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Return to Uncertainty: Kosovo’s Internally Displaced and The Return Process

To access this report in Serbo-Croat, please click here. To access it in Albanian, please click here.

The right of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo is indisputable, and has become a top priority of the international community, and the United Nations Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

If handled well, return could improve relations among ethnic groups, strengthen the position of minority communities already living in the province, and contribute to a gradual denouement among previously conflicting communities. However, if returns are overly politicised and mismanaged, they have the potential to jeopardize the already precarious existence of minorities. In short, the way returns are planned and implemented is critical to the long-term sustainability of the process.

The record of the international community on the returns process has been mixed. Out of more than 230,000 displaced individuals, only 5,800 have returned. While it is still only three years after the war, Kosovo presents a very challenging environment for return. Freedom of movement, access to housing and land, employment opportunities, availability of public services for minorities, and the attitudes of the receiving community are all barriers.

To address these challenges, UNMIK’s Office of Returns and Communities (ORC) has developed a new strategy and restructured the manner in which it coordinates projects. While the strategy has not been fully implemented, it is largely a step in the right direction. Now the ORC has to ensure that it avoids the bureaucratisation of the returns process and maintains a close working relationship with its key partners – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and KFOR – as well as manages the tricky political dimensions caused by the shadow of final status.

The unresolved nature of Kosovo’s status affects returns in two ways. First, it politicises the issue of Serb returnees. For the international community, the return of Serbs to their homes would ensure that the 1999 NATO intervention and the subsequent international presence did not lead to the creation of a mono-ethnic Kosovo. Moreover, it would help convince the Security Council that the time is ripe to begin final status discussions. Meanwhile, the Serbian government requires returns for its own political objective – the partition or cantonisation of Kosovo.

Secondly, the focus of the diplomatic community has largely been on the numbers of individuals returning, rather than ensuring that the process is conducted according to international principles. These dictate that return should be voluntary; conducted in safety, dignity, and security; and the risks be monitored.

Several incidents – although rare – are disturbing reminders that returnees are not coming back to a welcoming environment. In July 2002, a chilling poster of a young Albanian child being killed (presumably by a Serb) appeared on the streets of major cities in Kosovo with the subtitle “Don’t let the criminals return”. In October, Serb returnees came to Peje/Pec by bus for pension registration. This caused a protest that escalated into stone-throwing and petrol bombs. While Albanian leaders have universally condemned such events, their activities to support returns have rarely been more than rhetorical. Although Prime Minister Rexhepi has been exemplary in support of minority communities and returnees, President Rugova has remained silent and inactive. Given the predominance of his LDK party in municipal and central structures, his leadership on this issue is sorely needed.

A multitude of actors – from international agencies to non-governmental organisations – are engaged in returns. This report outlines the extreme divergence of returns policy and methods in two regions - the Peje/Pec area and the Gjilan/Gnjilane region. While these areas are quite different, a comparison of the return process in the two provides lessons that are applicable throughout Kosovo.

While both have seen relatively equal numbers of returns, conditions are not conducive in the Peje/Pec region. In projects to date, the international community paid more attention to numbers and less to preparing the conditions for return. The villages lacked access to essential services, dialogue with the receiving community did not take place, and income generation and access to public services were not addressed until after returnees arrived. In Gjilan/Gnjilane, dialogue with the receiving community, support to income generation activities, and access to public services were dealt with as part of the overall planning for returns. The manner in which return is conducted has a huge impact on relations among communities, the conditions returnees experience, and the overall sustainability of the process.

A comparison of these two locations reveals that sustainable return requires close attention to the application of international principles, smart security, strong coordination mechanisms, and the support of the receiving community. The success of the Gjilane/Gnjilane region also demonstrates that return in conditions of safety and dignity is possible in Kosovo at this time – but there must be careful planning and thought.

The late success of the returns process in Bosnia demonstrates that progress is not necessarily linear, and time must often pass before significant advances are made. The international community must be realistic in its expectations for Kosovo. While it is unclear how many IDPs will return, it is highly unlikely that large numbers of displaced will come back in the near future. However, all must be given the opportunity to exercise this right to return in safety and in dignity.


To the International Community:

1. Make it a top priority that international principles governing the return of IDPs are applied in Kosovo rather than emphasising the number of returnees.

2. Provide financial support to returns, including by ensuring that minority areas receive their fair share of resources, and by giving backing to cross-boundary NGOs and projects that include dialogue and income generation components.

3. Improve the conditions for return through the creation of incentive structures, such as preferences during the tender process for companies with a multi-ethnic staff.

4. Provide donor resources early enough in the year so that individuals can return, rebuild their homes, and achieve some degree of self-sustainability before the onset of the next winter.

To the United Nations Mission in Kosovo:

5. Ensure that the restructuring plan of the Office of Returns and Communities is supported and adhered to by regional and municipal levels of UNMIK.

6. Ensure that the Security Transition Strategy, and the transfer of responsibilities from KFOR to UNMIK police, does not leave returnee communities vulnerable.

7. Provide concrete incentives, such as financial benefits, for municipalities to increase reconstruction assistance levels to minority communities.

8. Document and take tough measures – including dismissal – against officials who obstruct returns.

9. Make the processing of claims at The Housing and Property Directorate (HPD) more expeditious.

To the Office of Returns and Communities (ORC):

10. Create a model area for return in Gjilan/Gnjilane, where donors, NGOs, and other implementing agencies can gather experiences and lessons.

11. Ensure that assistance for returns is based on need, not ethnicity, and correct any existing inequity paid to Roma, Ashkaelie, Egyptian and Bosniak IDPs.

12. Develop an information campaign as part of the Returns Strategy to ensure that messages that reach IDPs are consistent and clear.

13. Include in the Returns Strategy initiatives to continue engagement with individuals and communities that have already returned to encourage them to stay.

14. Increase ORC staff in Serbia and Montenegro and use the UN liaison office in Skopje to ensure that the ORC message reaches the IDP and refugee communities and ORC is able to effectively coordinate the returns process.

15. Broaden efforts to inform returnees of job opportunities in the public sector, set aside for them in the law that established the civil service.

16. Monitor the extensive review process for return projects and consider reducing the number of review stages that a proposal has to pass through if the process proves too time consuming.


17. Provide guidance to donors by documenting and publicly voicing concerns about the return process.

18. Increase advocacy efforts on behalf of non-Serb minorities.

To The Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG):

19. Ensure that the provision of public services and utilities is equitable, and equal opportunity and access to municipal and ministerial funds and employment extends to all communities.

20. Follow the example of Prime Minister Rexhepi and engage in activities – such as visiting returnee areas – that demonstrate commitment to the return process.

21. Dismiss officials who obstruct returns.

To Belgrade:

22. Coordinate efforts with UNMIK’s Office of Returns and Communities, and ensure that any assistance given by the Coordination Centre for Kosovo does not exacerbate cleavages between communities.

23. Enhance freedom of movement for returnees and others by recognising the new Kosovo license plates.

To Serb Political Parties:

24. Utilise UNMIK’s public services and undertake efforts to engage with the majority community.

Pristina/Brussels, 13 December 2002


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