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The Continuing Challenge Of Refugee Return In Bosnia & Herzegovina

To access this report in Bosnian, please click here.

In preparing for and orchestrating the proximity talks that marked the end of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), the authors of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) placed a particularly high priority on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their pre-war homes. Annex 7 of the DPA is devoted entirely to ensuring the right of return. The peacemakers hoped that such return might one day reverse the territorial, political and national partition of the country that the DPA otherwise recognised.

While the first four years of peace saw large-scale return by both refugees and internally displaced persons to areas where their own nations were a majority, the chauvinist agendas and entrenched power structures of the nationalist parties kept “minority” returns to a minimum. By 2000, however, there was a surprising reversal. Not only has this trend continued, as ordinary people seek to return to their pre-war homes in ever-larger numbers, but it has begun to alter the prevailing political climate in much of the country.

The results of Bosnia's fourth post-war general elections on 5 October 2002 seemed to point in the opposite direction. They were widely interpreted by the international media and some of the domestic press as an unalloyed victory for the nationalist parties that made and fought the war – and had done their worst since to preserve its spoils, including the homogenisation achieved by "ethnic cleansing". The outcome was seen as an ominous setback for efforts to put the complex multinational state recreated in Dayton on the path to stability, legitimacy, prosperity and European integration.

The Cassandras overlooked several factors. Not only did support for two of the three nationalist parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Serb Democratic Party (SDS), decline, but the latter faced its most serious challenge to date from the moderate Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). This was sufficient to undermine its longstanding claim to be the natural party of government in "its" entity, Republika Srpska (RS). Moreover, the votes of returnees and potential returnees, voting in absentia, have begun to affect politics, permitting Federation-based parties to claim 17 per cent of the seats in the RS National Assembly in the October elections.

The media also failed to consider that the biggest losers, the multinational Social Democratic Party (SDP) that had led the "Alliance for Change" in the Federation and on the state level, may have done most to contrive their own defeat. In any case, the low turnout (55 per cent) was as much a vote against politics-as-normal as for nationalism.

Perhaps more remarkably, the press missed the story of the more than 367,000 Bosnians who have "voted with their feet" against partition and returned to live as "minorities" in areas governed by former foes. Years of international effort to open up returns through targeted reconstruction assistance – and to ensure that refugees and displaced persons have every opportunity to reclaim pre-war residences – have borne fruit. Official figures show that some 900,000 people have returned to homes from which they fled or were expelled during the war. High Representative Ashdown can reasonably claim that "we’ve invented a new human right here, the right to return after a war."

The Peace Implementation Council will consider refugee issues in January 2003. There are worrying indications, however, that impressed by recent success in creating and implementing a legal framework for repossessing pre-war housing, it may declare Annex 7 officially "implemented" before the job is done. That would suit the authorities in RS and parts of the Federation who are keen to equate property law implementation with actual return and close the book before creating the conditions that make return sustainable. Yet Annex 7 makes clear that the Bosnian authorities must also create the "political, social and economic conditions conducive to the voluntary return and harmonious reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, without preference for any particular group".

While highlighting the positive role return has had in moderating nationalist politics in some areas, this report examines why many refugees are not yet in a position to choose freely where they will live. Depressed economic conditions are part of the answer. Discrimination in many municipalities prevents the full realisation of potential returns, threatens the sustainability of achieved returns and encourages returnees who do stay to huddle in enclaves rather than to reintegrate.

The Bosnian authorities' gradual acquiescence, under pressure, in the right to reclaim pre-war housing has not been matched by willingness to eliminate the institutionalised discrimination that condemns many "minority" returnees to second-class citizenship. While high unemployment afflicts BiH in general, returnees face particular obstacles, including flawed privatisation. Bosnia's education system, with three separate and politically charged curricula, is another reason often cited by families with children for not returning, as is discrimination in accessing utilities, healthcare and pensions.

Although the security situation has improved considerably, intimidation of "minority" returnees still occurs. Local police, prosecutors and courts often fail to bring those responsible for nationally motivated violence to book. In some parts of the RS a returnee is ten times more likely to be the victim of violent crime than is a local Serb. Even where the actual threat may be low, the continuing presence of putative war criminals – especially if in public office – sends a message to potential returnees.

Nationalist authorities also create economic incentives for "their" people to relocate through the often-illegal distribution of building plots and business premises, with the apparent intention of ensuring that returnees remain a poor minority.

This report also analyses the impact of recent amendments to the constitutions of Bosnia's two entities. These aim to eliminate discrimination by annulling the special constitutional status once accorded Serbs in the RS and Bosniaks and Croats in the Federation and require local administrations to hire returnees according to national quotas, based on the population in the last, pre-war census. If implemented, these amendments will give returnees greater opportunity to defend their interests.

The partial nationalist victory in October prompted some commentators to suggest the time had come for the international community to give up on its multinational experiment in BiH and accept a final partition. The will of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons to return has already rendered such a division nearly impossible, barring more war and "ethnic cleansing". The experiences of Cyprus, Kashmir and many other cases demonstrate the perils of partition. Bosnian returnees have rejected the nationalist programs, encapsulated in the wartime refrain that "we cannot live with these people anymore", by returning to their pre-war homes. The viability of the Bosnian state and the stability of the region depend in large measure upon whether they can stay and prosper.


To the Peace Implementation Council, High Representative and international organisations and donors:

1. Resist the temptation to declare prematurely that Annex 7 has been implemented and hold domestic authorities to the requirement that they create the "political, social and economic conditions conducive to the voluntary return and harmonious reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, without preference for any particular group".

2. Insist that cantonal and municipal authorities implement the reforms demanded by the 2002 amendments to the entity constitutions which require "fair representation" of "constituent peoples" and ensure that other national power-sharing arrangements are implemented consistently.

3. Consider promoting staff exchanges between the entities, particularly in areas where proximity makes commuting across former confrontation lines easy, in order to facilitate the national reintegration of local administrations required by the constitutional amendments.

4. Step up efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices against returnees in accessing employment, pre-war property, healthcare, pensions and other social benefits.

To international donors, international financial institutions and investors:

5. Consider increasing, or at least do not decrease, funds for housing reconstruction and economic sustainability projects in 2003-04, taking advantage of the belated opportunity offered by the rising tide of interest in return on the part of Bosnian refugees of all nations.

6. Work with the BiH governments to create an economic development strategy based on the model of economic regions, exerting pressure to reform laws and regulations that discourage investment, ironing out regulatory discrepancies that divide Bosnia's economic space, and wherever possible, conditioning donations, loans and investments on employment opportunities for returnees.

7. Target specific sanctions against entity and canton governments where the police and judiciary fail to investigate and prosecute crimes against returnees.

To the Return and Reconstruction Task Force (RRTF), Office of the High Representative (OHR) and entity and cantonal governments:

8. Require entity and cantonal governments to increase budgetary support of the return process, so that each devotes perhaps some 10 per cent of its budget to funding reconstruction of housing and infrastructure, provision of alternative accommodation and initiation of sustainability projects.

9. Bolster the Joint Project Fund at the state level, with one account to be managed by a board consisting of representatives of the cantonal, entity and state refugee ministries – and if need be regulate it through High Representative Decisions – so that it can better support refugee return under the State Commission for Refugees and Displaced Persons, which in turn should be encouraged to:

(a) set assistance priorities;

(b) apply transparent criteria in the selection of beneficiaries;

(c) oversee tenders and the identification of beneficiaries; and

(d) monitor project implementation.

10. Do not transfer RRTF functions to BiH authorities until domestic capacity has been developed, in particular until the Joint Project Fund administered by the State Commission for Refugees is fully functional.

To the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE):

11. Accelerate efforts to reform Bosnia's divided education system, in particular by facilitating agreement on a common core curriculum and standards and assessment agency, while pushing for interim arrangements to allow returnees to take "national subjects" according to the curriculum of their choice and for the hiring of returnee teachers, in line with the Interim Agreement on Special Needs of Returnee Children.

To OHR and the entity governments:

12. Examine the relationship between the cantons and municipalities in the Federation and the entity ministries and municipalities in the RS with a view to enabling municipalities to collect, control and be accountable for more of their own revenues.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 13 December 2002


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