Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Refugees in Limbo

Bosnian refugees in Slovenia are being made to feel unwelcome but are unable to return home.
By Andrea Accardi

Safija is an 18-year-old Bosnian refugee from Doboj. Although she arrived in Slovenia eight years ago, she is still yearning for some semblance of a normal life.


Safija is one of just over 3,000 refugees who fled to Slovenia at the height of the Bosnian war. They received a generally warm reception, but the generosity soon began to wane.


The Law on Temporary Refuge, introduced in April 1997, condemned the refugees to perpetual limbo, denying them indefinitely the rights of full residents. The legislation entitles them to accommodation, education, medicine and humanitarian assistance, but omits other key provisions - particularly the right to full-time employment.


Though trained as a nurse, Safija is not permitted to work more than eight hours a week. Unable to find a part-time job, she wanders aimlessly around her neighbourhood, bored and frustrated.


On a more mundane level, refugees cannot, for example, take their driving test because the temporary collective centres where they live are not recognised as permanent addresses.


The refugees say these restrictions have left them in legal limbo and prevented their integration into Slovene society. People like Safija are left wondering whether they will ever be able to settle down. Their acceptance as permanent residents seems as distant as a safe return to Bosnia.


For many of the 3,200 refugees, returning home to Bosnia is still not an option. Almost 90 per cent of them come from the Republika Srpska. The security situation in the region remains a problem and obstacles are still put in the way of would-be returnees reclaiming their homes and jobs.


Discussions have been ongoing for the last few months between the Slovene office for immigration and refugees and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to find a solution for the unsatisfactory status of the Bosnian refugees.


Legal officer for the UNHCR in Ljubljana Annabel Roig said that after either years, they are pressing for an end to temporary status. She said the UNHCR has received a mixed response from government officials: some favoured an end to temporary status but others still insisted on repatriation as the best solution for the refugees. A final decision is expected before the summer.


Although repatriation could be acceptable for some, Roig said it was still very difficult, particularly for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) to return to their homes in Republika Srpska.


Refugees are often confronted by harassment and intimidation when they return. Reclaiming their old homes and finding employment are made especially difficult by uncooperative and often hostile local authorities.


In June 1999, for example, the local government in Banja Luka intervened to prevent the burial of the city's local mufti on the site of the demolished Ferhadija mosque. The UN High Commission for Human Rights ruled that the Islamic community had been discriminated against.


While returning home seems a distant prospect, there is not much hope of the refugees settling in Slovenia even if the dispute over their status is resolved.


The ability of Bosnian refugees' to integrate into Slovenian society were they to be granted permanent residence is being steadily undermined by their total dependency on the state. Nongovernmental organisations like Slovenska Filantropija insist that temporary refugee status is seriously affecting the Bosnians self-sufficiency.


The refugees, meanwhile, are being made to feel unwelcome by Slovenes, who see them as an increasing burden on the state. During the Bosnian war, people were sympathetic to the plight of those fleeing the conflict and persecution. But there is now a growing hostility towards them. Nowadays, it is not unusual to read "Bosnians Go Home" scrawled on the walls around Ljubljana.


Andrea Accardi is a journalist in Ljubljana.


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