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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Croatia

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 - Croatia , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 17 October 2021]
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 year's end, Croatia hosted about 22,500 refugees, including roughly 21,000 refugees from Bosnia and 1,500 refugees from Yugoslavia. Croatia was also home to some 34,000 internally displaced persons.

Up to 315,000 Croatian refugees remained outside the country in need of a durable solution, including 290,000 in Yugoslavia and 25,000 in Bosnia at year's end.

Croatian authorities recorded about 36,000 refugees and internally displaced persons as having returned to their places of origin in Croatia during the year – and 323,000 since the 1995 Dayton Agreement. This official count may overstate the permanence of such returns; it may include some de-registered refugees and displaced persons who did not return to their homes; it also includes an estimated 35,000 returns from Western European countries. The count does not include about 45,000 ethnic Serbs and 8,500 Roma who left Croatia's eastern Slavonia region in 1998, mostly for Serbia.

Approximately 56,000 ethnic Serb refugees have returned from Yugoslavia and Bosnia since the Dayton Agreement (20,000 in 2000, mostly from Yugoslavia), including: 13,500 under organized repatriation; 7,500 family reunion cases and extremely vulnerable individuals identified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and an estimated 35,000 spontaneous returns. Virtually all repatriating ethnic Serbs moved back to former UN protected areas.

Another 212,000 internally displaced persons were also recorded as having returned since 1995, including: 69,000 ethnic Croats returning to eastern Slavonia (15,000 in 2000); 23,000 ethnic Serbs displaced into eastern Slavonia returning to other areas of Croatia (800 in 2000); and 120,000 ethnic Croats returning to areas brought under government control after the 1995 military operations "flash" and "storm."

Croatian nationals lodged 717 asylum applications in other European countries during the year, an increase of 27 percent from 1999 (565).

Following national parliamentary elections in January, a new coalition government took office in February led by President Stipe Mesic. The government moved quickly to affirm its commitment to human rights, including refugee return.

Refugees from Bosnia

In March, the new Croatian prime minister met with Bosnia's Republika Srpska's prime minister. Both pledged to enable the return of 2,000 refugees to each side within three months. By year's end, some 1,800 Bosnian Croats repatriated from Croatia to Republika Srpska through this program.

In October, President Mesic of Croatia and President Izetbegovic of Bosnia agreed to form a bilateral commission on refugees. They also pledged to extend social security benefits, including health care and pension rights, to each other's nationals in 2001.

De-Registration of Displaced People

The Croatian government's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR) de-registered some 4,300 refugees and internally displaced persons in 2000.

Since the Dayton Accords, about 142,000 ethnic Croat refugees from Bosnia and Yugoslavia who naturalized have been de-registered. Human rights observers have charged that Croatian authorities de-registered many ethnic Croat refugees after settling them into the abandoned homes and farming land of ethnic Serbs in an effort to alter the ethnic composition of the Krajina Region. The Krajina Region had been a Serb stronghold until a Croat military offensive in 1995 swept up to 200,000 Serbs from the area. These displaced Serbs formed the bulk of the many refugees from Croatia who remained in Yugoslavia (290,000) and Bosnia (25,000) at year's end.

Return to Croatia

In February, Mesic declared that all refugees, including ethnic Serbs without citizenship, had a right to return to the country. In June, the government entered into dialogue with representatives of the Serb community and Croatian settlers from Bosnia. The new government's promises of democratization and refugee return represented a marked shift from policies and rhetoric of the previous government led by the late president Franjo Tudjman.

The international community looked optimistically to the new government of Croatia to assist refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes as a condition of Croatian integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. During the year, the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe approved more than the equivalent of $63 million for refugee return and reintegration projects implemented through international humanitarian organizations. In September, the Council of Europe Development Bank approved the equivalent of a $55.4 million (30 million EURO) loan to match Croatian government money for a "return of displaced and refugees, reconstruction, and housing" project.

However, despite positive statements and initiatives at central government level, many of the obstacles to return put in place before 2000 remained unchanged, resulting in fewer returns than expected during the year. While repatriation movements continued, sustainable return remained elusive, with many returnees reportedly "commuting" between their original homes and their place of asylum.

Property repossession and reconstruction procedures remained flawed throughout the year, despite government amendments to discriminatory and contradictory property legislation. The issue of refugee return remained highly politicized. In June, the former ruling HDZ party allowed an amendment to the Reconstruction Law, but opposed a government amendment to remove provisions in the Law on Areas of Special State Concern that discriminated against the original owners of lost or damaged properties, particularly ethnic Serbs.

In October, the government abolished procedures in the Return Program for repossession of property and allocation of alternative accommodation, and disbanded the housing commissions that were established in 157 municipalities to adjudicate property issues. The government promised to adopt new legislation on property repossession implemented through a new central authority but had not done so by year's end. Legal organizations charged that the amendments to the laws served to complicate administrative guidelines further. Some humanitarian organizations suggested that to avoid political unpopularity for April 2001 local elections, there would be little improvement in repossession and reconstruction procedures.

The legacy of official discrimination against Serbs proved hard to remove, and administrative discrimination by local authorities and courts, particularly in HDZ-dominated areas, meant that Serb owners made little progress in repossessing their properties. In addition, access to reconstruction assistance and the unaddressed issue of lost occupancy/tenancy rights remained significant obstacles to the return of Croatian Serbs.

Overall, Croatian law continued to favor those who occupy houses rather than the rightful owners. A European Council for Refugees and Exiles report on the prospect of return to Croatia noted, "Occupiers de facto have carte blanche to stay where they are, often occupying multiple properties, and vandalizing with impunity those they are forced to leave."

Many Croats from Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia viewed the new government's increased focus on return as a threat to their interests. This was especially true for those occupying houses belonging to ethnic Serbs who returned or intended to return. Tension between ethnic Serb and Croat communities continued in 2000. While most nongovernmental organizations reported improvements in the security situation in the country, several areas reportedly remained tense, and in March, a recently returned Serb man and an elderly Serb woman were killed by local Croats.

In January, Croatia acknowledged for the first time that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had jurisdiction over Operations Storm and Flash, controversial 1995 Croatian military actions against rebel Serbs that forced some 200,000 people to flee their homes. However, the issue of suspected domestic war criminals among returning refugees remained highly politicized. On August 28, Milan Levar, a potential witness for the ICTY, was assassinated in Gospic, Croatia.

Croatia's 1996 Amnesty Law intended for ethnic Serbs who took up arms during the war (but were not accused of war crimes) remained ambiguous. Human rights groups argued that individuals amnestied for crimes of which they were convicted in absentia suffered discrimination based on having a criminal record, albeit amnestied.

During the year, some repatriating Serbs who had been given clearance by the Croatian government were arrested on return, having been tried in absentia during the year. In one such incident on May 22, a Vukovar court convicted eleven Serbs of war crimes, ten of them in absentia. In June, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned a poster campaign in Karlovac, Petrinja, and Sisak listing local Serbs alleged to have committed war crimes. The OSCE said the lists were "obviously aimed at discouraging return."

Another major obstacle to return was the continuing uneven implementation of the 1997 "convalidation" law. The law had sought to legitimize administrative documents issued by Krajina Serb authorities during the region's brief secession from Croatian sovereignty. Most Serb refugees in Yugoslavia and Bosnia were not able to apply for welfare benefits within the limited period the law allowed. Consequently, they risked not receiving their pensions or disability insurance proceeds – a major disincentive to return, given the bleak employment prospects for elderly Serbs.

Finally, Croatia's high unemployment rates – as high as 85 percent in many return areas – and dire economic situation offered few financial prospects to entice those of wage-earning age to return. In 2000, the Croatian government cut its spending on social welfare as a result of the recession, deepening the hardships of vulnerable displaced populations.

Eastern Slavonia

Some 3,500 ethnic Serbs displaced from other areas of Croatia remained in eastern Slavonia at year's end, 500 fewer than the previous year. An estimated 50,000 Serbs lived in the region. The pre-war Serb population had been 70,000, before peaking at about 127,000 after the massive displacement of Serbs in 1995 from the Krajina Region.

In January 1998, eastern Slavonia reverted to Croatian control. Poor economic conditions in the region compounded Croatia's failure to create an environment congenial to ethnic reconciliation. In 2000, about 800 displaced ethnic Serbs returned from eastern Slavonia to their places of origin elsewhere in Croatia. Another 47,000 Serbs from eastern Slavonia sought refuge in Yugoslavia in recent years. Others left for third countries.

Some 69,000 ethnic Croats had officially returned to their homes in eastern Slavonia by year's end, including 13,000 in 2000. Another 23,000 displaced ethnic Croats remained outside the region.

Some 10,000 Roma lived in eastern Slavonia before the war. When the regime reverted to Croatian control, all but about 1,500 reportedly fled persecution by ethnic Croats who accused them of having sided with Serbs. For instance, 90 percent of Roma families left the village of Popovac, according to one human rights group. Most Roma from the region sought refuge in Yugoslavia.

Repatriation of Croatian Serbs

The government's official return program initiated in 1998 continued in 2000 with more than double the 1999 number of returns. During the year, some 20,000 ethnic Serb refugees returned to Croatia, 17,000 from Yugoslavia. Another 2,000 refugees returned from Republika Srpska with international assistance, and about 1,000 from other countries. Most of the 88,000 returnees since the Dayton accords (56,000 with UNHCR assistance) were elderly Serbs whose homes remained habitable and unoccupied – more than 80 percent were more than 60 years old.

Ethnic Serb refugees in Bosnia took advantage of procedures set up in 1998 to apply for travel documents. Croatia opened a full-time consulate in 1999 in Banja Luka (Republika Srpska), and improved consular services in Belgrade (Yugoslavia). A letter issued there allowed refugees to travel to Croatia, where they could file an application for citizenship. However, the procedure remained slow and arbitrary, based on descent rather than place of birth, and more expensive for Serbs than for ethnic Croats.

In many cases, authorities settled naturalized Bosnian Croat refugees in the abandoned homes of ethnic Serbs, many in the Krajina Region. The Croat occupants often provided a harsh reception for ethnic Serbs seeking to return to their homes in the Krajina Region. Police reportedly often tolerated Croatian harassment of ethnic Serb returnees.


The International Organization for Migration assisted in the resettlement of 621 refugees from Croatia in 2000. Since 1992, the program has helped 95,962 refugees resettle to third countries.

Asylum Seekers

Croatia cooperated with UNHCR to develop asylum legislation that complies with the UN Refugee Convention, to which Croatia is a party. In the meantime, Croatia's aliens law governed the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers of various nationalities submitted 20 claims during the year. The Ministry of Interior reached three decisions, denying all claims. The rejected applicants included an Iranian, a Russian, and a Sierra Leonean.

Restrictive Measures

Croatian authorities reported a sharp increase in the number of undocumented people they apprehended in 2000 – some 10,000 undocumented migrants during the first half of 2000, compared to 8,000 for the whole of 1999. Croatia and Slovenia's interior ministers met in July to discuss "illegal" immigrants, resulting in a readmission agreement between the two countries. In August, 110 Croatian police were reportedly fired for their suspected involvement in human trafficking. In August, representatives of the Albanian, Croatian, Bosnian, Greek, and Slovenian governments met to discuss ways to combat illegal immigration.

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