U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Bosnia and Herzegovina

At the end of 2002, more than 528,000 Bosnians remained uprooted as a result of the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, including 368,000 internally displaced persons and more than 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers abroad.

Bosnia also hosted slightly more than 34,200 refugees and asylum seekers in 2002, which represents a 16 percent decrease from the number the previous year. This includes 6,000 refugees from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and 22,200 from Croatia. Some 6,000 persons previously accorded temporary admission status in Bosnia had their status extended in 2002. About 240 refugees in Bosnia were resettled to third countries, most to the United States.

More than 160,000 Bosnian refugees remained abroad at the end of 2002, including 121,000 in Yugoslavia, 24,000 in Germany, and 7,400 in Croatia. During the year, over 37,000 former refugees returned to Bosnia. The number of residents in collective centers (government-funded group housing) has fallen to 3,200, down 43 percent from 2001. During the year, some 720 Bosnians were deported from Germany, 190 from Croatia, and 120 from Switzerland.

In 2002, around 8,000 Bosnians filed asylum applications in 29 industrialized countries, down from 11,000 the year before. The largest numbers of applications were in Sweden (3,000) and Switzerland (1,500).

Throughout the year the number of both refugee and internally displaced returnees steadily increased, lowering the number of Bosnian refugees by about 18 percent from 2001, and decreasing the number of internally displaced persons by 14 percent.

Roughly 164,000 internally displaced persons remained in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of the year, and some 184,000 in the Bosnian Republic Srpska and about 20,000 within the Brcko district. (The Federation and Republic Srpska are political regions know as "entities" established by the Dayton Peace Accords). The numbers of internally displaced persons in Bosnia are particularly difficult to measure, as many do not register. About 50 percent of internally displaced persons have expressed a wish to return to their pre-war homes.

Political Developments

Despite efforts of the international community to encourage more moderate politics, the November general elections saw nationalist parties return to power. These were the first elections carried out solely and successfully by the government since the Dayton Peace Accords. Returnees and refugees voting in absentia affected the results, giving minorities greater representation at the entity level.

Constitutional amendments that entered into force in April reserve places in entity and cantonal governments for each of the three major ethnic groups – Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats – as well as for other minorities such as Roma. These measures are designed to encourage refugee return by ensuring a fixed distribution of power between groups, even though it could possibly encourage greater political identification along ethnic lines.

In December, Paddy Ashdown succeeded Wolfgang Petritsch as high representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike the former high representative who had focused on the return of refugees, Ashdown has pledged to emphasize economic recovery and the fight against organized crime.

Refugees from Croatia

Bosnia hosted about 22,200 refugees from Croatia. For the most part they were ethnic Serbs who fled or were forced out of Croatia's Krajina region in 1995. The majority lived in the Republic Srpska and occupied homes vacated by Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims during the war. Many of these Croatian Serbs face evictions as property reclamations in Bosnia proceed. At the same time, however, their former homes in Croatia are still occupied by other refugees, making return to Croatia difficult. About 1,600 refugees from Croatia repatriated during the year. Though Croatian Serbs are eager to reclaim lost property in Croatia, it is likely that many would sell it rather than return to live there. While economic prospects in Republic Srpska are meager, especially for refugees, remaining is still seen as preferable to return due to legal and social discrimination in Croatia.

Refugees from Yugoslavia

Bosnia continued to host some 6,000 refugees from Yugoslavia at the end of 2002, the majority of whom left Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, with Roma and Sandjak Muslims from other parts of Yugoslavia making up the remainder. More than 5,000 of the Yugoslav refugees live in private homes with host families, with the remaining staying in collective centers in the Federation. Around 55 percent of those in facilities are Roma, 14 percent Sandjak, and 13 percent Albanians. Most Yugoslav Serbs live in private housing.

The "temporary admission regime," which facilitated the admission and protection of persons from Yugoslavia after May 1999 (the time of the NATO intervention in Kosovo), expired on November 21, 2001. Thereafter, refugee claimants from Yugoslavia were required to submit claims to Bosnia's regular asylum procedure, which is administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on behalf of the government.

About 400 new refugees and asylum seekers from Yugoslavia arrived in Bosnia in 2002: down from some 1,500 in 2002 and a high of more than 64,000 in 1999.

UNHCR officially registered 440 Yugoslav returnees from Bosnia in 2002. Because of the liberal border regime between the two countries, more probably returned unofficially.

Repatriation to Bosnia

Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, roughly 1 million refugees and displaced persons have returned to their pre-war homes, including 390,000 "minority returnees" – people who returned to places in Bosnia controlled by an ethnic group other than their own.

UNHCR registered roughly 108,000 Bosnian refugees and displaced persons returning in 2002. Of these, some 37,000 were refugees returning from abroad, including around 18,200 Bosnian Serbs, 12,600 Bosnian Muslims, and 6,000 Bosnian Croats. Approximately 95 percent of returnees (102,000) were minority returnees. Of these, 24,000 returned to the Federation, 11,000 to the Republic Srpska, and 200 to Brcko district. UNHCR registered more than 3,800 organized repatriations, including some 2,000 from Yugoslavia, 1,000 from Croatia and 500 from Germany. Of these, some returned to become internally displaced within Bosnia.

Few Bosnian Croats living in Croatia have indicated a wish to return to Bosnia. Many of them occupy previously Serb-owned property, which they are reluctant to relinquish to the former owners.

UNHCR estimated that 17,000 Bosnian Serbs have returned to Bosnia in 2002, 15,000 of them from Yugoslavia. Exact numbers are unknown, as returnees cross freely between Bosnia and Yugoslavia without registering in the latter.

Since 1997 and 1998 – during which 120,000 and 110,000 refugees repatriated, respectively – the number of Bosnian refugees returning home from abroad has fallen substantially. However, returns in 2002 doubled from the previous year. The Dayton Peace Accords guarantee freedom of movement and right of refugees to return to their homes.

In August 2000, UNHCR urged asylum countries not to repatriate Bosnians belonging to one of five categories of people that the agency identified as still in need of international protection. These categories included 1) minority returnees, except those UNHCR could reasonably assess could be returned in safety and dignity, 2) humanitarian cases including the severely traumatized, war crimes witnesses, and those in need of special care, 3) persons of mixed ethnicity or in mixed marriages, 4) potentially stateless persons, and 5) other specific categories including Roma, draft evaders and deserters from the Bosnian Serb army, and former supporters of Fikret Abdic, who had a following among Bosnian Muslims in Bihac and sought a separate accommodation with the Serbs during the Bosnian war.

Internal Displacement

Displacement between the entities of the Federation and Republic Srpska accounted for most of the cases of internally displaced persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hundreds of thousands fled during the war to areas where their ethnicity was in a majority, and are reluctant to return home to where another ethnic group holds power. Displacement within the Federation or Republic Srpska resulted from both the Muslim-Croat war of 1993–94 and the appropriation of urban dwellings by rural displaced persons. Many displaced persons still occupy the homes of others who were displaced during the conflict, which presents a serious obstacle to return. At year's end 3,100 internally displaced persons were living in 48 collective centers, down 7,500 from the year before and 45,000 immediately following the war.

Internally displaced persons are largely dependant on international aid, as they are not covered by Bosnian public assistance. As with refugees, most internally displaced persons who returned to their homes in 2002 went back to areas where they were an ethnic minority.

Minority Returnees

In 2002, around 102,000 Bosnians (95 percent of all refugee and internally displaced returnees) returned to areas where they would be in the ethnic minority. Specifically, there were some 68,000 internally displaced minority returnees and some 34,000 refugee minority returnees during the year. About 39,000 of the total were Bosnian Serbs returning to the Federation, 38,000 were Bosnian Muslims returning to their homes in Republic Srpska, and 11,000 were Bosnian Croats returning to both entities. This was an increase of some 9 percent from 2001.

Improvement in the rule of law also facilitated minority returns. The renewed determination of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to implement Bosnia's property laws resulted in a higher success rate in restoring properties to their rightful owners during the year. Some 69 percent of persons who had submitted claims under Bosnia's property laws – 169,000 out of 246,000 claimants – had successfully repossessed their property by the end of December 2002. By contrast, the implementation rate was 37 percent in 2001, 21 percent in 2000, and only 3 percent in 1999. Claims had a better chance of being resolved in the Federation and Brcko (both 74 percent) than in Republic Srpska (62 percent). While local authorities in many cases continued to obstruct the return of properties to their rightful owners (particularly in eastern Republic Srpska and Croat-controlled areas of the Federation, such as Stolac, Glamoc, Drvar, and West Mostar), the overall results of implementing Bosnia's property laws during 2002 were an improvement from previous years. The Peace Implementation Council, a body of 55 countries and agencies that supports and monitors the implementation of the Dayton Accords, has endorsed the goal of resolving all property claims by the end of 2003.

Obstacles to Minority Returnees

Large numbers of minority returnees were elderly or otherwise not perceived as threatening to the controlling majority group. Obstruction by the resident ethnic majority in a variety of guises, particularly in Republic Srpska and Croat-controlled areas of the Federation, served as a powerful disincentive to – and in some cases simply prevented – the return of younger adults with children, who would be more likely to create an enduring minority presence. The education system is still divided along ethnic lines, each group with its own curricula, and most public institutions remain ethnically homogenous.

Property recovery and reconstruction programs were also insufficient. While the Property Law Implementation Plan program has been generally successful in restoring homes and properties to rightful owners, 80,000 claimants are still unable to recover pre-war property. One crucial shortcoming of this system is that Roma lack any legal entitlement to their pre-war residence and thus cannot file claims. International donors failed to provide the necessary funds for housing reconstruction, and without a significant increase in aid in this area the returns process could stall. Major donors such as UNHCR and the U.S. Agency for International Development have cut their levels of support substantially. At the end of 2002, UNHCR estimates there was a funding gap of 640 million dollars between what was available and what is required to rebuild the 66,500 housing units to which occupants seek to return.

Economic impediments also challenged the return of minorities. Approximately 45–55 percent of the population is below the poverty line. Job prospects are still extremely poor, with 40 percent of the working age population unemployed in the Federation and even more in Republic Srpska. Many minority returnees commute to majority areas in order to work. Employment discrimination is rampant, especially in the public sector, exacerbating the problems posed by the severely limited opportunities. Access to medical care, pensions, and utilities is also still unequal.

Despite significant improvements during the year, security continued to be concern for minority returnees in 2002. There has been a significant decrease in the number of violent incidents against returnees since 2000, dropping from over 300 to less than 200. Such crimes were both more frequent and more severe in Republic Srpska. Major incidents during the year include a returnee killed by an explosive device planted in his yard in Bratunac, Republic Srpska, a 66-year-old Bosnian Muslim shot at in Gorazde in the Federation, and the demolition of a minaret of a newly constructed mosque in Gacko in the Republic Srpska. Prosecution of perpetrators is still extremely rare, particularly in Republic Srpska. Property damage and physical threats are still common. The continued presence of war criminals highlights the overall culture of impunity that pervades the country and poses a significant deterrent for minority returnees.

Transit Migration

During 2002, Bosnia remained a key transit country for extra-regional asylum seekers and migrants, most of them attempting to reach Western Europe.

Several factors explain Bosnia's popularity as a gateway to the European Union. In addition to its porous borders, Bosnia has maintained a liberal visa policy for Turks, Tunisians, and nationals of other refugee- and migrant-producing countries. Organized criminal networks in the Balkans and widespread corruption among Bosnian border guards also contribute.

Responding to pressure from Western European countries, the Bosnian government imposed visa requirements on Iranians, who, along with Turks, formed the majority of extra-regional migrants and asylum seekers traveling to Western Europe by way of the Balkan route.

Bosnia also cooperated with Western European countries on border control during the year. In September, the United Kingdom deployed British immigration officers to Bosnia to train and advise the Bosnian State Border Service. The British immigration officials were reportedly to be joined by counterparts from Denmark, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Ireland, and France.

In July 2000, Bosnia signed a readmission agreement with Croatia, providing for the return of undocumented migrants to Bosnia.


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