Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September 2021, 16:06 GMT

Position on Refugees from the Former Yugoslavia

Publisher European Council on Refugees and Exiles
Publication Date 1 December 1996
Cite as European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Position on Refugees from the Former Yugoslavia, 1 December 1996, available at: [accessed 25 September 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.

This paper is a composite paper of positions taken by ECRE, updated in the light of recent events. The ideas expressed here originally derive from a series of joint initiatives and visits to the region undertaken by ECRE and ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies).


The situation in the territories of the former Yugoslavia one year after the Dayton Agreement continues to give grave cause for concern for the future of those people displaced by the conflicts, both internally and also in countries of exile. The long term credibility of the international, and specifically European, response to this refugee crisis now depends on the coordinated actions of all concerned states, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs. Their solidarity will determine the future security of refugees and the reconstruction of the countries of the region. The international community of states took upon itself heavy responsibilities through the Dayton Agreement; unless and until the guarantees required under this Agreement are met, a process which may take years, their responsibilities towards refugees have not been discharged. The processes of reconstruction, reconciliation and repatriation must continue in parallel. The history of conflict has always demonstrated that unless true peace based upon justice is achieved the conflict is not over and renewed outbreaks of violence and bloodshed may occur, leading to yet further displacements. There are alarming incidents of hostility towards returning refugees. There is accumulating evidence that ethnically-based violence continues to take place. These demonstrate that there remain very serious refugee protection needs. It is therefore more important than ever that the principles of the Dayton Agreement are vigorously upheld, that asylum rights continue to be respected, and that no precipitate action is taken to end Temporary Protection or to forcibly return refugees to the region.


1          One year after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, it remains of critical importance that its key principles, relating to pluralism, democratic reconstruction and the peaceful consolidation of the entities, be vigorously upheld. The credibility of Dayton places an obligation on the international community to exert the greatest possible political and moral pressure on local political leadership to see that these principles are implemented. Any other position risks the collapse of the fragile accords, the victory of bigotry, the resumption of conflict, and the return of refugees without the necessary safety and dignity.

2          A voluntary, co-ordinated and phased return process, in close dialogue with refugees and the NGOs in receiving areas, should contribute to the long term peaceful development of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and reduce the risk of yet further conflicts and new flows of people in need of protection. Such a process must be based on accurate empirical analysis of the possibilities for return in safety, dignity and with the means to live, and rather than based upon pressures for return in asylum states.

3          Given the precarious situation in the former Yugoslavia, states should continue to grant to each returning refugee the legal right to return to the host country within six months.

4          Temporary protection should not be withdrawn unless all affected refugees are provided with access to a fair and efficient refugee determination procedure.

5          To enable refugees to make the individual decision to return, it is of the utmost importance that they have access to reliable and impartial information. NGOs in the region and in countries of exile must play a key role in this process.

6          A legal regulatory framework for NGOs working within the region is urgently needed to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the development of civil society institutions.

7          Trust funds administered in co-operation with local communities are, wherever possible, a preferable way to provide material assistance to returning refugees.

8          Democratic elections at national or municipal level in the former Yugoslavia should not be regarded by the international community as a reason for the premature return of refugees.

9          Refugees themselves need to be assured of their rights to participate in the voting process, both during municipal and other national elections.

10        Humanitarian assistance and opportunities for continued protection must be provided without discrimination to refugees in all the areas affected by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and not only those explicitly covered by the provisions of the Dayton Agreement.

General Principles Relating to Return

1.         ECRE has always supported the voluntary return of refugees to their homes so long as they may do so in safety, dignity and with the means to live. Therefore, ECRE strongly supports the principle laid out in the first paragraph of Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement: "All refugees and displaced persons have the right to freely return to their homes of origin...". If no progress is made regarding reconstruction, reconciliation and the building of a civil society, some refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will, for different reasons, have no choice but to stay in or migrate to areas which are not, and never were in fact, their homes.

2.         ECRE supports the position of UNHCR regarding the need for any voluntary repatriation to the former Yugoslavia to proceed, as far as possible, in a phased, planned and orderly manner. There are several types of phasing currently under discussion:

return with priority given first to IDPs, then to refugees in neighbouring states, and lastly to refugees in other countries of asylum;

return of refugees to their own home areas where the ethnic group of the returnees constitutes the majority, then return of refugees who do not wish to return to their own home areas but who wish to relocate within new areas where their ethnic group constitutes the majority, and lastly return of refugees to the areas where the ethnic group of the returnees now constitutes the minority;

return of childless adults or adults whose spouses or children are still living in the former Yugoslavia, followed only later by return of families etc.

ECRE believes that policies in this area should be based, as in all other refugee situations in the world, upon the principle of voluntariness as elaborated in UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusions and the UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation. The changing realities on the ground and the pressures and inclinations of refugees will inevitably dictate the process of return; nonetheless ECRE recognises the value of all the above phases as guidelines for setting priorities for assistance to voluntary return. No-one should be forced to return to an area where s/he did not live before. Voluntariness of return should be guaranteed by the host countries. Constant and increasing psychological pressure, the reduction of social support facilities and continued misperceptions in the receiving society are in clear contradiction with this principle. Such factors put refugees in a desperate position where they have no option but to return, although the situation to which they return cannot offer even the minimum standards of living.

3.         ECRE takes the view that the setting of arbitrary deadlines for large scale returns risks creating severe hardship for refugees, and could be counter-productive in terms of the peaceful and long term reintegration of refugees in their home countries. ECRE believes that it is in the interests of all concerned that no precipitated, involuntary returns should take place which could also lead to renewed tensions and possible further displacements of people in the future. It must be in everyone's interest to reduce the uncertainty among people planning their eventual return and to avoid the risk of secondary movements of these refugees who cannot find the shelter, security and the means to live that they require. Above all one must avoid a situation where refugees might feel they must go into clandestinity in order to avoid unreasonable pressure to return.

4.         ECRE also recognises the value of the Statement made by the Council of Ministers of the European Union regarding the need for co-ordinated action when considering the issues of temporary protection's cessation and return. Bilateral arrangements made outside of a multilateral framework only serve to undermine a comprehensive approach to return, if they favour some refugees over others and jeopardise the policies of rehabilitation and social reconstruction in local receiving communities. Such opposition to unco-ordinated bilateral returns, does not of course exclude the possibility that refugees should be informed about social reconstruction projects (and the need for human resources) in their home region which the host state, or NGOs in the host state, may be arranging as part of the collective international effort of post war reconstruction.

5          The principle of voluntary return does not preclude host governments from facilitating the return of specific individuals in order to assist with rehabilitation and the reconstruction. While all refugees have a right to return without discrimination, there is a role for NGOs together with other actors to seek to identify priority areas where particular skills are needed and to respond to offers from refugees who possess appropriate skills. The credibility of the voluntary repatriation approach requires the identification of concrete projects from communities in the region, into which voluntary returnees may be incorporated to their benefit and that of the receiving community. It is ECRE's view that voluntary return deserves a greater chance to prove itself as a realistic option.

6.         ECRE urges governments to continue to take the comprehensive needs-based approach to forming policies of return to the former Yugoslavia, and to refrain from the involuntary movement of refugees or internally displaced persons at the present time for the reasons outlined herein.

Conditions in the former Yugoslavia in relation to Prospects for Return

7.         Given the depth of the trauma which the populations of the former Yugoslavia have endured and the material and social devastation of the country, the continuing presence of international military forces following the expiry of the IFOR mandate at the end of 1996 will leave a situation where the containment of violence and the normalisation of everyday life have only just begun, and where reconciliation remains a distant prospect. ECRE therefore reiterates its view that the progress made since the signing of the peace agreement does not in itself guarantee for refugees the ability to return in safety and dignity. As the Oslo Meeting of governments and UNHCR concluded on 8 March 1996:"Return and repatriation will depend on security, in terms of assurance that essential human rights and minimum living standards are available, not just the temporary IFOR security umbrella".

8.         Since the peace agreement, new internal population movements have been evident. There will continue to be forced displacements and a need for international protection of particularly vulnerable groups. In some cases negative attitudes towards return have in fact hardened since the peace agreement; ECRE believes it is important that all parties carefully evaluate the evidence from the field which argues for the very greatest caution when discussing the viability of large scale return.

9.         In order for any large scale return to become truly viable, all the human rights mechanisms must be seen to be fully and effectively functioning as foreseen in Annex 6 of the peace agreement, namely the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and the Human Rights Chamber. A further necessary benchmark is the effective operation of the institutions foreseen in Annex 7, namely the Commission for Displaced Persons and Refugees, and the Refugees and Displaced Persons Property Fund.

10        ECRE also notes that the proclaimed "amnesty" for returnees must be seen to be effective in operation. NGOs have been concerned, for example, the Republica Srpska has not yet implemented amnesty legislation.

11.       The scale and urgency of de-mining has become clear since the peace agreement; land-mines will continue to represent a threat to civilians for many years ahead and therefore a major obstacle to safe return. ECRE continues to appeal for de-mining efforts to be greatly intensified in order to facilitate return and reconstruction.

12.       A number of European States have taken a generous position regarding the right of return to the host countries for refugees who travel to their home region to assess the viability of permanent return. ECRE believes that experience has testified to the usefulness of this arrangement and would urge States to continue to grant to a returning refugee the legal right to return to the host country within six months if s/he is unable to find shelter, safety and the means to live which s/he requires. Such a guarantee can prove of great value in providing the indispensable sense of personal security on which planning of return may be based.

Resettlement and Access to Refugee Determination Procedures

13.       As UNHCR has consistently stated, it is now clearly premature for European asylum states to contemplate the lifting of temporary protection. ECRE believes that, in the absence of any other pre-arranged criteria to bring this regime to an end, states should apply precisely those criteria attached to the invocation of cessation clauses under Article 1C of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Withdrawal of temporary protection must in all cases be accompanied by the right of access to a fair refugee determination procedure, including the right to appeal.

14.       A fair and efficient asylum procedure should be used to identify those persons who would be at risk of persecution if returned and to ensure that they are granted durable protection. Such persons include, for example, individuals in mixed marriages, conscientious objectors, and members of certain minority groups.

15.       NGOs believe that return can only be considered within the context of the other durable solutions to refugee problems: local settlement and resettlement in other asylum states. Host countries are faced with the obligation to arrange the appropriate form of protection of those who cannot find safety and acceptance in any one of the states of the former Yugoslavia or in the new entities of Bosnia Herzegovina. Governments should also recognise that many refugees will require a continued right to stay in host countries together with the right of family reunification.

16.       ECRE welcomes the fact that several European governments have already provided an improved status for refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The Role of NGOs

17.       NGOs can play a constructive role in the return process in several ways. They can work with refugee communities with whom they are in close contact and help open the dialogue between refugees and governments in order to assess the realism of return; as UNHCR develops its information systems and situation reports, NGOs can offer counselling to potential returnees; they can continue working with humanitarian and social reconstruction projects, and they can expand programmes of contact and exchange with local NGOs and others involved in the long term process of normalisation and reconciliation, focusing on the development of civil society and the promotion of human rights.

18.       In the present phase, in which development plans have replaced emergency actions, the need for close co-operation among local, national and international NGOs is more important than ever. It should be emphasised that local NGOs which have acquired considerable experience over the years should be considered as full partners in any concerted action and co-operation with international NGOs such as ECRE. In the field of psycho-social assistance, many groups are in need of long term attention: the relatives of disappeared persons, rape and torture victims, separated families, mixed couples, demobilised soldiers and children.

19.       The experience of the member agencies of ECRE and ICVA with NGO partners in the region, demonstrated graphically in the meeting in October 1996 of 150 NGO representatives in Tuzla, indicates that many of the local NGOs are working under the very greatest pressure. In so far as the support of civil society will be important for the successful return and reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, all those concerned with the issue of return need to note the enormous burdens on local NGOs which are already dealing with a wide range of social problems and for whom return of their fellow citizens from countries of exile is not necessarily a first priority.

20.       Governments should co-operate with NGOs to provide practical advice and information in the context of either spontaneous or assisted voluntary returns by individual refugees. ECRE welcomes the information scheme as designed by UNHCR and believes that the Repatriation Information Reports (RIRs) are a useful tool for voluntary return. The RIRs will complement the informal information sources which are already in place. It should be stressed that information on psycho-social conditions and feelings of insecurity and apprehension are difficult to measure and to report. The informal exchange of information will therefore continue to be a vital source for those who consider return. In this respect, requests to assist with visits to or from the former Yugoslav municipalities should be considered seriously by governments.

21.       Information projects to enable refugees themselves to make a free, and informed decision about return should reflect a broad range of sources, including NGOs. NGOs are thus not only of value in disseminating information effectively to refugees, but also in the gathering and interpretation of that information.

22.       ECRE urges international organisations and other NGOs to pay special attention to the developing women's organisations and initiatives. Women play a major role in caring for war victims and in gender-related issues and will benefit greatly from the support of other NGOs both inside and outside the region.

23.       ECRE would welcome an improvement in the registration of asylum seekers who may wish to return so that an up to date account of the nature of families in exile and their places of origin is available. In so far as the restoration of property rights is a key issue in establishing normality in Bosnia Herzegovina, the Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees should extend its services in countries of asylum outside the region. Furthermore the international community should greatly increase its financial support to the Commission which is charged with the processing of many hundreds of thousands of property claims.

24.       The legal regime within which many NGOs must operate in the entities of former Yugoslavia is unclear and does not adequately facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance by them. The international community is urged to intervene with the relevant authorities to ensure that the legal regulatory framework is developed as soon as possible in order to facilitate the free operation of NGOs in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and in actions of solidarity with the developing civil society organisations in the region.

Reconstruction and Material Assistance

25.       Governments and NGOs, both in countries of asylum and those which are operational in Bosnia Herzegovina, should be concerned with the peaceful development of that country through programmes in the fields of health, education and shelter, which benefit both the returning refugees and the local communities receiving them. Such an approach will avoid, inter alia, the negative effects of holding people in transit camps.

26.       Pre-departure grants of assistance to returnees should be co-ordinated internationally to be at a roughly uniform level. As an alternative or supplement to individual grant schemes for those who decide to return, ECRE recommends that contributions should rather be allocated to trust funds administered in co-operation with local communities. This would avoid discrimination against those who stayed in the region and thereby prevent additional tensions arising within populations.

Refugees and the Elections in the former Yugoslavia

27.       To fulfil the conditions of the Dayton Agreement and to initiate the process of political dialogue and the legitimate expression of diverse political beliefs, it is highly desirable that in the aftermath of the national elections, municipal elections should take place as soon as practicable. In the light of the problematic experience of the first round of elections, all possible measures should therefore be taken to ensure that guarantees exist for free and fair elections. Refugees should be informed about the arrangements for the elections and their individual rights to vote. The result of the first round of elections reinforces ECRE's view that governments should not regard the opportunity of elections as in itself a reason for promoting large scale premature returns. ECRE welcomes the pledges which have been made by a number of states that refugees may exercise their right to vote while retaining the right to return to their countries of asylum.

28.       The Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) played an important role in the administration of the elections. ECRE urges governments to continue to support the OSCE in its role as monitor of both the elections and the evolving human rights situation in the region. Monitoring the safety of refugees who return is a vital and complex task, requiring the involvement of NGOs and local populations.

The Situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

29.       ECRE identifies itself strongly with the declarations of UNHCR that returning refugees should be assisted on the basis of their needs and without discrimination. Such a position naturally requires support to the many Serbian refugees who have become victims of the conflicts in the region.

30.       There is a critical refugee situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), where current estimates indicate the presence of some 600,000 refugees, a figure which may rise. This constitutes a massive humanitarian problem, requiring a range of responses from the international community and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

31.       The post-Dayton peace process emphasises the situation in Bosnia. This focus, appropriate and necessary as it is, has regrettably led the international community to largely ignore the critical problems of refugees who have fled over the past three years from various parts of the former Yugoslavia and are now in Serbia and Montenegro.

32.       Ninety percent of the refugees in the FRY have so far been accommodated in host families, while the rest have been housed in collective centres established by the government with the support of UNHCR and some NGOs, both local and international, especially the Yugoslav Red Cross. Due to the social and economic conditions deriving from more than three years of sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, the local population is itself confronted by severe difficulties and the "host family" approach may not be sustainable for much longer. The collapse of this arrangement would add to the pressure on local and national authorities and require emergency action.

33.       There is serious concern that the modest levels of international aid committed to the refugees in the FRY may not be maintained, much less increased, in the coming months while the humanitarian crisis facing the refugees is certain to grow.

34.       In addition to providing humanitarian aid, states should also look sympathetically to the resettlement needs of particularly vulnerable groups as identified by UNHCR in the FRY.

The Situation in Republika Srpska

35.       The conditions for the voluntary return of refugees from Republika Srpska who are currently in European asylum countries -- namely security, freedom of movement, housing and the other means to live in Republika Srpska -- do not currently exist. This conclusion is reinforced by consultations with many national and international organisations and local groups in the region whose views constitute a overwhelming consensus, irrespective of their political persuasion or ethnic background, that return of these refugees to their place of origin is not realistic under foreseeable conditions and cannot be advised either to the refugees themselves or to host country governments.

36.       The return of refugees in general is dependent on far greater progress towards political normalisation and economic rehabilitation than is presently evident. Any assisted returns programmes must be seen in the light of the demands to absorb the many tens of thousands of internally displaced persons within the region and the challenges of the economic and social reintegration of some 200,000 demobilised soldiers. Many houses once occupied by Bosnian Moslems are now being used by the Serbian refugees who fled the Krajina in the summer of 1995 and who themselves are in acute need. Such challenges are so vast as to constitute an effective impediment to the near term return of refugees from asylum countries.

37.       Moreover, the devastation of social structures, family ties and personal networks has created a situation of great stress and damage to the social values of tolerance and pluralism. The necessity of rebuilding the social fabric is a process which, if left unattended, will not lead to a climate conducive to the acceptance of returning refugees.

38.       Within the Republika Srpska there is a huge need for international assistance, especially in the area of psycho-social assistance, shelter and employment generation, and there is at present a serious lack of donor support and international NGO input to meet these needs.

39.       The indigenous NGO sector can play a vital role in the provision of assistance to IDPs and the victims of the conflicts and in the creation of conditions for eventual refugee return. However, this local capacity is still at an early stage of development and very much in need of international support, both material and in terms of solidarity.

Search Refworld