NGOs and international organisations working in South-Eastern Europe fear that donor fatigue is setting in just as conditions for return are starting to fall into place in many parts of the region. Although there is still much instability, with continuing tension between Montenegro and Serbia, along with uncertainty about the ultimate future of Kosovo, there are also many hopeful developments. The new government in Croatia has made commitments to allow return, while the numbers of minorities returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) have quadrupled. In this context, donors are urged to allow sufficient time and to provide adequate resources to ensure that returns are sustainable and can take place.
Concerns and perspectives on the issue were voiced during a conference of the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on the former Yugoslavia held in Montenegro under the heading Refugee Return in South-Eastern Europe: Rights and Realities in June 2000. The two-day meeting brought together operational and advocacy NGOs from the region and from other parts of Europe and North America, along with inter-governmental representatives.
Those present stressed the importance of return as being intrinsically bound up with the establishment of multiethnic and multicultural societies which provide a framework for return, reconciliation and reintegration. The hope is that all European states will remain committed to ethnic diversity. Yet such societies will only become a reality if minority returns happen. In some senses, return is a litmus test of how far the states in the region have come in this respect. Looking specifically at BiH, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo (albeit that Kosovo is still technically part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) it was felt that there is still a long way to go. The participants stressed that the realpolitik acceptance by some Western governments of ethnic separation and the abandonment of minority return is simply not acceptable.
Forcible and premature return often for domestic political reasons is not only counter-productive, but also unsustainable and could destabilise the region. In the first four months of this year, the number of minority returns to BiH was four times greater than during the same period last year. However, while many improvements have been made, there is much work to be done to ensure that minority return can take place as several obstacles still stand in the way. The biggest obstacle is the lack of security for minorities.
Return in safety, dignity and with a means of livelihood
In some cases, minority returns have helped to improve security conditions, while in other areas the return of minorities has led to increased ethnic tension. However, encouraging return to areas where security is problematic is unacceptable. Security should be ensured prior to promoting return, thus maintaining the long-standing principle that return should be carried out in safety. The conference urged that protection needs to be maintained for vulnerable groups, and that asylum countries should err on the side of caution when considering when it is safe to return.
In Kosovo, for example, it is simply not possible for minorities to return at this time. This particularly applies to Serbs, many of whom live in enclaves surrounded by hostile communities. In the worst instances, many are being targeted and killed.
Other problems blocking minority return include the lack of housing and often the lack of a legal framework to ensure that houses are returned to their owners. The attitudes of politicians in many areas have discouraged the return of minorities. Currently, many of the returnees (or prospective returnees) are elderly or from other specific vulnerable groups, such as those with health needs. The conference urged that the special needs of such groups be taken into account in return schemes. Many elderly people want to fulfil the basic desire to spend their last years in their home. The international community should help them to achieve this.
Without job opportunities, the younger generations incentive to return is minimal. To encourage it, efforts to establish a viable economy in the region need to continue.
The need for a regional approach
Many of the participants viewed return as a regional issue. Yet the question of regional stability will remain unanswered as long as Serbia remains isolated in the region. With the largest caseload of refugees and displaced persons in Europe, there will be no hope of sustainable peace without the return of those displaced living in Serbia.
A political resolution to the situation in Kosovo is also needed. With an undefined political future, much uncertainty remains. The conference still hoped that the Stability Pact would provide a framework for improving regional stability, and consequently return. However, much concern was expressed about the structure and functioning of the pact. In particular, the interface between the pact and the NGO community needs to be greatly enhanced.
Several Western governments are forcing return to take place prematurely. Such impatience does not take the protection of the refugees into consideration, but instead reflects domestic concerns and the views of more hostile sections of the population. Such actions could contribute to destabilisation in the region, and increase the numbers of displaced. In one example, the German government returned Muslims to BiH. Once there, they could not return to their original houses. As a result, they were forced to live as displaced persons within BiH, adding to an already huge internally displaced population. Their return displaced others, or created yet another barrier to the return of refugees outside the country as they occupied others homes.
The conference urged asylum-country governments to learn from these mistakes, and not to force return where inappropriate. It stressed that time was needed for successful return to happen: it is an extended process, which requires the continuing investment of financial and human resources on the part of asylum countries.
Often, foreign ministries are aware of the problems that premature return can bring. However, in many countries decisions concerning return are taken by interior ministries. There is a clear need for more coordination between ministries so as to ensure that return takes place in a planned manner, and that the best interests of the refugees are the primary consideration.
The role of the non-governmental sector
The current instability in South-Eastern Europe means that further conflict may break out in the region. Along with adding to the human misery that so many have suffered in that part of the world over the last 10 years, any conflict would also produce further flows of refugees and IDPs. The importance of a strong civil society, both in preventing further conflict and dealing with the consequences of past conflict, cannot be understated. Across Europe, and specifically within this region, there is a growing capacity within the non-governmental sector which has found strength through networking and learning from its own experience, and the experience of others in the field. This has enabled NGOs to play a greater role in the reconstruction of the regions societies. Guided as they are by human-rights principles and respect for minorities, their voice is increasingly being heard within governmental and inter-governmental forums.
The ECRE/ICVA Reference Group has as a key objective enhancing the role played by NGOs. At such a crucial time in the region, the conference was deliberately held in Montenegro. International NGOs have upheld standards and paved the way in facing the issue of return. They have also built links with other NGOs in Europe and the region. The conference called for those links to be enhanced. Working in partnership with UNHCR, donors and other inter-governmental organisations, NGOs can help maintain the primacy of the needs of the individual refugee. Return is a long-term issue, which must not be abandoned.
A more detailed report from the June conference and previous conferences of the ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on the former Yugoslavia can be obtained from the ECRE website: www.ecre.org. The website also has information on other activities of the Reference Group and of ECRE. Information on the activities of ICVA can be obtained from its website at: www.icva.ch.
International Crisis Group, Preventing Minority Return in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Anatomy of Hate and Fear, www.intl-crisis-group.org, August 1999.
International Crisis Group, Reunifying Mostar: Opportunities for Progress, www.intl-crisis-group.org, April 2000.