Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:56 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Yugoslavia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Yugoslavia, 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 16 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 1999, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia hosted some 476,000 refugees, virtually all ethnic Serbs, of whom 22,000 were in Montenegro. The refugees originated primarily in Croatia (296,000) and Bosnia (180,000). About 40,000 of the most vulnerable refugees lived in collective centers.

Conflict in Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia forced more than one million people from their homes. While the majority of those who had sought refuge abroad returned to Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia before year's end, an estimated 600,000 people remained internally displaced. These included approximately 175,000 ethnic Serbs and 45,000 Roma outside Kosovo, split between Serbia (190,000) and Montenegro (30,000). About 30,000 internally displaced persons resided in some 200 collective centers. In Kosovo, 350,000 ethnic Albanians remained unable to return to their uninhabitable homes. Another 12,000 Serbs, 8,000 Albanians, and 2,000 Roma also remained displaced within Kosovo after fleeing areas where they would be in the ethnic minority.

Some 9,000 Croatian Serb refugees in Yugoslavia repatriated during the year, while another 10,000 moved to Serb-controlled Bosnia. An equal number of ethnic Serb refugees from Bosnia repatriated to Republika Srpska. Many citizens of Yugoslavia who left the country in 1999 had not returned by year's end. About 10,000 ethnic Muslims from the border Sandjak area remained in Bosnia at year's end, where they had fled during the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. An estimated 5,000 military deserters and draft evaders fleeing prosecution also sought refuge in Hungary, and several thousand more in Bosnia.

Some 121,000 Yugoslav nationals sought asylum elsewhere in Europe during the year – predominantly ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, but draft evaders and deserters as well (primarily but not exclusively ethnic Serbs). This was 23 percent more than the previous year, and about 28 percent of all asylum claims lodged in Europe in 1999. About half sought asylum in Germany (31,826 applications) and Switzerland (29,297 applications, two-thirds of all claims in that country). Many of those who applied for asylum had also received some form of temporary protection in host countries.

As of mid-November, about 60 percent of the approximately 92,000 ethnic Albanians evacuated under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) humanitarian evacuation program from Macedonia had returned to Kosovo.

War and political repression were the primary causes of displacement from Yugoslavia during 1999. Deteriorating economic conditions, however, also played an important role in the displacement. NATO's bombing campaign hit the country's decaying economic infrastructure hard. Strict international sanctions and widespread state and private graft also contributed to the crisis.

Yugoslavia's gross domestic product declined by as much as one-third in 1999, while unemployment grew from 25 to 32 percent. Another one-third of the working age population was reportedly underemployed. The country's health care and social welfare systems declined precipitously during the year. One Yugoslav citizen in three lived in poverty, and the percentage of refugees and displaced persons living in poverty was reportedly higher still.

Kosovo through June: War and Displacement

The culmination of the civil conflict in Kosovo and NATO intervention in Yugoslavia produced displacement on a scale unseen in Europe since World War II. The civilian population of Kosovo, a province that was 83 percent ethnic Albanian, had since early 1998 endured often indiscriminate repression by Serbian security forces cracking down on Kosovo's separatist movement. Security conditions improved somewhat after Yugoslavia's commitment to a cease-fire in October. Some 100,000 internally displaced persons managed to return to their homes at that time, although about 257,000 people remained internally displaced within Yugoslavia at the end of 1998.

However, the developments of late 1998 proved to be only a short lull in the military escalation in Kosovo. The Yugoslav regime reinforced its military presence in the province. By mid-January, Serbian special forces and militias again began terrorizing and displacing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The fighting resumed, killing an average of 10 to 15 Serbs and a similar number of Albanians every week in Kosovo between mid-January and mid-March.

Serbian forces first concentrated on rural areas. The most notorious incident took place in the town of Racak, where Serbian forces killed 45 ethnic Albanians on January 15, possibly in retaliation for the deaths of three Serb policemen. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) investigated the incident and disputed Yugoslavia's official description of the killings as "deaths in combat."

Following the failure of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between ethnic Albanian leaders and the Yugoslav state in Rambouillet (France), the focus of Serbian repression shifted to towns such as Pristina and Kosovska Mitrovica. Civilians continued to flee their homes for the relative safety of hills and forests, or left the region altogether for Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. By March 24, when NATO began its bombing campaign, the count of refugees and internally displaced persons had reached some 460,000 people – 260,000 within Kosovo, and 200,000 in the rest of Yugoslavia and other countries.

The onset of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign precipitated a massive campaign of "ethnic cleansing" by Serbian forces, accompanied by extrajudicial executions, forced expulsions, and destruction of property. By October, the International Criminal Tribunal had exhumed more than 2,100 bodies in 529 sites. Although Serbian forces primarily targeted men of military age, they occasionally abused, raped, and murdered women, children, and elderly people as well.

By March 28, Serbian forces killed a reported 500 ethnic Albanians in Bela Crkva, including eight men over the age of 60 and a 13-year-old boy. Similarly, 300 ethnic Albanians who had refused to leave their homes in Djakovica were executed that same week. In Klina, Orahovac, and Cirez, Serbian forces reportedly used hundreds of civilians as human shields against attacks by NATO and the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.

A central element of the Serbian strategy was the forced displacement of the ethnic Albanian population. Nine-tenths of Kosovo's Albanians were uprooted from their homes, often driven out at gunpoint and transported away collectively. The rate of expulsion from the country remained erratic, however, as phases of mass exodus to Macedonia and Albania alternated with periods when authorities sealed the border points, allowing virtually no one to escape. Some 465,000 ethnic Albanians ultimately found refuge in Albania, 360,000 in Macedonia (including some 92,000 later evacuated to third countries), and 70,000 in Montenegro.

During the 78-day conflict the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) repeatedly expressed its concern over the fate of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians displaced within Kosovo, in addition to the nearly 900,000 who left the province.

The NATO bombing campaign damaged much of Yugoslavia's infrastructure, and contributed to the displacement. Human Rights Watch reported that some 500 civilians died in 90 separate bombing incidents, including refugees from Bosnia and Croatia living in collective centers in Yugoslavia.

Some 14,000 ethnic Albanians were resettled to the United States. USCR urged the U.S. administration to focus on the most vulnerable refugees, including torture survivors, rape victims, members of ethnically mixed households, and certain high profile activists. The two-pronged program that emerged provided for normal refugee processing for refugees anywhere in Macedonia, whose U.S.-based relatives petitioned on their behalf, as well as expedited processing from Macedonia's Stankovic I camp under UNHCR's humanitarian evacuation program.

Kosovo after June: New Protection Concerns and Displacement

The Military Technical Agreement signed on June 9 between KFOR (a NATO-led international force) and the Yugoslav government ended open military conflict in Kosovo. Serbian forces agreed to withdraw immediately. Some 45,000 KFOR troops entered the province on June 12. UN Security Council Resolution 1244 established the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to administer and help rebuild Kosovo. UNHCR, the OSCE, and the European Union became responsible for, respectively, humanitarian affairs, institution building, and reconstruction.

The vast majority of ethnic Albanians who had fled internally or abroad returned to their places of origin within weeks, despite warnings that their safety could not yet be guaranteed. By the end of June, some 500,000 people had returned, sometimes as many as 50,000 per day. By mid-November, 810,000 Kosovo refugees had returned, including about 60 percent of the UNHCR evacuees to third countries. However, because some 100,000 homes remained uninhabitable, many returnees became displaced within the province. About 350,000 returnees remained displaced at year's end.

Upon returning after the cease-fire, UNHCR and its main local implementing partner, the Mother Teresa Society, focused on reestablishing humanitarian supply lines. They delivered the first relief supplies to displaced persons in the town of Glogovac, one day after UNHCR returned to Kosovo. Other immediate priorities included organizing adequate transportation for returnees, assessing housing damage, and de-mining. In the months that followed, humanitarian organizations also sought to address the winterization needs of the displaced, and the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as women and children.

International attention remained focused on Kosovo throughout the year. More than 200 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worked to rehabilitate the region and bring relief to its population. While ensuring a sufficient flow of relief resources to the small province, this did not preclude serious logistical conundrums. Kosovo's damaged roads were often jammed with relief vehicles, and frequent delays at the Macedonian border impeded the delivery of much-needed humanitarian goods.

Nevertheless, new protection concerns and major displacement presented the most daunting humanitarian challenge. In a sudden reversal of fortune, the ethnic minorities of Kosovo – predominantly Serbs, Roma, Slavic Muslims, and ethnic Turks – became the targets of ethnic violence and harassment. Ethnic Albanians – sometimes for revenge, sometimes in pursuit of separatist objectives – often initiated violent acts against Kosovo's minorities. UNHCR reported in November "an increasing tendency towards concentration in mono-ethnic enclaves; continued isolation and restricted freedom of movement; and lack of access to public services­especially education and health care," in Kosovo.

Neither KFOR nor some 1,900 international police officers were effective in providing protection. The International Crisis Group reported that by August, an average of 30 people a week died violently in Kosovo – the same rate as before the NATO intervention. Some 300 Serb and Roma civilians were killed in Kosovo during the second half of the year, and more than 1,000 cases of arson were reported, the U.S. State Department said.

In July, 14 Serb farmers were murdered near Gracko. In September, a grenade attack on a Serbian marketplace in Bresje injured 49 people, three fatally. The International Helsinki Committee reported that forced transfer of Serbian property was occurring in Pristina, a practice reminiscent of the tactics of Bosnian Serbs against Muslims during the war in Bosnia. Pristina's 600 remaining Serbs (three percent of the town's pre-war Serbian population) had limited access to humanitarian assistance in Pristina. In Mitrovica, a protracted face-off between the Albanian and Serbian communities epitomized the dilemma faced by the international community intent on promoting multi-ethnicity while ensuring the physical safety of minority groups.

In a December visit to Serbia, USCR heard first-hand accounts of killings, arson, and abduction of Roma at the hands of ethnic Albanians. (see article). The Guardian reported one instance of refoulement of Roma by Serbian authorities, when trying to cross into Serb-controlled Yugoslavia.

Economic conditions remained very poor in Kosovo, with unemployment at an estimated 40 to 70 percent for ethnic Albanians, and higher still for minorities. After KFOR's arrival, some 130,000 people, mostly Serbs and Roma, fled Kosovo for the rest of Serbia and Montenegro, joining about 90,000 Serbs and Roma who left the province earlier in the year. Approximately 100,000 non-Albanians remained inside Kosovo at year's end: 60,000 Serbs, 17,000 Muslim Slavs, 13,000 Turks, and 10,000 Roma. Of these, some 12,000 ethnic Serbs and 2,000 Roma remained displaced from their homes. Another 8,000 Albanians were displaced, after fleeing from Serb-controlled areas of northern Kosovo.

Displaced Serbs from Kosovo

Some 175,000 ethnic Serbs from Kosovo remained internally displaced in the rest of Serbia and Montenegro at year's end. The majority of the displaced resided in municipalities in central and southern Serbia. Some 30,000 Serbs lived in former municipal and "socially owned" buildings transformed into collective centers. In December, USCR visited eight facilities housing displaced persons throughout Serbia and Montenegro. Newly displaced Serbs often expressed a strong desire to return to their homes in Kosovo, provided the Yugoslav army and police would be present to ensure their safety.

Many recounted to USCR the circumstances of their departure. Immediately after the June cease-fire, retreating Yugoslav forces told villagers that their safety could no longer be ensured. Convoys of cars, tractors, and villagers on foot set off in a matter of hours, heading north for other parts of Serbia and Montenegro. Many had to move several times to find temporary accommodation for the winter months. They were not always welcomed by Serbian authorities keen to retain demographic control over Kosovo; nor by local populations under severe strain themselves, and occasionally resentful of what some perceived as the Kosovo Serbs' privileged treatment by the regime since the late 1980s.

The vast majority of the Serbs displaced from Kosovo were Yugoslav citizens, yet many cited lack of residence documents as their chief complaint. In their haste to leave their homes, many had not been able to retrieve these important documents issued by municipalities and generally required for access to basic social services. School enrollment remained impossible until the government – which had hoped for this population's quick return to Kosovo – relented in the fall and allowed displaced children to register.

Displaced Roma from Kosovo

Some 45,000 Roma forced out of Kosovo by retaliatory violence lived in the rest of Serbia and Montenegro at year's end. About 20,000 were in the central and southern areas bordering Kosovo, 15,000 in the Belgrade area, and 10,000 in Montenegro.

Shunned and discriminated against, the displaced Roma often shuttled from municipality to municipality. They lived in conditions that ranged from very poor to intolerable. USCR witnessed three distinct displaced Roma situations in December: families renting slum dwellings in a pre-existing Roma ghetto on the outskirts of Belgrade; a group of Roma squatting in an unfinished building in Kursumlija, a municipality bordering Kosovo; and the organized Konik camp, hosting some 3,000 Roma in utterly wretched conditions outside Montenegro's capital, Podgorica. Konik benefited from the active presence of numerous international NGOs, and the local authorities' somewhat more favorable attitude. Yet the sheer scale of Konik's population and the fragility of its structures remained sources of great concern. In December, tents sheltering some 1,000 Roma in Konik collapsed under strong winds.

Other Displacement

As many as 20,000 ethnic Albanians left southern Serbia (outside Kosovo) for Macedonia during the Kosovo conflict. Although most had returned to their homes by year's end, an undetermined number moved to Kosovo instead, claiming persecution at the hands of Serbian police. Simultaneously, ethnic Serbs were reportedly moving from the increasingly volatile area, under pressure from their Albanian neighbors. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Albanians lived in southern Serbia, particularly in Presevo (90 percent of the municipality's population), Bujanovac (60 percent), and Medvedja (30 percent). In August, USCR wrote to the U.S. State Department to suggest that vulnerable Albanians displaced from southern Serbia be considered for resettlement.

The conflict in Yugoslavia also forced some 25,000 Muslims from the border Sandjak region of Yugoslavia into Bosnia. About 10,000 remained in Bosnia at year's end, primarily in the Sarajevo region.

Several thousand deserters and draft evaders remained in exile in other countries at year's end, including some 5,000 in Hungary as well as a sizable number in Republika Srpska (Bosnia). An estimated 23,000 to 28,000 cases were pending before Yugoslav courts, which had already sentenced numerous persons who objected to or evaded the draft to up to seven years of imprisonment.

Refugees from Croatia and Bosnia

Yugoslavia continued hosting some 296,000 refugees from Croatia at year's end, including up to 200,000 who had arrived from the Krajina region in 1995, and another 45,000 from eastern Slavonia in 1998. Another 42,000 refugees relinquished their refugee status by becoming Yugoslav citizens. Refugees from Croatia formed the great majority of the 297,000 refugees residing in the northern province of Vojvodina, which borders Croatia. Montenegro hosted approximately 6,000 of these refugees. About 600 Serb refugees from Croatia remained highly vulnerable at year's end in collective centers in Kosovo.

Although Croatia improved its consular presence in Yugoslavia in 1999, it did little to encourage Croatian refugees to vote in the January 2000 parliamentary election. Also, although the consulate authorized return visits for ethnic Serb refugees to apply for citizenship in Croatia, the procedure remained slow and arbitrary. Prospects for safety, property repossession, employment and benefits, and equality of treatment upon return to Croatia remained uncertain. Nevertheless, as of December 1999, 21,010 refugees had submitted citizenship claims to the Croatian authorities, who approved 19,245.

An official return program to Croatia initiated in 1998 proceeded at a slow pace. In 1999, approximately 9,000 ethnic Serb refugees returned to their places of origin (another 10,000 moved to Bosnia during the year). Most of the 34,000 returnees since the Dayton accords were elderly people whose homes were not destroyed or occupied: more than 80 percent of all Serb returnees were more than 60 years old. A tractor return program organized by UNHCR to encourage the return of this mostly poor and rural population was interrupted during the military conflict in the spring. After resuming in September, the program helped return 200 tractors to Croatian Serb returnees.

Yugoslavia also hosted about 180,000 Bosnian refugees at the end of 1999, many of whom had arrived in the country as early as 1992. Montenegro accommodated about 16,000 Bosnian Serb refugees. Ethnic Serbs from Republika Srpska did not enjoy refugee status in Yugoslavia (the border remained open and travel was visa-free). Since the December 1995 Dayton Agreement, at least 30,000 refugees had repatriated to Bosnia – the great majority relocating to Republika Srpska. All but 1,300 did so without UNHCR assistance. Some 10,000 among these returnees repatriated in 1999.

Some 40,000 among the most vulnerable refugees lived in collective centers, sometimes together with internally displaced persons. The facilities varied in quality and population density, but many were dismal, drafty, and crowded. Nearly all collective center refugees whom USCR met – predominantly elderly people – expressed a desire to return to their home areas, yet at the same time they seemed discouraged and even resigned after experiencing the many bureaucratic and political blockages obstructing their repatriation.

Both refugees and internally displaced persons in Yugoslavia were hit particularly hard by the deterioration in economic conditions in 1999. Those who had achieved a measure of self-reliance risked again becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance. Opportunities for part-time employment in industry and agriculture, upon which many had come to rely, deteriorated along with the general economic conditions. Elderly refugees from Croatia, furthermore, were still not able to claim their pensions from the Croatian government, despite having contributed to the retirement system during their working lives before the break up of Yugoslavia.

More than 90 percent of the refugees lived in private accommodations – with relatives, in rented accommodations, or sometimes in their own homes. Many were experiencing growing difficulties in making ends meet. Privately accommodated refugees often felt under increasing pressure to move to already overwhelmed collective centers, despite the poor living conditions.

Other Durable Solutions for Refugees

Despite bleak conditions of existence, most of the better-integrated, urbanized, younger refugees who commonly lived in private accommodations in Yugoslavia did not share their parents' desire to return to their rural places of origin. An estimated 60 percent of all refugees expressed a preference to stay in Yugoslavia. Despite a promising shift in political rhetoric toward return in both Bosnia and Croatia, USCR concluded from its site visit that the majority of refugees living in Yugoslavia would probably not return to their places of origin.

Local integration therefore remained a realistic durable solution for many refugees. Article 48 of Yugoslavia's 1997 citizenship law allowed Bosnian and Croatian refugees to naturalize. The authorities granted citizenship to 42,053 refugees in 1998, and some 60,000 cases remained pending at the end of that year. The processing of applications was interrupted in March 1999 and resumed only late in the year.

Relatively few of the refugees applying for citizenship were eligible to participate in a "local settlement project," an integration program jointly sponsored by UNHCR, local municipalities, and international humanitarian organizations. USCR visited several such projects in Vojvodina. The program gave participant families a small house to live in or to build with assistance, and in some cases employment or crop production support as well. After ten years' occupancy, families can become co owners of the property. While winning much praise, these projects remained limited in scale. The program had completed some 400 such units since 1996 (mostly in Vojvodina), and was building or planning for more than 500 others.

Many refugees preferred not to apply for Yugoslav citizenship, fearing that relinquishing Croatian or Bosnian nationality would affect their claims for lost property and social entitlements in their home country (Yugoslavia did not allow dual citizenship). Both the lack of citizenship and the poor economy impeded refugee integration. They could not vote and had limited rights to travel and work. However, Yugoslavia subjected refugees to the same military duties as Yugoslav nationals. The International Helsinki Committee reported that during the mobilization for the conflict with NATO, the manager of a refugee center in Jagodina threatened to revoke the statuses and benefits of those refugees who failed to answer the Serbian military call-up order.

Resettlement remained the only durable solution for a significant fraction of the refugee population in Yugoslavia. Since 1992, about 15,000 refugees resettled from Yugoslavia to third countries with UNHCR assistance. Resettlement in 1999 was substantially reduced by the military conflict in Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, some 3,259 refugees departed for third-country resettlement during the year. Another 977 were set to leave Yugoslavia, while 2,602 awaited decisions on their pending cases.

The United States resettled 2,189 refugees from Yugoslavia in 1999, fewer than anticipated. These were predominantly ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, many of whom were "double refugees" settled for several years in Kosovo until the latest crisis. Until April 1999, UNHCR conducted no status determination interviews for referral to the United States because of the emergency. In the absence of diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service interviewed some 4,000 candidates across the border in Timisoara, Romania.

Other Vulnerable Populations

Some 3,200 ethnic Serbs from Slovenia and 1,300 ethnic Serbs from Macedonia were registered with UNHCR-Belgrade at year's end. Most had left Slovenia and Macedonia after the two countries became independent in 1991 and 1992. Many were former military staff of the Yugoslav army, and their desire to return to Slovenia and Macedonia was unclear. Nevertheless, their legal status in Yugoslavia remained uncertain at year's end.

Also lacking a durable solution in Yugoslavia were about 50 refugees of other nationalities, mainly Iranians and Afghans.


The small Republic of Montenegro, a constituent part of Yugoslavia, was relatively spared during the NATO bombing campaign. Consequently, Montenegro hosted a disproportionate share of the internally displaced – approximately 70,000, more than 10 percent of its own population. This included some 40,000 ethnic Albanians transiting through Montenegro – mostly on their way to Albania – as well as a large, ethnically mixed population fleeing the bombing in Serbia. At year's end, a registration campaign counted 30,000 internally displaced persons remaining in the republic.

Amidst growing political tensions with the federal authorities in Belgrade, Montenegrin authorities cooperated during the year with the international community. For example, NGOs played a key role in building the capacity of the Konik camp for displaced Roma.

In November, eight Iraqi Kurds who had arrived by boat from Italy asked Montenegro for protection. Authorities detained them for ten days for illegal entry, before transferring them to Belgrade. After UNHCR protested their detention and the absence of a fair hearing, the Montenegrin government agreed to seek UNHCR assistance on future asylum issues.

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