Serbia: Refugee Plan Slated

A government scheme to help hundreds of thousands of refugees has been dismissed as ill-conceived and unrealistic.

Serbia: Refugee Plan Slated

A government scheme to help hundreds of thousands of refugees has been dismissed as ill-conceived and unrealistic.

An ambitious plan to solve Serbia's huge refugee crisis has drawn criticism from refugees themselves and from experts who doubt the government will find the necessary funds to implement it.

The scheme, which has taken a year to bring to fruition, offers citizenship to all refugees who want to remain permanently in the country and provides them - and other socially deprived citizens - housing, vocational training and holds out the prospect of bank loans.

Government officials behind the plan, who estimate it will cost around 678 million US dollars, believe a joint approach to refugees and the very poor will draw more foreign aid than a scheme involving just the former.

The two groups are roughly the same size. About 350,000 Serbs are registered as deprived, while some 60 per cent of Serbia's 700,000 refugees - almost 400,000 in total - wish to remain in the country, rather than return home to Bosnia Croatia or Kosovo.

Officials say the advantage of tackling the problems of both social categories is that it avoids fuelling public resentment of refugees, which is particularly prevalent among poor people who feel they enjoy a privileged status.

Dusan Zivkovic, head of the government group that worked on the plan, said targeting just refugees would trigger a wave of dissatisfaction and increase the tension that has grown up since they arrived.

Refugees began pouring into Serbia in the 1990s, as wars spread from one former Yugoslav republic to another. The most recent fled from Kosovo following the Serbian pullout from the region in 1999.

The refugees had a rough time under the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Some were intimidated into joining the armed forces, while others were forcibly resettled in Kosovo, only to be driven out after 1999. In some cases officials resold humanitarian aid allocated for their use.

The new plan has its critics, however. The most important objection concerns funds. The government is in dire economic straits and can only carry out its scheme with foreign aid. It is expected to seek the 678 million US dollars it needs for the programme at the next donor conference, but this meeting has yet to be arranged.

In the last donors conference in Brussels the government did not get funding for refugees. The international community was more interested in financing development programmes than humanitarian aid.

The critics say providing refugees with job training means little in reality, as they will merely join the swelling ranks of 800,000 unemployed workers, whose numbers are soon to be reinforced by another 130,000 workers now awaiting layoffs.

They also say holding out the prospect of financial loans is disingenuous because banks are only likely to assist applicants with profitable business proposals and some capital.

There is equal scepticism about the plan to house refugees and poor families together in low rent apartments in the interior and on the outskirts of small towns. Some refugees themselves expressed the fear that this would merely create ghettos and reduce their chances of integration with the community.

Vladan Nemezic, a refugee from Croatia, said the accommodation might be a big improvement for the 20,000 refugees who are now housed in "awful, inhuman" shelters. "But they are only 5 per cent of the refugee population," he warned. "For the rest of us these will be Potemkin villages that will make our cultural and social integration impossible and our problems invisible."

Jelena Grujic is a journalist working with Belgrade weekly Vreme.

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