FECL 42 (March 1996):

UNHCR PLANS FOR THE RETURN OF REFUGEES FROM FORMER YUGOSLAVIA

Almost daily, difficulties and set-backs are being reported in implementing the Dayton Agreement in the former Yugoslavia. Nobody knows what will happen once the IFOR operation comes to an end in autumn, and Bosnia and Hercegovina lies in shambles. But pressed by the host countries, the UNHCR is already planning in detail the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. "Voluntary" return to a "safe" country?

Sixty three per cent of all houses in Bosnia and Hercegovina (B&H) are damaged and 18 per cent completely destroyed. Seventy eight per cent of electricity production is crippled. The number of hospital beds has dropped by half since 1990 while infant mortality had doubled. This is the "home" to which some 1.3 internally displaced person and 1 million refugees in 25 mostly Western host countries are supposed to return. With temporary protection for war refugees from the former Yugoslavia being lifted in one host country after the other, hundreds of thousands of refugees have lost their right to stay and soon might have no other choice than "voluntary" repatriation encouraged by the host countries and organised by UNHCR.

 

UNHCR meeting in Oslo

An operational plan for regional return and repatriation movements was discussed at a conference chaired by the UNHCR in Oslo on 8 March. The conference was termed a "High-Level Working Meeting". However, the approximately 200 delegates met for only one day and there was no time for work or discussions. All the statements of the delegates, as well as the chairman's conclusions, had been written in advance. "The conference was more of a theatrical showpiece where national delegates recited their governments' preconceived standpoints, than a working meeting concentrating on the interests of the refugees", a Norwegian observer summed it up.

 

Voluntary of involuntary repatriation?

A central question about the repatriation of refugees to the republics on the territory of the former Yugoslavia is whether this return will be voluntary or forcible, and in the event of forcible return, which minimum criteria must be fulfilled regarding the safety of the returnees and the absorbtion capacity of the areas of return before people may be sent back against their will.

For the time being, there is no precise and legally binding international agreement on these crucial questions. As a consequence of the introduction of "temporary protection" schemes by Western European asylum countries, the question of voluntary or forcible return as well as the timing of repatriation operations is left to the discretion of the governments of the host countries. In Oslo, this was made very clear by, among others, the German government's representative who pointed out that the lifting of temporary protection is "a sovereign decision of Germany as much as of any other state who would wish to take such a decision". The lifting of temporary protection is a "clear signal for the temporary guests that their status is expiring", the German delegate continued, but stressed that this did not imply that the refugees would have to leave the country "immediately". After praising repatriation as "the best solution to a refugee situation", a representative for the Norwegian government said that "return on an involuntary basis should not be excluded".

 

UNHCR evasive on the issue of involuntary return

In the face of host countries' obvious hurry to repatriate as many refugees as possible as soon as possible, based on their own sovereign assessment of conditions of return, UNHCR is trying to persuade governments of the need for international coordination of return operations according to its own three-stage plan and has also set up a list of minimum criteria that should be met in the areas of return before refugees may be sent back. These so-called "benchmarks" are: 1. Amnesties for prisoners of war and deserters. 2. Functioning of the IFOR forces in compliance with the Dayton Agreement; 3. Functioning of local human rights monitoring structures in the whole of B&H.

However, as the UNHCR criteria are fairly sketchy and non-binding, they allow for extensive interpretation by each host country government. As for the UNHCR's three-stage plan for return, Germany, the country with most temporary refugees from Yugoslavia, made it plain in Oslo that it will repatriate its refugees according to its own agenda rather than following UNHCR recommendations. All this shows clearly that UNHCR has little means at its disposal to prevent host countries from forcibly sending back refugees.

Instead of protecting the rights of the refugees in the host countries, UNHCR is now concentrating on drawing up organisational structures aimed at technically facilitating return, thereby taking the risk of participating in an operation that might prove disastrous to the refugees concerned. While two NGOs, ICRA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies) and ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles) strongly oppose any involuntary movement of refugees or internally displaced persons, UNHCR says that returns must be voluntary "at an initial stage".

 

UNHCR Plan of operation

In a document presented at the Oslo meeting, UNHCR names the fulfilment of its benchmarks and the creation of absorption capacities in returnee areas of B&H as conditions for the implementation of its repatriation and return plan. Under the Dayton agreement, Bosnian refugees may vote by absentee ballot in the forthcoming elections in B&H. The UNHCR states that taking part in the ballot does not imply a legal obligation to return - an obvious rebuke to Germany, which has announced that all Bosnians who vote will be sent back.

The success of the return and repatriation plan depends, inter alia, on the provision of "timely and detailed statistical information" both by the countries providing temporary protection to Bosnians and to prospective returnees on the situation prevailing in the areas of return. The UNHCR document emphasises the problem created by land-mines and booby traps set up in deserted houses. The removal of the devices will take years and their presence threatens to "diminish the momentum of return".

While the document focuses on the situation in B&H, it notes that the problem of refugees also affects the FRY (Serbia and Montenegro), Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia. This requires a "regional and even-handed approach to assistance".

According to the initial assumption following the signing of the Dayton Agreement, 500,000 internally displaced people and 370,000 refugees were to return during 1996. The tentative time-frame for the return of all temporary refugees and displaced persons is only two years from the signing of the Dayton agreement. It is clear today, says UNHCR, that these are "maximum figures contingent on security, funding, immediate large-scale reconstruction and mine clearance keeping pace with the actual rhythm of return and repatriation".

 

Reality on the ground contrasts with return plans

First experiences with "pilot projects" involving the return of Muslim Bosnians to areas now under Croat control illustrate the problems that might soon arise at a much larger scale. Thus, all of 100 Muslim families offered return to Croat-controlled Stolac, have so far refused to move. "In addition to the need for reconstruction, most of the Bosnian Muslims cite lack of adequate security guarantees as another obstacle to return", the UNHCR document explains.

The Bosnian Government informed the UNHCR that the local authorities in the municipalities of intended return will have to confirm the availability of accommodation prior to assisted repatriation movements.

Further "pilot projects" are planned in eastern Slavonia (Croatia), "when the conditions for return are safe".

Some 30,000 Croatian Serbs with asylum in the FRY wish to repatriate, but Croatian authorities have informed the UNHCR that repatriation of their citizens of Serb ethnicity from the FRY will have to await the outcome of the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries.

All this indicates that it is premature to even discuss large-scale return programmes at this time. Nonetheless, UNHCR activities in former Yugoslavia will focus on monitoring "trends and developments affecting returnees", "promoting equal treatment of returnees", and "intervening with national and local authorities, when the return process may be threatened".

With the publication of regularly up-dated Repatriation Information Reports, UNHCR will try to provide equal access of refugees to objective information on conditions in their intended areas of relocation.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will be responsible for all operational and logistical aspects of organised international repatriation movements. The UNHCR recommends the easing of transit visa requirements for returnees. Hungary has offered to host a consultation on this.

In the meantime, the temporary refugees in the Western host countries will continue to live in a state of constant legal insecurity and under the permanent threat of being sent "home" too early.

 

Sources: UNHCR: Operational Plan for durable solutions within the framework of Annex 7 of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Hercegovina and related regional return and repatriation movements, 27.2.96, HLWM/ 1996/1 Distr. restricted; The Chairman's Summing Up of the Oslo Meeting, 8.3.96; Rainbow Anti-Racist Organisation, Tromsoe, Norway, Email: tvik@stud.isv.uit.no; Recommendations ICVA/ECRE Reference Group on former Yugoslavia, 5/6.2.96.