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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Bosnia and Herzegovina

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Bosnia and Herzegovina , 10 June 2002, 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 2001, roughly 650,000 Bosnians remained uprooted as a result of the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s. These included about 210,000 Bosnian refugees outside the country in need of durable solutions and about 438,500 internally displaced persons inside Bosnia. During the year, increasing numbers of refugees and displaced persons returned to their places of origin. Consequently, the number of Bosnian refugees decreased by 16 percent from the previous year and the number of internally displaced persons by 15 percent.

About 210,000 internally displaced persons were in the predominantly ethnic Muslim and Croat entity known as the Federation, another 232,000 were in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, and 23,000 were living in Brcko, a neutral district.

Bosnia hosted an estimated 33,200 refugees and asylum seekers in 2001, a 13 percent decrease from the previous year. The total included about 23,600 refugees from Croatia, an estimated 9,100 from Yugoslavia, and 37 from outside the Balkans. Another 425 claims were pending at year's end, including 313 from Macedonia. The total represented a rough estimate, however, as many Croatian Serbs were believed not to have registered (indicating that the number from Croatia was probably higher) and many refugees from Yugoslavia may have returned without registering (indicating that the number of Yugoslavs was probably lower).

Refugee returns to Bosnia fell from a high of 120,000 in 1997 to 18,700 in 2001. In contrast, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered increasing numbers of internally displaced persons returning to their places of origin. From a low of 29,600 in 1998, the number of returning internally displaced persons in 2001 climbed to 80,200. Of the internal returnees in 2001, about 93 percent (74,738) were minority returns.

At year's end, about 210,000 Bosnian refugees remained abroad in need of durable solutions, including 143,000 in Yugoslavia, 24,000 in Germany, 18,300 in Croatia, and about 25,000 Bosnians in other countries. More than 11,000 Bosnians filed asylum applications in Western countries in 2001. The number of Bosnian asylum applicants in 2001, while about the same as in 2000, represented an increase of 66 percent from 1999. The largest numbers of new Bosnian asylum applicants in 2001 were in Sweden (2,774), Germany (2,116), and Denmark (1,448).

UNHCR assisted in the resettlement of 178 mostly Yugoslav refugees in Bosnia to countries outside the region in 2001. They were resettled to Norway (129), Canada (33), Sweden (11), and Australia (5).

Political Developments

Bosnia remained a political minefield in 2001, with nationalist and non-nationalist parties vying for power as popular support and the international community attempted to tilt the balance toward the non-nationalists. Although neighboring Croatia and Serbia have voted into office less-nationalist parties that were not in power during the war, nationalist parties continued to play an important role in Bosnia.

November 2000 general elections did little to resolve the political impasse with the vote demonstrating overwhelming support for the extreme nationalist Croat and Serb parties, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). The Muslim vote was split between the nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and non-nationalist Social Democratic Party (SDP). In March 2001, the non-nationalist SDP formed a government, displacing the SDA, which had headed the government for the previous ten years. After Bosnia's Croat National Assembly rejected the elected government and unilaterally declared Croat self-rule in March, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), established by the Dayton accord in 1995 to maintain the peace, removed Croat leader Ante Jelavic as the Croat member of the three-member Bosnian presidency and as head of the HDZ. OHR repeatedly intervened during the year to remove particularly obstructionist nationalists from office, and to impose legislative and regulatory changes. In Republika Srpska in January, the Bosnian Serb entity government appointed a member of the SDS – the party of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic – to hold the cabinet portfolio on refugees.

Refugees from Croatia

UNHCR registered 23,607 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 ethnic Croats and Muslims who were forced out during the Bosnian war. Like many displaced persons in Bosnia, substantial numbers of ethnic Serb refugees in 2001 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 confer Bosnian citizenship remained unclear at year's end.

While the change in government in Croatia seemed to bode well for refugee repatriation, the lack of effective property laws in Croatia, refugees' fear of being arrested upon return and charged with war crimes, and obstruction at the local level impeded return in 2001. Nevertheless, about 1,270 Croatian Serb refugees repatriated from Bosnia during the year. Current residents in the Krajina, including many Bosnian Croat refugees who were settled in the homes of ethnic Serbs who fled, in some cases provided a harsh reception for repatriating Croatian Serbs.

An increase in evictions of Croatian Serb refugees illegally occupying the homes of other refugees in Republika Srpska also may have been a factor in encouraging refugee return to Croatia.

Refugees from Yugoslavia

At the end of 2001, Bosnia continued to host more than 9,000 refugees from Yugoslavia, most of whom 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 2001, it likely 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 on a needs basis for Yugoslav refugees in one of five UNHCR-run reception centers. Of the 1,700 refugees accommodated with government assistance at mid-year, 1,074 were from Kosovo, 493 from Serbia, 94 from Montenegro, and 102 from other countries. The ethnic composition of the accommodated refugees was 51 percent Roma, 14 percent Sandjak Muslims, 13 percent Albanians from Yugoslavia, 5 percent Serbs, and 11 percent others.

A "temporary admission" regime, which had been in effect for persons arriving from Yugoslavia after May 1999 (the time of the NATO intervention in Kosovo), expired on November 21, 2001. Thereafter, refugee claimants from Yugoslavia were required to submit their claims to Bosnia's regular asylum procedure (which is administered by UNHCR on behalf of the government).

Prior to the November deadline, 1,487 newly arrived refugees from Yugoslavia registered for temporary admission status during the year.

UNHCR reported that 5,405 Yugoslav refugees repatriated during the year, although the actual number is probably higher, since the border between Republika Srpska and Yugoslavia is open and many may have returned without formally deregistering, including some wanting to maintain residences in both Republika Srpska and Yugoslavia. A relatively small number, 75, sought UNHCR's assistance in repatriating to Yugoslavia in 2001.

Repatriation to Bosnia

Between the December 1995 signing of the Dayton agreement and the end of 2001, more than 388,000 refugees returned to Bosnia, about half from Germany. More than two-thirds of the repatriating refugees were Muslims (260,672), about one-fifth ethnic Croats (75,525), and about one-tenth ethnic Serbs (47,741).

More than 90 percent of refugees returned to the Federation (354,779), often becoming internally displaced upon return. Of the refugees who returned to the Federation, 71 percent were Muslims, 20 percent ethnic Croats, and 7.5 percent ethnic Serbs. Of the 33,593 who returned to Republika Srpska, 62 percent were ethnic Serbs, 24 percent Muslims, and 12 percent ethnic Croats.

UNHCR registered 18,693 Bosnian refugees repatriating in 2001, of whom 17,323 (93 percent) were returning to areas where they would be in the ethnic minority (so-called "minority returns"). The majority, 13,901, returned to the Muslim-Croat Federation, while 4,792 returned to Republika Srpska. The largest number of assisted returns during the year, 1,588, repatriated from Yugoslavia. Significant numbers also were assisted in returning from Croatia (1,170) and Germany (668).

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 – people returning to homes in places controlled by members of their own ethnic group – have already gone home. The remainder – persons who had fled or been forced out of areas where they are now 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.

Western European countries that had granted temporary protection to Bosnians during the war continued to pressure refugees to return in 2001. In August 2000, UNHCR urged asylum countries not to repatriate Bosnians belonging to one of five categories of people that the agency identified as still in need of international protection: persons who would be ethnic minorities in the areas to which they returned, 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).

Germany deported 595 Bosnians in 2001, a 39 percent decrease from the 979 forcibly returned from Germany in 2000. Another 855 Bosnian refugees voluntarily repatriated from Germany during the year (including 668 assisted returns). In February, interior ministers of the German states agreed to allow economically self-sufficient Bosnians who had lived in Germany for at least six years to apply for renewable two-year residence permits. Most Bosnians in need of durable solutions in Germany were expected to benefit from the regulation.

Internal Displacement

Internal displacement during the war in Bosnia occurred either between or within the areas that were to become the Federation and 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 who settled 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.

In 2001, many displaced persons continued to occupy the homes of others displaced during the war, a major obstacle to many minorities wanting to return to their pre-war places of origin. Others lived with relatives and friends. Some 7,500 displaced persons resided in collective centers during the year, a decrease from the 9,500 in 2000, and a substantial reduction from the 45,000 living in collective centers immediately after the war. 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.

Minority Returns

More than 92,000 Bosnians (refugees and internally displaced persons) returned to areas in 2001 where they would be in the ethnic minority, 93 percent of all Bosnian returns during the year. Of these, 47,156 were Muslims (or "Bosniacs"), 34,189 ethnic Serbs, and 9,587 ethnic Croats. This represented a 36 percent increase over the 67,500 minority returns in 2000, which, in turn, had been a 63 percent increase from 1999. Minority returns in 2001 (both refugees and internally displaced) included 46,848 to or within the Federation, 40,253 to Republika Srpska, and 4,960 to Brcko.

Several factors contributed to the increase in minority returns in 2000 and 2001. Members of returning minorities appeared to have fewer concerns regarding their physical safety during 2000 and 2001 than in years past. Extremists continued to resort to violence and intimidation to prevent minority returns, but there were fewer serious security incidents than in previous years. The passage of six years of relative calm in Bosnia, aided by the presence of NATO troops (known as SFOR in Bosnia, for Stabilization Force), 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 October 2001, 37 percent of persons who had submitted claims under Bosnia's property laws – 93,698 out of 256,328 claimants – had successfully repossessed their property. By contrast, the implementation rate in 2000 was 21 percent, and only 3 percent in 1999. Claims had a better chance of being resolved in the Federation (46 percent) than in Brcko (33 percent) or Republika Srpska (27 percent). 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 2001 were an improvement from previous years.

In December 2001, the High Representative amended Bosnian property laws by, among other measures, restricting the right to alternative accommodations to only the most vulnerable cases, to expedite implementation of property claims.

Obstacles to Minority Returns

Despite the increase in minority returns during 2000 and 2001, several critical aspects of the minority return process raised far-reaching questions regarding its overall success and sustainability. Significantly, large numbers of 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 to – and in some cases simply prevented – the return of younger adults with children, who would be more likely to create an enduring minority presence.

Despite improvements in the legal process of restoring homes and properties to rightful owners, many claims remained unresolved because local authorities failed to implement evictions against illegal occupants, or otherwise obstructed minority returns. In September, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Bosnia called upon Republika Srpska to resolve more than 90,000 outstanding property claims. "Until this task is accomplished," he said, "donors and investors will have little reason to believe that Republika Srpska is capable of protecting basic property rights."

Security problems continued to mar minority returns in 2001, particularly in Republika Srpska. Major incidents during the year included the July murder of a 16-year-old Muslim girl who had returned to her home in Piskavica, a village about 30 miles (50 km) northwest of Srebrenica. She was killed while sitting in her home by a shot fired from outside; the shooting occurred on the sixth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. In May, another returnee to the same village in eastern Republika Srpska was shot and injured. A 78-year-old Muslim man was hacked to death in his home in Pale in November, having returned to the Serb-dominated town in eastern Bosnia in August 2000. Other incidents included arson and grenade attacks, and other forms of vandalism on returnee homes and properties.

The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report noted that incidents of violence against minorities were twice as high in Republika Srpska as in the Federation. "Such violence often was connected to the return of refugees and displaced persons to their prewar homes where the returnees are a minority," the report noted. "The severity of incidents in the RS remained far greater than in the Federation and Brcko District. While the incidents in the Federation involved verbal harassment and occasional damage to property, the incidents in the RS involved the use of explosives, shootings, physical attacks, significant damage to property, and violent demonstrations."

Another impediment to return was lack of funding for housing reconstruction. In July, UNHCR announced that reconstruction needs were not being met, and said that 22,000 housing units urgently needed to be rebuilt. The Program for Regional Action, under the auspices of the Southeast Europe Stability Pact, stipulates that the international donor community was to have supported the reconstruction of 52,000 housing units, the building of 60,000 new apartments, and the provision of 50,000 loans for individual home construction during a two-year period.

Poor job prospects – resulting from both the depressed economy and employment discrimination – also inhibited return during the year. Less than half of the adult Bosnian population was employed during the year, and prospects for returnees, especially minorities, were dismal. 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.

In addition to lack of jobs, the insufficiency of suitable educational opportunities for minority children was also high on the list of factors hampering the return to Republika Srpska of minority members with families. The curriculum used in Republika Srpska schools – skewed in its accounting of the Bosnian war and general history – 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.


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 2001. The law grants permanent residency rights to recognized refugees, but is vague on many points. A working group was in the process of drafting a new law in 2001, but had not completed its task by year's end.

In the meantime, on December 12, 2001, Bosnian authorities adopted bylaws to implement the 1999 legislation. The bylaws define asylum seekers and confirm their right to seek asylum despite their illegal entry or presence. They also provide for humanitarian visas for persons who do not meet the refugee definition but who may nevertheless fear torture or inhuman or degrading treatment upon return.

By year's end, the government had established neither an asylum unit within the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees nor an appeals panel within the Council of Ministers, both of which were needed to fulfill the requirements of the law. In the absence of a functioning national asylum procedure and bureaucracy, UNHCR conducted status determinations for extra-regional asylum seekers during the year, seeking resettlement in other countries for the extra-regional refugees it recognized in Bosnia.

During the year, 732 persons applied for asylum in Bosnia, with the largest numbers originating from Macedonia (313), Iran (110), and Turkey (107). UNHCR recognized 36 as refugees, including 22 Iranians, and rejected 83 claims. At year's end, 425 asylum seekers had cases pending, including about 300 of the asylum applicants from Macedonia. Although Bosnia lacked a temporary admission regime for new arrivals from Macedonia and entered their claims into the regular asylum procedure, the delay in adjudicating the applications provided the Macedonians de facto temporary protection during the year.

Transit Migration

During 2001, Bosnia was a key transit country for extra-regional asylum seekers and migrants, most attempting to reach Western European countries. An estimated 50,000 unauthorized migrants transited from Bosnia to the European Union during the year. During the year, the Bosnian State Border Service reported turning away 11,351 foreign nationals who did not meet the legal requirements of entry.

Several factors explain Bosnia's popularity as a gateway to the European Union. In addition to its porous borders, Bosnia has maintained a liberal visa policy for Turks, Tunisians, and nationals of other refugee- and migrant-producing countries. The strength of organized criminal networks in the Balkans, as well as widespread corruption among Bosnian border guards, has contributed to the problem.

Responding to pressure from Western European countries, on December 7, 2000, 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 Balkan route.

Bosnia also cooperated with Western European countries on border control during the year. In September, the United Kingdom deployed British immigration officers to Bosnia to train and advise the Bosnian State Border Service. The British immigration officials were reportedly to be joined by counterparts from Denmark, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Ireland, and France.

In July 2000, Bosnia signed a readmission agreement with Croatia, providing for the return of undocumented migrants to Bosnia. During 2001, Croatia returned 2,133 undocumented migrants to Bosnia, including 682 from Turkey, 422 from Yugoslavia, 408 from Iraq, and 295 from Iran. Many of those returned appeared to be potential asylum seekers.

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