United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Croatia, 1 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8be38.html [accessed 26 July 2016]
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Croatia hosted nearly 50,000 refugees, mostly from Bosnia, in 1997, and more than 100,000 Croatians remained internally displaced. The Croatian government's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR) rapidly deregistered refugees and internally displaced persons as 1997 ended, making a final count difficult. At year's end, ODPR still registered about 78,500 persons as internally displaced, a 31 percent decrease from the 114,000 at the end of 1996. ODPR's registration did not include an estimated 32,700 internally displaced Croatian Serbs living in eastern Slavonia. Between October and the end of December 1997, the number of Bosnian refugees registered in Croatia fell from more than 80,000 to fewer than 50,000. The year-end total, 49,821, represented a 69 percent decrease from the 160,000 registered in Croatia at the end of 1996. Most deregistered refugees were ethnic Croats who were offered, and accepted, Croatian citizenship, which is available to all ethnic Croats. The end-of year total included about 36,000 Bosnian Croats and about 11,000 Bosnian Muslims. There were also more than 3,000 refugees from Serbia, mostly ethnic Croats from Vojvodina. ODPR's rapid deregistration of refugees and displaced persons in 1997 reflected the government's vigorous promotion of two goals: return for internally displaced persons, particularly for those ethnic Croats who had been displaced from eastern and western Slavonia; and local integration for ethnic Croat refugees, particularly to the Krajina area, a Serb stronghold until a Croat military offensive swept up to 200,000 Serbs from the area in August 1995. That group represented the bulk of the more than 330,000 refugees from Croatia who remained outside the country at year's end. Revoking the "banished" status of internally displaced people meant that they were no longer entitled to financial aid, free public transport, educational assistance, and other benefits. At the end of November, the ODPR announced that displaced-person status would be canceled for all persons slated for return to eastern Slavonia. Eastern Slavonia As the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) neared expiration on January 15, 1998, and the area reverted to Croatian control, the international community sought to avoid a new exodus of ethnic Serbs. With encouragement from UNTAES, the Croatian government issued ethnic Serbs in eastern Slavonia about 150,000 certificates of citizenship by mid-December. Many reportedly had been refugees in Yugoslavia or Bosnia who had returned in order to be registered. At the same time, ODPR actively encouraged the return of 78,500 Croats displaced from the region, despite questions about how soon the war-devastated area could absorb them. As displaced Croats began returning to the area, observers worried about the volatile mix of the ethnic Serb residents (many of whom were displaced people) and the new ethnic Croat arrivals who had been expelled from their homes in the area, the scene of brutal violence in 1991. If the Serbs stayed in place, and all displaced Croats returned to the area, eastern Slavonia would have a majority Serb population, a demographic composition that would not likely satisfy Croat nationalists. In December, ethnic Serbs reported frequent threatsverbal, as well as by leaflet and graffititelling them to leave or be killed. In at least two cases, grenades were thrown at Serb homes. During December, border posts reported that as many as 300 persons a day were crossing from eastern Slavonia into Serbia. Although 32,698 ethnic Serbs in eastern Slavonia were registered as internally displaced at the end of 1997, estimates of the number of displaced Serbs in the region ranged up to 60,000 during the year. Successful reintegration of displaced Croats to eastern Slavonia largely depended on displaced ethnic Serbs living there (many occupying the homes of displaced Croats) being allowed to return to their homes in other parts of Croatia. In April, the Croatian government agreed, in principle, to facilitate their return. ODPR reported that 17,982 displaced Serbs in eastern Slavonia had applied to return to their homes elsewhere in Croatia. (By January 15, 1998, the transfer date, about 9,000 displaced Croats had returned to eastern Slavonia and some 3,000 displaced ethnic Serbs had returned from eastern Slavonia to their homes elsewhere in Croatia. Many more ethnic Serbs headed east. By March 1998, UNHCR reported that the number of displaced Croatian Serbs in eastern Slavonia had dropped to about 12,000, and observed that Croatian Serbs were steadily leaving eastern Slavonia for Serbia.)Obstruction of Minority Return Despite protestations to the contrary, Croatia appeared to pursue a strategy of obstructing the return of ethnic Serbs (displaced into eastern Slavonia or elsewhere) to the Krajina or western Slavonia. The authorities placed bureaucratic obstacles in the path of persons seeking to return. Threats and violenceincluding the April shooting deaths of two elderly Serbs in western Slavonia and the killing of a returned Serb farmer in the Krajina by a hand grenade placed in a hay stack on his farmalso deterred many from returning to their original homes. Some ethnic Serbs could not return because ethnic Croats occupying their homes refused to leave. Others could not return because their homes were destroyed or uninhabitable, in some cases from recent acts of vandalism and arson. In June, a mob of ethnic Croats from Bosnia went on a looting, burning, and beating spree in Hrvatska Kostajnica Municipality in western Slavonia, near the Bosnia border, targeting returning Serbs and expelling them from the area. One Serb died from injuries sustained during the attacks. The ethnic Croat refugees from Bosnia mostly originated from Bosanska Posavina, and have been housed in abandoned Serb properties in the Krajina and western Slavonia. Military police evicted people, mostly ethnic Serbs, from their apartments during the year. Police cited property laws that strip tenancy rights from people absent from their Yugoslav National Army apartments for six months or who are considered to have acted against Croatia's interests. In some cases, courts had ruled the evictions illegal, but local authorities and the police refused to carry out court orders to restore residences to their rightful owners. In cases where refugees or displaced persons were illegally occupying the home of the evictee, local authorities based their refusal on property laws that first require alternate housing for them. In May, USCR wrote to the Croatian ambassador to the United States, saying, "We urge the Croatian government to end its practice of confiscating Serb houses, and to take steps to do away with the law permitting seizure of ethnic Serb property. Furthermore, we believe that Croatia can and should do much more to put a stop to the unofficial harassment and intimidation of ethnic Serbs in Croatia." A July 26 response from the Croatian Ministry of Reconstruction and Development took issue with USCR's use of the word "confiscation," saying that although the government has assigned "deserted apartments" to war invalids, refugees, and internally displaced persons whose homes were destroyed in the war, "Croatian citizens of Serb nationality, who left Croatia due to war circumstances, still retain the right on their property which they can realize under certain legal conditions." In practice, few ethnic Serbs were able to reclaim their property in 1997. Of the 2,000 ethnic Serbs who returned to the Krajina in early 1997, at least 90 percent were unable to return to their homes. In some cases, ethnic Serbs who did return to their homes were reportedly evicted, and their homes turned over to ethnic Croat refugees. Repatriation of Croatian Serbs UNHCR transported 766 ethnic Serb refugees back to Croatia from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1997 (out of some 293,000 Croatian Serb refugees living there). Repatriation was strictly limited to family reunification. All returns from Yugoslavia were organized by UNHCR and pre-approved by ODPR. Although most refugees in Yugoslavia originated in the Krajina region and western Slavonia, the anchor relatives of those allowed to return to Croatia mostly lived in eastern Slavonia. Because repatriation was strictly limited to family reunification, most could not return to their original homes. In many cases, their homes have been destroyed, occupied by Croats, or are under disputed ownership, according to property laws biased against the original owners. Croatian diplomatic posts abroad resisted Croatian Serb refugees' efforts to obtain identity and citizenship documents necessary for their return. Some Serb refugees possessing valid Croatian travel documents have reportedly repatriated spontaneously. According to Croatian government estimates, about 8,500 Serbs carrying valid Croatian passports returned in 1996 and 1997 without prior ODPR approval for repatriation. Ethnic Croat Refugees During the year, the newly established Ministry for Return and Immigration reportedly encouraged ethnic Croat refugees from Bosnia and Yugoslavia (Serbia/Montenegro) to settle in the Krajina, including ethnic Croats still living in ethnically mixed central Bosnia. Croatian embassies abroad also appeared to entice ethnic Croatian refugees to Croatia by offering them Serb properties in the Krajina. ODPR registered 20,599 persons, all ethnic Croats, as "refugee settlers," who were slated to receive Croatian citizenship. More than 3,000 refugee settlers originated in Yugoslavia. Croatia also appeared to discourage ethnic Croat refugees originating in the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, from repatriating, directing them to relocate to areas that would consolidate a homogeneous crescent of ethnic Croats in eastern Croatia, the Krajina, and western Bosnia and Hercegovina. This also suggests Croatian leaders' willingness to leave the Banja Luka and Posavina regions of Bosnia overwhelmingly ethnic Serb, solidifying the effects of ethnic cleansing. On November 29, the Association of Displaced Persons and Refugees from Bosanska Posavina held a protest rally in Zagreb demanding their right to return. A leader of the group said that 40,000 persons had lost their refugee status in Croatia and could not return to Bosnia. The U.S. Department of State reported that more than 11,000 ethnic Croat refugees in and around Slavonski Brod had their status changed from refugee to temporary resident, thus making them ineligible for special social allowances and benefits. UNHCR maintained that losing refugee status and acquiring Croatian citizenship had "no bearing upon the right/possibility for these individuals to return to Bosnia." Repatriation of Bosnian Muslims In the last three months of 1997, hundreds of followers of Fikret Abdic (the local Muslim strongman in Bihac who broke with the Sarajevo government during the war and was branded as a traitor by the ruling Party for Democratic ActionSDA) repatriated to Velika Kladusa and Bihac, leaving only a small number of the Abdic group at the Gasinci refugee camp. About 27,000 Abdic supporters had fled to Croatia in August 1995, after their towns of Velika Kladusa and Cazin fell to the Bosnian government. About 15,000 repatriated in 1996 and another 10,000 resettled in third countries. In August 1996, the Croatian authorities closed Kupljensko refugee camp, where the Abdic group had been concentrated, transferring its remaining inhabitants to other refugee camps in Gasinci and on Obanjan Island. In 1996 and 1997, there were frequent reports that Bosnian authorities harassed returned Abdic followers. However, in the September 1997 municipal elections, Abdic's party beat the SDA. This convinced most of the remaining 2,000 to return in late 1997. On December 20, another 250 Abdic followers repatriated, leaving only several hundred in Croatia. (On January 7, 1998, 189 Abdic followers repatriated, followed on January 15 by the return of another 180.)