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

Legislating For Refugee Returns In Bosnia

Bosnia's High Representative has imposed new laws to speed refugee returns. But the reduction of NATO troops may mean it could all end in violence.
By Janez Kovac

Fed up with political obstructions to refugee returns, Bosnia's top international official, Wolfgang Petritsch, has imposed new laws to speed the process.

The new legislation introduces a system of penalties for uncooperative authorities. It also aims to force local leaders to establish efficient housing offices, to allow the courts to be independent and to build additional housing where necessary.

"Four years after the Dayton Agreement, hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people are still deprived of access to their apartments, houses, business premises, and land," Petritsch said in a television address on October 27. "I cannot accept this. It violates the Dayton Agreement, the Constitution of your country and every international human rights convention there is."

Return of refugees to their pre-war homes was a key provision of the 1995 Dayton peace accord, the agreement that ended the Bosnian war and redesigned the country's constitution and legal framework.

The agreement promised some 2.5 million displaced Bosnians, both within the country and abroad, the right to return to their places of origin. However, the de facto partition of Bosnia into mutually hostile, ethnic enclaves has obstructed the process. The few Bosnians who have dared cross the former front lines to visit or claim their pre-war property have often been welcomed by angry mobs organised by local war-lords.

On numerous occasions, returnees have been harassed or attacked, their houses and property vandalised. In other cases, people who moved into abandoned houses or apartments during the war have simply refused to leave them once the original owners wanted to come back. Claims and requests, filed by ethnic minorities who want to return, have all too often been delayed or "lost" by local housing bureaucracy.

In order to avoid violence, international agencies working to promote returns have adopted a gradualist approach. Instead of free return for everybody, they have worked towards a slower but safer, organised return.

The lead agency, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), started negotiating with local authorities, in the hope that after invariably long and painstaking talks, larger groups of refugees would be able to return to their homes under peacekeepers' protection.

Four years later, however, some 1.2 million Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims still have not returned home. International officials calculate that at the current pace, it will take 22 years for all refugees to return to the Muslim-Croat Federation, and 40 years for the refugees to return to Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-controlled half of the country.

The law imposed by Petritsch has cancelled all previous residency permits. It gives local housing offices a maximum of 90 days to process claims and requests. The police then have 15 to 90 days to evict illegal occupants, by force if necessary.

In case local authorities fail to meet the strict deadlines, housing offices and its employees face fines of between 500 and 5,000 German marks. In addition, Petritsch warned that extremely uncooperative or unprofessional officials would be dismissed.

"The authorities are elected to serve the citizens and not the other way around. The citizens must become aware that they have certain rights, and that those rights are individual, universal and unconditional," said a joint statement issued by the leading international agencies, all of which support the imposed law.

"For too long now there has been gross political obstruction to the property and housing laws and many of those in authority have tacitly accepted the illegal occupation of many thousands of homes. Illegal occupation of property will no longer be acceptable," the statement read.

The ruling ethnic parties have not commented on the new law, and the international agencies say it is too soon for the legislation to have any effects on the ground.

Ethnic minorities and opposition parties have welcomed the new law, but point out that they, nevertheless, object to some of its provisions.

Those refugees who did not own their homes outright, but lived in socially-owned property before the war, are given 90 days to return to their homes upon receiving positive responses from housing offices. If they don't return in that period, they lose those housing permits.

In practical terms, this means that they will be obliged to return to their pre-war homes fast, or lose them, even if conditions for returnees remain hostile. This idea scares both refugees and some international officials, since many towns and villages are still run by the same individuals who carried out ethnic killings, purges and evictions in 1992 and 1993.

"I am not sure I like this new law," said 67-year old Muhamed Lemez, a Muslim who fled his socially owned apartment in Bosnian Croat-dominated west Mostar in 1993. "I don't think the time is yet ripe for me to go back. But when my claim is cleared I either have to go back immediately, or I lose my apartment forever."

Since the local police throughout Bosnia has failed to demonstrate that it can guarantee the security of returning ethnic minorities, the burden of ensuring a safe environment may fall on the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR), which is set to decline from the current 30,000 to about 20,000 in the next few months.

Although SFOR's commander, US Gen. Ronald Emerson Adams, stresses that the reduced force will "remain highly mobile and able to respond in a robust way when necessary", many question whether it is equipped to deal with unorganised, individual returns throughout the country.

As one international aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, commented, "This is a good law. But it is risky."

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a journalist from Sarajevo.