Saturday, December 21, 2013
Vesna Peric Zimonjic
- The new government of Serbia is trying to tackle one of the most sensitive problems it inherited from Slobodan Milosevic’s regime: the plight of more than 700,000 Serb refugees who fled the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
In co-operation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government began to count the refugees last week. A team of 750 volunteers will conduct the census in all 180 municipalities of Serbia, until the end of March.
“Our first aim is to establish the exact number of the refugees”, Sanda Raskovic Ivic, Serbia’s new Commissioner for Refugees, told journalists earlier this month. “Our second aim is to find out whether hundreds of thousands of refugees want to settle in Serbia for good, or want to go back to their homes.”
Some three million out of 24 million inhabitants of the former federation do not live where they used to live before the wars erupted in 1991, according to the UNHCR.
Serbia was blamed for starting the wars in Croatia and Bosnia at the beginning of the 1990s. But, at the same time, Serbia itself hosted some 700,000 Serbs who fled Croatia. Serbia, with a population of some 7.5 million, became the country with the largest refugee population in the region.
In 1999, Serbia was flooded with another wave of refugees. This time some 200,000 Serbs from southern Kosovo fled into Serbia fearing atrocities by returning ethnic Albanians after the end of the air raids by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
At the time of the air raids, from March until June 1999, Serbian security forces forced some 800,000 ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. Those Serbs, who have been categorised as displaced persons by UNHCR, will not be included into the current census.
About 250,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia live in and around the capital Belgrade. Some 260,000 are in the northern region of Vojvodina. The rest are scattered all over Serbia. UNHCR has resettled some 30,000 to third countries, mostly to Canada and Australia, since 1995.
The census in Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up Federal Yugoslavia, was completed in December. The UNHCR statistics show that 14,400 refugees live in Montenegro. Some 10,600 come from Bosnia and 3,800 from Croatia. Montenegro has a population of 650,000.
“The new government has an obligation towards the refugees, either to help them settle here or repatriate them elsewhere,” Petar Ladjevic, advisor to Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica told journalists last week.
Ladjevic himself, like Raskovic Ivic, is a Serb refugee from Croatia.
Part of the funding to solve the refugees’ problems is expected come from the European Union’s Stability Pact for Balkans. “Yugoslavia has no money to solve the problem of refugees,” Ladjevic says. “We rely on foreign aid”.
The Pact comprises all the Balkans countries, including countries born out of former Yugoslav federation, like Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Federal Yugoslavia joined the Stability pact last year after the fall from power of Milosevic and his regime.
Under Milosevic’s regime, refugees were denied Yugoslav citizenship, which meant they were deprived of jobs, or property rights. In the impoverished country, where their basic needs were broadly neglected, refugees often described themselves as “second class citizens”.
“Besides those who lost their lives in wars, refugees were the biggest victims of wars, but they were not allowed to express themselves under Milosevic”, says Milorad Muratovic, head of the Belgrade-based Association for Helping the Refugees, a non- governmental organisation (ngo).
Figures compiled by the Association in the past two years show that only three per cent of refugees in Serbia have a living standard above the average.
“The rest live out of gray economy, sharing the poverty and destiny of millions in Serbia”, Muratovic explains. “Refugees were treated as a burden, not loved by locals. They were often blamed for wars and hardships in Serbia itself.”
Belgrade has been punished for its role in wars in the former Yugoslavia with two strict international economic sanctions, since 1992. Once the most prosperous country in the region, it was turned into a pariah nation, with its economy dropping to its lowest since WW II.
“We have to scan the desires of the refugees, regarding their wish to stay, return or leave for third countries”, says Vesna Petkovic of the UNHCR office in Belgrade.
Both Serbian government and UNHCR will present the results of the census to a donor’s conference in May.
Several weeks ago, Serbian parliament adopted a law to enable all Serb refugees to acquire Yugoslav citizenship, easing their formal status in the country.
But many refugees are skeptical. “When I left Vukovar (Croatia) in 1991, I thought I’d go back in a matter of weeks” says Mirjana Slavkovic, a 41-year-old mother of two. “Look what year it is now. I did all the odd jobs just to survive. My children are now grown up. They don’t remember Croatia and don’t want to go back. Myself, I don’t know what to do. It’s not good there and it’s bad here”.