U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Bosnia and Herzegovina

At the end of 1998, about 836,000 persons were internally displaced in Bosnia, of whom about 490,000 were in the entity known as the Federation and 346,000 from the Serb-controlled entity, Republika Srpska. More than 424,000 Bosnian refugees without durable solutions remained outside the country. Bosnia hosted about 30,000 refugees from Croatia. During the year, some 110,000 Bosnians repatriated, 97,765 of them in an organized return. Most repatriates came from Germany and Switzerland.

Another 52,000 internally displaced persons returned to their places of origin in 1998; however, the number of internally displaced persons increased because about 90,000 repatriating refugees from Germany could not return to their places of origin. Minority returns accounted for 41,275 of the persons returning to their homes either from within or from outside Bosnia in 1998.

People returning or relocating to majority areas almost exclusively went to Croat and Muslim (Bosniac) communities within the Federation.

Germany actively promoted repatriation for minorities originating in Republika Srpska who would not be able to return to their places of origin. An estimated 90,000 of the 1998 repatriates from Germany were minorities originating in Republika Srpska who relocated to areas of the Federation. The IOM office in Tuzla reported that 20,000 returnees from Germany through IOM's organized return program were almost all Muslims originating in Republika Srpska who were relocating within the Federation.

The Federation was unable to absorb the influx of relocating persons. Many Federation municipalities failed to register them, in part, because the municipal governments did not want to assume responsibility for assisting them. Most returnees remained unemployed after relocating, often living in overcrowded, substandard housing. In many cases, they were subjected to war taxes and other barriers to integration. An estimated one million persons were unemployed in Bosnia in 1998, and at least 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

As a result of the war itself, the Bosnian population dramatically shifted from the countryside to the cities. While the urban population represented only 39 percent of Bosnians before the war, in 1998 fully 60 percent of Bosnians lived in cities. Many had become used to urban life, employment opportunities, and urban amenities, further complicating returns of displaced people to rural areas.

The proportion of Bosnians remaining displaced within or outside Bosnia increasingly represented persons originating from areas controlled by members of other ethnic groups. About 245,000 Bosnian refugees were living in other countries of the former Yugoslavia, and more than 148,000 outside the region, mostly in Germany.

Croatian Serb Refugees

Bosnia has not only produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons, but has also hosted tens of thousands of ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia who have found refuge in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity. UNHCR estimates that 30,000 ethnic Serbs from Croatia have found refuge in Republika Srpska, although some Serb sources put the number significantly higher. Many occupy the homes of Croats and Muslims in western Republika Srpska who were forced out during the war.

During 1998, little humanitarian assistance reached these refugees. Most lived in abandoned homes, few could find work, and most eked out an impoverished existence. It appeared unlikely that ethnic Croat and Muslim displaced persons and refugees would return to their homes in western Republika Srpska while Croatian Serb refugees lived in them. However, Croatian authorities resisted allowing these refugees to return to the Krajina region of Croatia, from which most had been expelled in August 1995, and Bosnian Serb leaders appeared to prefer that the refugees remain in Republika Srpska to maintain the demographic balance in their favor. On June 2, Croatia signed an agreement with Republika Srpska allowing ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia and ethnic Croat refugees from Republika Srpska to exchange homes or seek compensation for their losses.

Nevertheless, the international community organized five group voluntary repatriations from Republika Srpska to Croatia through which 98 refugees repatriated.

Refugees from Kosovo

At year's end, Bosnia had registered 6,544 Kosovar refugees, although about 10,000 Kosovar refugees were actually living in Bosnia. The authorities recognized the Kosovars as refugees on a prima facie basis and established six refugee centers to accommodate them. At year's end 1,434 were staying in them, including 856 in an abandoned soft drink factory in Hadziçi. Despite international community efforts to prevent it, some of the Kosovar refugees occupied homes in Drvar belonging to displaced Serbs.

In October, the Bosnian Council of Ministers approved the "Instructions on Temporary Admission of FRY Refugees from the Territories of Kosovo and Metohija," which entitled refugees to free accommodations, food assistance, access to primary health care and education, and other necessities.

Refugee Repatriation

Between the December 1995 signing of the Dayton Agreement and the end of 1998, about 296,000 refugees (about 105,000 in 1998) had returned to the Federation, overwhelmingly to majority areas. During that time, 20,553 refugees returned to Republika Srpska, of whom 1,883 were minorities. In 1998, 2,458 Serbs, 1,279 Muslims, and 257 Croats repatriated to Republika Srpska, less than half the number who repatriated in 1997. About 9,500 of the ethnic Serb refugees who have repatriated to Republika Srpska originated in the Federation territory but opted to relocate in the Serb entity.

About 5,000 fewer refugees returned to the Federation in 1998 than in 1997. This downward trend indicated that the "easy" cases had gone home – people returning to homes in places controlled by members of their own ethnic group. The large remainder, persons who had fled or been forced out of areas where they would be in the ethnic minority, encountered daunting obstacles to return, despite Dayton Agreement guarantees for freedom of movement and the return of refugees to their homes. In 1998, an estimated 90 percent of such returnees opted to relocate to other areas of Bosnia where they would be part of the ethnic majority. The previous year, about 70 percent of returnees relocated away from their places of origin.

In June 1998, UNHCR reiterated a position first articulated in 1997 that, while it still favored voluntary repatriation, it would not object to the involuntary repatriation of persons to habitual places of residence if those locations were within areas where their own ethnic group was the majority and controlled the area, and if host countries considered exceptions to the policy based on individual circumstances.

During 1998, 2,341 Bosnians were deported from other countries to Bosnia, 2,021 from Germany alone. This represented a 105 percent increase in deportations since 1997, and a 118 percent increase in deportations from Germany. Only a small percentage of the deportees had criminal backgrounds (estimated at less than 5 percent), and in most cases deportees were unable to return to their original homes.

UNHCR warned that specific categories of people were still likely not able to return: persons originating in areas where they would no longer be in the majority upon return (including Croats and Muslims within the Federation); persons of mixed ethnicity or in mixed marriages; severely traumatized persons, such as former detainees and victims or witnesses of extreme violence; minority members of the armed forces; potentially stateless persons; Roma (gypsies); witnesses testifying before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY); draft evaders from the former Bosnian Serb Army; certain categories of medically and socially vulnerable people; and former Abdic supporters (Fikret Abdic, who had a following among Muslims in Bihac, in particular, broke away from the central Bosnian government during the war, seeking a separate accommodation with the Serbs).

Internal Displacement

In 1998, about 490,000 of the internally displaced were within the Muslim-Croat Federation, of whom about 107,000 originated from within the Federation and about 383,000 from Republika Srpska. Despite the absence of significant new internal displacement due to conflict in Bosnia in 1998, and despite about 10,000 fewer displaced people originating from within the Federation, this nevertheless represented a net increase of about 40,000 internally displaced people in the Federation from the end of 1997. The reason for this apparent anomaly was the estimated 90,000 repatriates from Germany in 1998 originating from Republika Srpska who were forced to relocate (and become internally displaced) within the Federation.

Another 346,000 people were internally displaced within Republika Srpska. Of this number, about 300,500 originated from areas in the Federation and 46,000 from within Republika Srpska.

In 1998, about 52,000 internally displaced people returned to their places of origin. This was a 10 percent decrease from 1997 when 58,000 internally displaced persons returned, which, in turn, was a 65 percent decrease from the 164,800 internally displaced people who returned in 1996.

Of the 52,000 internally displaced persons who returned to their places of origin in 1998, 10,124 returned to Republika Srpska, of whom 3,080 were ethnic Serbs returning to their homes in Serb-majority areas. Between the December 1995 Dayton Agreement and the end of 1998, about 89,000 internally displaced persons returned to Republika Srpska, of whom 69,174, about 78 percent, were Bosnian Serbs returning to their majority ethnic area.

The other 41,900 internally displaced persons returned to their places of origin in the Federation. Of these, 14,573 were ethnic Serbs, of whom 4,237 returned to Sarajevo canton.

Federation Minority Returns

Minority returns, upon which the hopes for an integrated Bosnia rest, progressed slowly during the year. UNHCR counted 32,689 minority returns within the Federation in 1998, a slight decrease from the 33,837 recorded minority returns in 1997. Since the Dayton Agreement, about 77,000 minorities have returned. This total still does not offset the 80,000 minorities who abandoned their homes after Dayton was signed, mostly in early 1996 when Serbs left the Sarajevo suburbs, which the Dayton Agreement transferred to Federation control.

Those minorities allowed to return have mostly been elderly or otherwise perceived as non-threatening to the controlling majority group. Ironically, return to homes under the control of members of another ethnic group has often meant separating families, because able-bodied, military aged family members have not generally been permitted to return.

Ethnic Serbs returning to live as minorities have accounted for about 28,700 of the minority returns since the Dayton Agreement, about 14,500 of whom returned in 1998. About half of the returning ethnic Serbs have settled in Sarajevo canton. Other localities to which ethnic Serbs have returned to live in the ethnic minority include Drvar, Mostar East, and Zenica.

Although Croats have accounted for the largest number of minority returnees within the Federation since the Dayton Agreement, fewer Croats returned to live as minorities in 1998 than did ethnic Serbs. Some 37,800 have returned to live as minorities since the Dayton Agreement, of whom about 13,100 returned in 1998. Ethnic Croats living as minorities have mostly gone to Sarajevo, Bugojno, Vares, and Travnik.

Some 20,377 Muslims have returned to Croatcontrolled areas since the Dayton Agreement, about half of whom returned in 1998. Muslims returning to live as minorities have mostly returned to Zepce, Jajce, Odzak, and Vitez.

Croat-controlled Stolac and Caplina remained among the most resistant towns to minority returns within the Federation. In December, Croat extremists planted bombs in recently rebuilt Muslim houses.

Open Cities Initiative: Federation

In March 1997, UNHCR announced the Open Cities Initiative (OCI), a commitment to reward with increased international assistance local communities that demonstrated openness to minority returns. Among the criteria for UNHCR recognition as an "open city" was a "genuine commitment" by local authorities for minority returns and "confirmation that minority returns are occurring or will take place without any abuse of these minorities."

By the end of 1998, UNHCR had recognized ten Federation municipalities as open cities (and four in Republika Srpska – see below): Bihac, Busovaca, Gorazde, Ilidza, Kakanj, Konjic, Travnik, Tuzla, Zavidovici, and Zenica. One city, Vogosca, which had been recognized as open in 1997, was "derecognized" in October 1998.

By the end of 1998, about 14,600 minorities had been registered as returning to open cities, the largest numbers to Ilidza (3,500), Zenica (3,446), and Travnik (3,420). This represented only 35 percent of the 41,275 registered minority returns that have taken place, yet UNHCR has concentrated about 80 percent of its funding to support reconstruction in open cities.

Frequently cited obstacles to return included the lack of employment opportunities, the absence of functioning schools geared towards minorities (education is largely segregated on ethnic lines), security fears, and questions of unresolved double occupancy, in which families illegally occupy more than one housing unit, thus preventing displaced original owners from returning to their homes. UNHCR noted this as a persistent problem in Konjic, the first municipality to be recognized as an open city in July 1997, in Ilidza, a suburb of Sarajevo recognized as an open city in June 1998, and in Busovaca, recognized as an open city in 1997.

Foot dragging by local authorities continued to significantly impede return, as did the failure to establish genuinely multi-ethnic police forces. Local officials most often cited the lack of reciprocity as the most important obstacle to minority return, although some international observers hold this to be a bogus argument. By this reasoning, ethnic Serbs displaced from Gorazde, ethnic Croats displaced from Travnik, or Muslims displaced from west Mostar ought not to be allowed to return to their places of origin until the displaced members of the current majority group currently occupying their homes have first (or simultaneously) been allowed to return to their original homes in an area where they would be in the ethnic minority. In some municipalities, such as Tuzla, recognized as an open city in July, the large number of returnees from Germany still unable to return to their homes (mostly in Republika Srpska) complicated the ability of the municipality to accommodate minority returns.


Sarajevo illustrated the problem of property laws that reassigned ownership of properties abandoned during the war by minorities who fled certain areas to displaced people belonging to the locality's majority ethnic population (see below). At the beginning of 1998, an estimated 5,000 apartments had been reallocated from their rightful owners to new occupants. Under international pressure, the Federation began revising its property laws. However, while that was underway, local officials scurried to transfer ownership of a large number of apartments and houses. By mid-1998, more than 12,000 properties had been reallocated.

In February, the Office of the High Representative hosted a conference involving representatives from the U.S. government and the European Commission that produced the Sarajevo Declaration, calling for minority returns to the canton. In September, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticized local authorities in Sarajevo for obstructing minority returns, saying that there could not be a multi-ethnic Bosnia if Sarajevo was not open to everyone. She called for implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration.

Bosnian Presidency Chairman Alija Izetbegovic said that about 1,000 minorities had returned to Sarajevo, but that more could not because families of former soldiers were living in their abandoned apartments.

Minorities in Republika Srpska

Minority returns to Republika Srpska have been very slow, and in most places nonexistent, since the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995. Although Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik announced in early 1998 that up to 70,000 minorities might return to Republika Srpska in 1998, in fact, only 8,044 internally displaced Muslims returned to their places of origin in Republika Srpska during the year. Nevertheless, this represented a significant improvement over the two previous years during which fewer than 1,000 Muslims had returned to Republika Srpska. About 2,600 of the Muslims returning to Republika Srpska in 1998 returned to the Brcko area.

Even fewer internally displaced Bosnian Croats returned to their places of origin in Republika Srpska. In 1998, 542 internally displaced Croats returned to their homes in Republika Srpska. Since Dayton, 701 Bosnian Croats have returned to Republika Srpska.

By year's end, four municipalities in Republika Srpska were recognized as Open Cities: Mrkonjic Grad, Sipovo, Laktasi, and Srbac. Sipovo appeared to be the most successful of the four; some 387 minorities returned to Sipovo in 1998, bringing to 417 the number of minority returnees to that municipality since Dayton. In all, 831 minorities returned to these four Open Cities in 1998, bringing to 965 the number of minority returnees since Dayton.

In May, Bosnian Serb displaced persons threw stones at Bosnian Muslims returning to visit Laktasi, but police intervention prevented the situation from escalating.

Throughout the year, tensions mounted regarding the demand of Muslim former residents of Klisa to return to their village. A destroyed and depopulated village, Klisa is located in Zvornik municipality in the eastern portion of Republika Srpska near the zone of separation. This area is controlled by the hardest-line Serb nationalists, who barred the Muslims' return. In the meantime, the Muslims erected a tent camp on the Inter-Ethnic Boundary Line (IEBL). UNHCR and other international actors tried to mediate a return agreement, and, although they appeared to make some progress in principle, no former residents had actually returned to Klisa by year's end.

On December 19, a new property law came into force that, on paper, would enable pre-war, private property owners to reclaim their residences in Republika Srpska at any time. The same law would permit residents of pre-war, socially-owned apartments to file occupancy claims until June 19, 1999. Whether or how the new law would be implemented remained to be seen.


In March 1998, the international arbiters for Brcko again postponed a decision on the town's final status, leaving Serbs in de facto control (under an international supervisor). The 1995 Dayton Agreement itself postponed a decision on Brcko's final status, but required both parties to agree to international binding arbitration on the question. By year's end, no such arbitration had occurred.

Brcko is strategically critical to both Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, with both sides intent on using displaced persons or returnees to stake territorial claims. Brcko is located at the narrowest point of the northeastern corridor linking Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia and Serb controlled northern Bosnia. Serbs, a minority in pre-war Brcko, took control of the town in May 1992, and violently expelled 40,000 to 60,000 Croats and Muslims from the area.

The March 15 ruling called for multi-ethnic administration and police and instructed authorities in Republika Srpska to make significant new progress regarding the return of former residents. The March 15 ruling also warned the Federation that its claims to Brcko would be weakened by less than full compliance with its obligation to allow former Federation residents to return to their homes, particularly in Sarajevo.

Compliance was grudging, at best, however. Even minority members of the multi-ethnic administration themselves were still not able to return to their homes in Brcko, despite the international supervisor's specific order that they be allowed.

By year's end, the Commission for Real Property Claims (CRPC) had approved more than 4,380 owners to return to their properties in Brcko, of whom more than 1,230 families returned to the area. Although this was still a small number compared to the more than 40,000 who were expelled or fled, it represented more minority returns than any other city in Republika Srpska.

(On March 5, 1999, the international arbitrator ruled that Brcko should be a condominium belonging to both the Federation and Republika Srpska, that it would remain for the present time under the control of an international supervisor, but that the common institutions of the State of Bosnia and Hercegovina would become responsible for the area.)

Property Laws

In 1998, both Republika Srpska and Federation authorities abrogated or amended property laws that had been fashioned to hinder refugees and displaced persons from reclaiming their properties.

On April 4, the Federation amended its property laws by allowing pre-war owners to apply to municipal authorities for repossession of their homes. The Federation passed two separate measures. The first, the "private property law," allows private property owners to apply first to municipal authorities to reclaim their property, but recognizes the CRPC as a second-instance appeal if the municipality denies the claim. The law applies no deadline on private property claims.

The second law, the "apartments law," relates to what were known as "socially owned" properties in which the occupants, usually apartment dwellers, had rights to occupancy, but not private ownership. Establishing residence rights on pre-war housing had been especially difficult for persons who lived in "socially owned apartments." Many of these apartments, allocated by the state during the communist era, were allocated to others during and after the war, primarily to members of the military or to other displaced persons, such as war widows. The law established an October 4, 1998 deadline for pre-war residents to register occupancy claims. The law allows claimants to appeal negative decisions to the CRPC. In both laws, the Federation recognizes the decisions of the CRPC as final and binding. The High Commissioner later extended the registration deadline for occupancy claims for pre-war residents of socially owned apartments at least until April 4, 1999.

In December, the Republika Srpska National Assembly abrogated the Law on Abandoned Property, which had been a major obstacle to the return of pre-war owners because it had conditioned their return on current occupants agreeing to leave. The new law establishes a claims procedure for recovering lost houses or apartments similar to the legislation that passed in the Federation earlier in the year.

Despite the changes in property laws, officials in both the Federation and Republika Srpska were slow to recognize claimants' identification documents, and in some cases illegally charged fees or improperly required additional documentation in support of property claims. A survey of implementation of property claims carried out jointly by OSCE, UNHCR, and OHR indicated that only 25 percent of claimants in the Federation had received positive decisions, and that those whose claims were recognized often could not secure the evictions of the persons currently illegally occupying their property.

By the end of 1998, the CRPC had received 148,167 property claims and made 25,421 decisions.

Other Obstacles to Return

Although the legal framework for minority returns improved in 1998, implementation still lagged, primarily because local officials lacked genuine commitment to such returns. In many cases, illegal occupants could not be dislodged from the homes of rightful owners. Even when eviction orders were issued, local police often refused to enforce the orders.

Local bureaucracies often actively obstructed minority returns. At times, local officials refused to register returnees or to provide them with public services, such as connection to water, electricity, and telephone systems. Returnees sometimes were denied access to public medical services. Political-nationalist motives at times combined with corruption to obstruct returns. In the central Bosnian (Muslim-controlled) town of Bugojno, for example, the office of the High Representative reported in November "a disturbing series of illegal property transactions as well as illegal demolition of buildings belonging to (non-Muslim) displaced persons and refugees." In August, the High Representative, Carlos Westendorp, fired the Bosnian Croat mayor of Orasje because of his active efforts to prevent minority returns.

Aside from interference or noncompliance by local officials, threats and violence against would-be returnees' personal safety also prevented return (particularly for military-aged male returnees who feared arrest and accusations of war crimes, or other abuse). Often, stone-throwing mobs blocked would-be returnees attempting to visit to assess conditions. Vandalism and arson were also directed against properties of would-be returnees. For example, when about 40 Bosnian Muslims attempted to return to their homes in Tasovcici, south of Mostar, on October 2, they were first met by a roadblock set up by displaced Croats occupying their homes. An armed group of Croats attacked the returnees, killing one. One house was set on fire, and explosives were used against others. The Croat mob burned household goods and threw stones at the would-be returnees.

In May, a Muslim mob prevented a group of 50 displaced Bosnian Serbs from visiting their former residences in Sanica, a village in the Kljuc municipality, Una Sana canton, that had been the scene of massacres against the Muslim population during the war. The mob threw stones at the bus carrying the ethnic Serbs, seriously injuring one elderly woman.

Local police often appeared to condone, or to perpetrate, such acts. In Croat-controlled Stolac, where more than 70 incidents of returnee related threats and violence were reported, an investigation conducted by the International Police Task Force (IPTF) found the Stolac police to be unresponsive and unprofessional.

Among the other obstacles to return are landmines. Reconstruction and development projects have been held up in many areas because they have not been secured from mines and unexploded ordnance. No one knows how many mines were sown in Bosnia, but estimates range up to six million. The mines and other unexploded ordnance are concentrated along the war's confrontation lines, which zigzagged across the country and changed shape during the war.

Another obstacle to return is simply that homes are too damaged or destroyed to live in. In 1998, 4,000 housing units were rehabilitated, according to UNHCR, allowing 16,000 people to return. This represented a decline in housing rehabilitation. In 1996 and 1997, 26,000 houses were rehabilitated, allowing 126,000 to return.

Lastly, the failure of Nato's security force to arrest the leading indicted war criminals, especially Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was a factor inhibiting minority return, as it symbolized the international community's lack of resolve to bring the perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity to justice.


By year's end, Bosnia still seemed far from fulfilling the Dayton Agreement promise that refugees and displaced people would be able to return to their homes. The general elections in September did little to promote optimism. The Serb ultranationalist hardliner, Nikola Poplasen, defeated incumbent Biljana Plavsic for the Republika Srpska presidency, despite none too subtle messages from the international community that international assistance to Republika Srpska would suffer as a result. Hard-line Croat nationalist Ante Jelavic won the Croatian spot on the three-member Bosnian presidency, as Muslim nationalist Alija Izetbegovic was reelected to fill the Bosniac position on the presidency. In December, the Peace Implementation Council, including representatives of the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany, called for the return of refugees and displaced people and the restoration of their properties, and particularly called for returns to Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka. The Council empowered the high representative for Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, to "take measures against all those who violate the accord, not only municipal authorities but also political parties."


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