Croatia hosted about 27,200 refugees from Bosnia in 1998, and almost 61,000 Croatians remained internally displaced. About 35,000 refugees and displaced persons returned to their places of origin during the year.
The Croatian government's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR) continued to deregister refugees and internally displaced persons in 1998. The number of refugees dropped by 46 percent from end of 1997 to the end of 1998 and the number of registered internally displaced ethnic Croats decreased 27 percent during the same time frame. This continued the trend from the previous year (from the end of 1996 to the end of 1997), when the number of registered internally displaced persons decreased by 31 percent and the number of refugees by 38 percent. ODPR's registration did not include an estimated 4,000 internally displaced Croatian Serbs living in eastern Slavonia whose numbers also decreased significantly.
Croatia has extended citizenship to all ethnic Croat refugees, but also recognizes dual citizenship. Ethnic Croat refugees who accepted Croatian citizenship and who have registered residences in Croatia have been deregistered as refugees. Those ethnic Croats who remain registered as refugees are persons who still did not have a registered residence in Croatia at the end of the year. The end-of-year total included almost 18,900 Bosnian Croats and about 8,300 Bosnian Muslims.
ODPR's deregistration of refugees and displaced persons in 1998 reflected the government's vigorous promotion of two goals: return for internally displaced ethnic Croats, particularly for those 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.
In addition to more than 18,000 internally displaced Croats who returned to their places of origin, and thus ceased to be registered as internally displaced, ODPR deregistered more than 20,000 other internally displaced Croats during the year who decided not to move back to their reconstructed or repaired homes, but rather to remain in the areas to which they had been displaced.
New Laws and Regulations
Under threat of international sanctions for obstructing the return of ethnic Serb refugees and displaced people, the Croatian parliament adopted a number of measures during the year indicating a lifting of legal barriers to return. However, new laws in Croatia do not automatically supersede old laws, such as the Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration of Specified Property, the Reconstruction Act, and the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, all of which discriminate against the original (ethnic Serb) owners of lost or damaged properties. Consequently, even though Croatia appeared to be bringing itself into compliance with international expectations, it in fact ended up with a confusing mix of contradictory laws that continued to stymie refugee and displaced person return.
The first new measure that suggested greater receptivity toward refugee return was the "Individual Return Procedure for Persons who Left the Republic of Croatia," issued on April 27. On closer inspection, however, the plan was convoluted and imposed restrictions on the right to return. This led the European Union to threaten to keep Croatia out of the PHARE program, which provides credits and grants to eastern European countries. With an eye on the EU, Croatia on May 14 revised those procedures by issuing the "Mandatory Instructions for Acquiring Documents Required for Implementation of the 'Individual Return Procedure for Persons who Left the Republic of Croatia.'"
The mandatory instructions simplified the previously issued return procedure. Although the international community praised the mandatory instructions as an improvement over previous regulations, it insisted that Croatia would have to show real commitment to implementing them. Consequently, on June 26, the Croatian parliament passed the Program of Return of Housing of Refugees and Displaced Persons that appeared to pave the way for unconditional refugee return. However, earlier that month, on June 2, the intentions of the government might have been more clearly expressed when the Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement with the Bosnian Serb leader that would encourage Bosnian Croat refugees to stay in Croatia and Croatian Serb refugees in Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia, by allowing them to exchange homes or seek compensation for their losses.
The number of internally displaced ethnic Serbs living in eastern Slavonia decreased dramatically in 1998. The exodus came with the expiration of the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) on January 15, 1998, and the reversion of the area to Croatian control. Throughout the year, Serb residents continued to leave eastern Slavonia, most going to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. They fled out of fear and insecurity, often exacerbated by verbal threats and physical harassment at the hands of returning Croat displaced people.
By year's end, about 50,000 ethnic Serbs had left eastern Slavonia, mostly to join the refugee ranks in Yugoslavia. Of that number, more than 6,000 were indigenous to eastern Slavonia, and about 40,000 to 45,000 were ethnic Serbs who had previously been displaced into eastern Slavonia from other parts of Croatia. Only 4,000 internally displaced persons were still living in eastern Slavonia at year's end, and the total number of ethnic Serbs still living there was less than 60,000. The pre-war indigenous ethnic Serb population of eastern Slavonia was about 127,000, which swelled by more than 50,000 during the war because of internal displacement.
As ethnic Serbs left, internally displaced Croats poured into the region. At the time of the transfer, on January 15, 1998, ODPR said that about 9,000 displaced Croats had returned to eastern Slavonia. By year's end, more than 26,000 displaced Croats had returned to their places of origin in eastern Slavonia, according to the government. Returns were split about evenly between Vukovar-Srijem and Osijek-Baranja.
As Croats returned to reclaim their properties, a phenomenon known as "soft evictions" occurred by which Croat returnees pressured internally displaced Croatian Serbs to vacate the homes they occupied. Although most displaced Serbs in eastern Slavonia left Croatia entirely, some were able to return to their original homes in other parts of Croatia. By the time of the transfer, ODPR estimated that about 12,000 displaced ethnic Serbs had returned to their homes in other parts of Croatia, although ODPR had, in fact, only registered 2,783 persons as "returnees" from eastern Slavonia to their original homes in other parts of Croatia. By year's end, 16,589 internally displaced Croatian Serbs had been registered as having returned to their places of origin. Many could not return to their homes outside eastern Slavonia, however, as their homes continued to be occupied by Croats whom the Croatian authorities were unwilling to evict. Discriminatory property laws also prevented many displaced ethnic Serbs from reclaiming their properties.
Repatriation of Croatian Serbs
Despite the existence of an official Croatian government "Return Program," actual returns of Croatian Serbs proceeded slowly and represented a small fraction of the ethnic Serbs who fled from or were expelled from Croatia. In 1998, 8,386 ethnic Serb refugees repatriated to Croatia, almost all from Yugoslavia, although a small number began to return from Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in Bosnia in November. The first organized repatriation of ethnic Serb refugees from Republika Srpska occurred on November 10, when 35 returned. By year's end, 98 Croatian Serb refugees had voluntarily repatriated from Republika Srpska. This brought to 27,194, the number of ethnic Serb refugees to repatriate to Croatia since the signing of the Dayton Agreement.
Croatian consulates, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, have acted very slowly in processing applications for return, and have often failed to provide identity and citizenship documents needed for repatriation. About 3,500 of the 1998 returns received travel documents issued by Croatian diplomatic missions abroad. Most of the Croatian Serb refugees who have been permitted to repatriate, about 60 percent, have been elderly. Young, able-bodied Serbs have generally not been granted permission to return. Generally, those who have returned have been the "easy cases" – family reunification and returns to empty houses.
Two-thirds of ethnic Serb returns have been to the Banija-Kordun and Sisak area (formerly UN Protected Area – UNPA – North), and most of the remainder to the Knin region (formerly UNPA South). Ethnic Serb repatriates rarely returned to areas outside what had been the UNPA zones; only about 2 percent of the total had returned by year's end. In many cases, refugees could not return to their original homes, either because they have been destroyed, occupied by Croats, or are under disputed ownership, according to property laws biased against the original owners.
In many cases, ethnic Croat refugees who have been granted citizenship in Croatia have been settled in the abandoned homes of ethnic Serbs, many in the Krajina (formerly UNPA North and South). The current Croat occupants often provided a harsh reception for ethnic Serbs seeking to return to their homes in the Krajina. In 1998, unknown persons placed booby traps in and around reconstructed housing for Serb returnees, according to Human Rights Watch, which also recorded arson and dynamiting incidents directed against unoccupied Serb housing. In 1998, ethnic Serbs complained that the Croat police either did nothing to protect them or were complicitous in the harassment and intimidation.
UNHCR and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representatives reported to Human Rights Watch in October that not a single ethnic Serb returnee had been able reclaim his or her property in former UNPA South through official channels.
Return of ethnic Serbs to their homes has also been impeded by the lack of governmental reconstruction assistance for most damaged or destroyed Serb properties. Laws and regulations governing reconstruction assistance specify that such assistance is reserved for the benefit of Croatian citizens whose homes were destroyed as a result of Serb aggression, whereas many displaced ethnic Serbs have not been able to obtain recognition of their Croatian citizenship, and most of their homes were damaged or destroyed by Croat forces.
Repatriation of Bosnian Muslims
On January 7, 1998, 189 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 Action – SDA) repatriated to Velika Kladusa and Bihac. This repatriation was followed on January 15 by the return of another 180, which emptied the Gasinci refugee camp of the Abdic group.
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.
Other than this relatively small group, very few other Bosnian refugees repatriated from Croatia in 1998. Most of the remaining Bosnian refugees in Croatia in 1998 were minorities originating in the Serb controlled Republika Srpska, who were not able to return to their homes.
Since the Dayton Agreement, about 60,000 Bosnian refugees have voluntarily repatriated from Croatia.
Refugees from Kosovo
Croatia played reluctant host to refugees from Kosovo during the year, not wanting to recognize them formally as refugees, but willing to tolerate their presence on a temporary basis.
In response to a USCR inquiry, the Croatian government said, "Albanian refugees from Kosovo are not entitled to receive 'refugee' status in Croatia, as it is uncertain whether or not they have actually arrived from Kosovo, Macedonia, or Albania proper, since they arrive without documentation."
Most Kosovars arriving in Croatia in 1998 appeared to regard Croatia as a transit point for onward travel. Some stayed with friends or relatives. Those who registered with the authorities, but who were not able to find private accommodations were allowed to live in the Gasinci refugee camp, a facility long used for Bosnian refugees. As of December 31, 36 Kosovars were living at Gasinci, although the Ministry of Interior had registered 232 Kosovars at Gasinci during the year. This suggests that the overwhelming majority moved out on their own, though their final destinations were not known. At year's end, only 93 Kosovars were registered with the police as living with local host families.
UNHCR assisted in the resettlement of 531 refugees from Croatia in 1998, 90 percent of whom were Bosnian Muslims, and the remainder other Bosnian ethnicities who were married to or children of Muslims. Nearly two-thirds of the total were resettled to the United States. About one quarter were resettled to Australia. The remainder went to five other countries.
The Ministry of Interior recognized no asylum seekers as refugees in 1998. The ministry considered 20 claims, including Iraqis and Rwandans. Following negative decisions, all are believed to have left the country. UNHCR assisted nine cases with accommodations pending the outcome of their cases.
Croatia concluded a readmission agreement with Latvia on September 21, the only readmission agreement concluded in 1998. Croatia has signed nine other readmission agreements between 1992 and 1998 with Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland.