller numbers returned from Yugoslavia (774) and Croatia (663).

On the other hand, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered 59,347 internally displaced persons returning to their places of origin during the year, 38 percent more than in 1999.

In all, UNHCR registered 67,445 Bosnians (13,459 refugees and 53,986 internally displaced persons) returning to areas controlled by a different ethnic group (so-called "minority returns") during 2000, 64 percent more than the 41,007 minority returns registered the previous year. Minority returns during 2000 (both refugees and the internally displaced) included 34,377 to or within the Federation, 27,558 to Republika Srpska, and 5,510 to Brcko. Some 35,836 returning minorities were Bosnian Muslim, 18,852 ethnic Serb, and 11,591 ethnic Croat.

At year's end, about 250,000 Bosnian refugees remained abroad in need of durable solutions, including 190,000 in Yugoslavia, 23,000 in Germany, and 21,000 in Croatia.

Bosnian nationals filed 11,110 asylum applications in other European countries during the year, up 69 percent from 1999. The largest numbers sought asylum in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Refugees from Croatia and Yugoslavia

UNHCR registered 24,877 Croatian refugees in Bosnia at year's end, most of whom were ethnic Serbs expelled from the Krajina Region of Croatia in 1995. Most lived in western Republika Srpska, many occupying the homes of Croats and Muslims, who were forced out during the Bosnian war. Like many displaced persons in Bosnia, substantial numbers of ethnic Serb refugees in 2000 were unemployed and destitute and faced the prospect of eviction from the homes they occupied.

Although Republika Srpska has granted citizenship to a large number of Croatian Serb refugees, the legality of these decisions and the question of whether they connote Bosnian citizenship remained unclear at year's end.

While the change in government in Croatia seemed to bode well for refugee repatriation to Croatia, the lack of effective property laws in Croatia and obstruction at the local level impeded return in 2000. Nevertheless, about 2,000 Croatian Serb refugees repatriated from Bosnia during the year, a ten-fold increase from the 200 who returned in 1999.

Croatian refugees wishing to repatriate took advantage of procedures set up in 1998 to apply for travel documents. A letter issued by the Croatian consulate in Banja Luka allowed refugees to travel to Croatia, where they could file an application for citizenship. However, the citizenship procedure remained slow and arbitrary, based on descent rather than place of birth, and more expensive for Serbs than for ethnic Croats. Current residents in the Krajina, including many Bosnian Croat refugees who were settled in the homes of Serbs who fled, in some cases provided a harsh reception for repatriating Croatian Serbs.

At the end of 2000, Bosnia continued to host more than 13,200 refugees from Yugoslavia who arrived in 1998 and 1999 as a result of the Kosovo conflict. Although an exact breakdown for the Yugoslav refugee population was not available in 2000, it included several thousand draft evaders and army deserters from Serbia, and several thousand ethnic Serbs from Kosovo. Smaller numbers of Sandjak Muslims and Kosovo Roma also resided in Bosnia during the year.

Host families accommodated most Yugoslav refugees, although the Bosnian government provided housing for 1,941 in refugee and asylum centers. UNHCR reported that 7,503 Yugoslav refugees repatriated during the year.

Repatriation to Bosnia

Between the December 1995 signing of the Dayton Agreement and the end of 2000, about 369,000 refugees returned to Bosnia, almost half from Germany. The overwhelming majority of refugees (340,000) returned to the Federation, while only about 29,000 refugees returned to Republika Srpska. Of the 18,607 Bosnians registered as having repatriated during 2000, 14,046 returned to the Federation and 4,561 to Republika Srpska.

Since 1997 and 1998 – during which 120,000 and 110,000 refugees repatriated, respectively – the number of Bosnian refugees returning home from abroad has fallen substantially. The decrease indicates that most of the "easy" cases had already gone home – people returning to homes in places controlled by members of their own ethnic group. The remainder – persons who had fled or been forced out of areas where they would have been in the ethnic minority – have encountered substantial obstacles to return, despite the Dayton Agreement guarantees for freedom of movement and the return of refugees to their homes.

Nevertheless, growing numbers of minority refugees were able to surmount these barriers to return in 2000. Despite the comparatively small number of refugees who repatriated during 2000, 72 percent of all repatriating refugees returned to areas where their ethnic group was in the minority. This marks a significant shift from years past when most minority refugees who repatriated became internally displaced in areas where their group was in the majority.

Western European countries (primarily Germany) that had granted temporary protection to Bosnians during the war continued to pressure refugees to return in 2000. In August, UNHCR urged asylum countries not to repatriate Bosnians belonging to one of five categories of people that it identified as still in need of international protection: persons who would be part of ethnic minorities upon return, unless it can be reasonably assessed that they can return in safety and dignity; humanitarian cases (the severely traumatized, war crimes witnesses, and those in need of special care); persons of mixed ethnicity or in mixed marriages; potentially stateless persons; and other specific categories (including Roma, draft evaders and deserters from the Bosnian Serb army, and former supporters of Fikret Abdic, who had a following among Muslims in Bihac and sought a separate accommodation with the Serbs during the Bosnian war).

Some 1,237 Bosnians were forcibly repatriated in 2000, most (979) from Germany.

Internal Displacement

Internal displacement during the war in Bosnia occurred either between or within the areas that were to become the Federation and the Republika Srpska. Inter-entity displacement constituted the largest group: people unwilling or unable to return to places governed by the same authorities who caused them to flee, and many returning refugees settling at least temporarily in areas where they belonged to the ethnic majority. Intra-entity displacement resulted both from the Muslim-Croat war of 1993-1994 and the appropriation of urban dwellings by rural displaced persons (a powerful obstacle to minority return).

In 2000, many displaced persons continued to occupy the homes of others displaced during the war, a major obstacle that blocked many minorities from returning to their pre-war places of origin. Others lived with relatives and friends. Some 9,500 displaced persons resided in collective centers during the year, only a slight decrease from the 10,900 in 1999, but a substantial reduction from the 46,000 living in collective centers immediately after the war. However, many of those remaining in collective centers were among the most vulnerable in Bosnian society, including the elderly or disabled with the poorest prospects of becoming self-sufficient. Collective center residents did not receive adequate assistance in 2000, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), which described conditions in collective centers as unacceptable.

As with refugee returns, the overwhelming majority of internally displaced Bosnians who returned to their homes during 2000 – some 91 percent – were people going back to areas where they were in the ethnic minority.

Minority Returns

After four years of little movement, minority returns, upon which hopes for an integrated Bosnia rest, surged unexpectedly during 2000, the rate of return fastest from August through the end of the year. The 67,445 registered minority returns (both refugees and internally displaced persons) in 2000 represents a 64 percent increase from 1999.

While explaining that the surge in minority returns involves a degree of speculation, most observers agreed on several factors allowing for the change. Most importantly, members of returning minorities appeared to have fewer concerns regarding their physical security during 2000 than in years past. Extremists continued to resort to violence and intimidation to prevent minority returns, but there were fewer serious security incidents in 2000 than in previous years. The passage of four years of relative calm in Bosnia, aided by the presence of NATO troops, also emboldened larger numbers of would-be minority returnees to take the initiative to relocate to their areas of origin.

Improvement in the rule of law also facilitated minority returns. The renewed determination of the UN's Office of the High Representative to implement Bosnia's property laws resulted in a higher success rate in restoring properties to their rightful owners during the year. By the end of 2000, 21 percent of persons who had submitted claims under Bosnia's property laws – 51,709 out of 249,110 claimants – had successfully repossessed their property. While local authorities in many cases continued to obstruct the return of properties to their rightful owners (particularly in eastern Republika Srpska and Croat-controlled areas such as Stolac, Glamoc, Drvar, and West Mostar), the overall results of implementing Bosnia's property laws during 2000 were an improvement from the previous year, when only about three percent of applicants had successfully reclaimed their property.

International observers also noted that deterioration in Republika Srpska's economy led some previously obstructionist officials to become more cooperative on the minority return issue in order to receive international assistance. Some observers also cited the election of moderates in Croatia and Serbia, which deprived hardliners in Bosnia's Croatian and Serb communities of financial and political support.

Federation Minority Returns

Of the 67,445 minority returns in Bosnia for 2000, 34,337 minority refugees and internally displaced persons, or 51 percent, returned to and within the Federation.

By far, ethnic Serbs (18,850) comprised the largest number of the 34,377 registered minority returnees (refugees and internally displaced persons) in the Federation during 2000. Smaller numbers of Croat (9,139), Muslim (5,765), and other miscellaneous minorities (623) also returned to their areas of origin.

With 73 percent of all Federation registered minority returns, Muslim-controlled areas of the Federation were generally far more receptive to returning minorities than Croat-controlled municipalities, which received 25 percent of returning minorities during the year. Municipalities in which the demographic balance between Muslims and Croats was more evenly divided accounted for two percent of Federation minority returns.

Of the 18,850 ethnic Serbs who returned to the Federation during the year, 15,371 (80 percent) returned to predominantly Muslim areas, the largest number (7,436) returning to the canton of Sarajevo. Smaller numbers of ethnic Serbs also returned to the predominantly Muslim canton of Tuzla (2,954) in north-central Bosnia, and the Una Sana Canton (2,657) in northwestern Bosnia.

Some 2,844 ethnic Serbs returned to Croat-controlled areas in 2000, 87 percent going to the Herzeg-Bosnia Canton, mostly to the Bosansko Grahovo and Drvar municipalities, both of which had Serb majorities before the war. Some 635 Serbs and 42 persons belonging to other minorities returned to municipalities populated by both Muslims and Croats.

Ethnic Croats – the second largest number of minority returns in the Federation during 2000 – returned mostly to predominantly Muslim municipalities in Central Bosnia (4,147), Tuzla (1,949), and Sarajevo (1,532).

Of the 5,765 Muslims who returned to areas in which Croats formed the majority, 91 percent returned to Central Bosnia, most to Croat areas in municipalities such as Vitez and Kiseljak, where the overall demographic balance between Croats and Muslims was more or less evenly divided.

Ethnic Serbs and Muslims continued to face substantial obstacles to return – including violent attacks, harassment, and bureaucratic obstruction – in areas of the Federation controlled by hard-line ethnic Croats such as Stolac, Drvar, and West Mostar.

While some Federation municipalities made substantial progress in implementing property laws during 2000, as of December 31, housing authorities in Stolac had issued decisions in only 26 of 917 property claims, of which only 15 minorities had actually managed to repossess their property. Minorities had marginally greater success at reclaiming their properties in West Mostar, where authorities had returned 261 properties to their rightful owners by year' end. While this represented only 10 percent of all property claims filed in West Mostar, some international officials considered this progress, saying that any evictions of ethnic Croats there would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

In contrast, returnees were far more successful in reclaiming their pre-war properties in Central Bosnia (a relatively integrated canton), where the rate of property return to rightful owners had reached 56 percent by year's end. Property reclamation rates in the Muslim-controlled cantons of Una Sana, Tuzla, and Sarajevo stood at 33 percent, 29 percent, and 21 percent, respectively. The overall property reclamation rate in the Federation stood at 29 percent at year's end.

Republika Srpska Minority Returns

In 2000, 27,558 members of ethnic minorities (refugees and internally displaced persons) returned to their places of origin in Republika Srpska, more than in the four previous years combined.

Ethnic Muslims returning to their places of origin (25,226) drove the increase in minority returns to Republika Srpska, followed by Croats (1,789) and members of other minorities (543). The largest number of minorities returned to the northeastern municipalities of Zvornik and Bjeljina, the north-central municipality of Doboj, and the northwestern municipality of Prijedor.

Although their numbers remained small, Bosnian Muslims also returned to places in eastern Republika Srpska such as Srebrenica and Zepa (the UN-designated "safe areas" that Serb forces overran in 1995), Visegrad, and Foca – all areas in which local governments were run by hard-line ethnic Serb ultra-nationalists who were staunchly opposed to Bosnian reintegration. UNHCR attributed the breakthrough to diminished political obstruction – not so much resulting from change of heart on the part of local officials, but rather their realization that they must cooperate, at least minimally, on the issue of minority returns in order to obtain assistance to end Republika Srpska's economic isolation.

Despite the surge in minority returns, implementation of Bosnia's property laws in Republika Srpska lagged far behind the Federation, reaching only 13 percent by December 31. While some municipalities, such as Kotor Varos and Trnovo – both adjacent to Federation municipalities – registered property reclamation rates of 64 percent and 41 percent, respectively, municipalities deep in eastern Republika Srpska territory, including Bratunac, Srebrenica, Srpsko Gorazde, Foca/Srbinje, and Visegrad, all registered property reclamation rates of less than 5 percent.

Property reclamation rates lagged even in municipalities of Republika Srpska that registered significant numbers of minority returnees in 2000 – Zvornik, Doboj, and Prijedor. Only in the northeastern municipality of Bijeljina (with a 16 percent reclamation rate) did returning minorities have marginally greater success at reclaiming their pre-war homes.

Obstacles to Minority Returns

Despite the increase in minority returns during 2000, several critical aspects of the minority return process raised far-reaching questions regarding its overall success and sustainability. Significantly, as many as 80 percent of all minority returnees were elderly or otherwise perceived as non-threatening to the controlling majority group. Majority obstruction in a variety of guises, particularly in Republika Srpska and Croat-controlled areas of the Federation, served as a powerful disincentive, and in some cases simply prevented, the return of younger adults with children, who would be more likely to create an enduring minority presence.

Poor job prospects – resulting from both the depressed economy and employment discrimination – and the lack of suitable educational opportunities for minority children were high on the list of factors preventing the return to Republika Srpska of minority members with families. In a study of minority returns conducted in early 2000, UNHCR found that only 5.5 percent of the minority returnees it interviewed had found employment.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees' (USCR) findings from site visit interviews with returnees in eastern Republika Srpska in December appeared consistent with UNHCR's survey results. USCR also found that returnees to rural areas who could return to vocations such as farming appeared to have better economic prospects than returnees to urban areas who were more likely to be unemployed.

The curriculum used in Republika Srpska schools – skewed in its accounting of the Bosnian war and history generally – also deterred minority families from returning. Among those surveyed in UNHCR's minority return study, 85 percent of minority school-aged children in Republika Srpska attended Federation schools.

That members of minorities overwhelmingly returned to remote rural villages rather than towns and cities also indicated that the international community's agenda of promoting Bosnian reintegration remained far from complete. Members of minorities returning to rural areas, often far removed from majority populations, faced less opposition to their return, in part because they had fewer occasions to interact with majority populations, and because most returned to reclaim abandoned, albeit usually destroyed, properties, the ownership of which usually was not in dispute.

In contrast, minorities returning to urban areas faced far greater obstacles (with the exception of Muslim-controlled towns and cities, which were somewhat more open to minority returnees) because their return usually was predicated on the eviction of members of the controlling majority occupying their properties and because of their higher profile, which galvanized greater political and popular opposition.

This was the case in eastern Republika Srpska's Visegrad, for example, where large numbers of displaced ethnic Serbs occupied the homes of Muslims who fled Visegrad at the beginning of the Bosnian war. These illegal occupants and other groups – such as the 1,642 displaced Serbs living in collective centers and some 4,000 members of the Serb association of war veterans – formed powerful constituencies opposed to minority return. Thus, while Visegrad's hard-line municipal government acquiesced under international-community pressure to the return of some 170 Bosnian Muslims to their abandoned villages on the outskirts of Visegrad in the second half of 2000, it resolutely opposed minority returns to Visegrad-proper, which would have resulted in evictions of displaced ethnic Serbs.

During USCR's December site visit, UNHCR reported that only four members of minorities had returned to the city of Visegrad itself. Similar opposition to minority return existed in other urban centers of Republika Srpska and Croat-controlled towns and cities such as West Mostar and Stolac.

Nor was the use – or threat – of violence as a means to prevent minority return wholly a thing of the past, notwithstanding overall improvements in security in Bosnia in 2000. During the year, those wishing to prevent minorities from reclaiming their homes resorted to arson and vandalism in Croat-controlled areas, including Stolac, West Mostar, and Drvar, and in Serb-controlled areas such as Gacko, Srebrenica, and other localities.

In Kopaci, a suburb of Gorazde in eastern Republika Srpska, Muslim returnees living in a collective center recounted to USCR during its site visit how extremists in the town vandalized their rebuilt homes to intimidate them into leaving – acts of violence that local police made no effort to prevent. During June and July in Srebrenica, extremists aiming to prevent minorities from returning reportedly burned down 12 homes belonging to minorities. In July, police failed to contain Serbs in Janja rioting in reaction to impending evictions of three Serb families that resulted in destruction of three homes and damage to others.

In December, a mine explosion killed a Muslim returnee while he was clearing his property in a village near Bratunac in eastern Republika Srpska. Another mine explosion under a bus transporting Bosnian Muslim returnees near the town of Gacko in southeastern Republika Srpska inflicted severe wounds on the passengers. Investigators suspected that both incidents were deliberate attacks intended to prevent and intimidate minorities from returning.

Observers surmised that the bombing of a Muslim returnee's cafe and the burning of his parents' newly rebuilt home in the Croat-controlled town of Glamoc – all within a three-day period in August – were similarly intended to intimidate minorities.

Nor were members of the controlling majority immune to acts of violence and intimidation. Several officials responsible for implementing Bosnia's property laws were threatened and attacked during the year. In Banja Luka, the head of the housing authority resigned after receiving death threats, which some suspected as a warning not to carry out evictions of Croatian Serb refugees and war veterans illegally occupying minority properties. In two separate incidents in April, disgruntled displaced persons reportedly attacked the heads of the housing authorities in Bijeljina and Stolac.

Transit Migration

During 2000, Bosnia became an increasingly popular country of transit for extra-regional asylum seekers and migrants, most attempting to reach Western European countries. In August, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported a monthly average of 5,000 extra-regional asylum seekers and migrants transiting Bosnia.

Several factors explain the upsurge in transit migration, including Bosnia's liberal visa policy for Iranians (until December), Turks, Tunisians, and nationals of other refugee- and migrant-producing countries. The prevalence of smuggling networks and the inability of Bosnian authorities to control their borders or crack down on organized crime also were factors.

Responding to pressure from Western European countries of destination, on December 7, the Bosnian government imposed visa requirements on Iranians, who, along with Turks, formed the majority of extra-regional migrants and asylum seekers traveling to Western Europe via the Bosnian route.

Bosnia also cooperated with Western European countries on border control during the year. During its December 2000 site visit, USCR witnessed German border police officers scrutinizing the travel documents of a group of Tunisian nationals at Sarajevo Airport.

In July, Bosnia also signed a readmission agreement with Croatia, providing for the return of undocumented migrants to Bosnia. Between August 1 and the end of the year, Croatia returned more than 5,300 undocumented migrants to Bosnia. While most managed to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border with relative ease, the trip cost some migrants and asylum seekers their lives. During the second half of 2000, between 25 and 30 extra-regional migrants drowned while attempting to cross the Sava River into Croatia.


Although Bosnia adopted the Law on Immigration and Asylum in December 1999, the Bosnian government did not have the funds or the organizational capacity to implement the law during 2000. The law provides for the grant of asylum to applicants who meet the UN Refugee Convention's refugee definition and to persons who would face torture or unusual or inhuman treatment or punishment in their home countries. The law grants permanent residency rights to recognized refugees.

In the absence of a functioning national asylum procedure, UNHCR conducted status determinations of extra-regional asylum seekers during the year. UNHCR sought resettlement in other countries for the extra-regional refugees it recognized in Bosnia.

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