Vojvodina Refugee Tensions

Hostility remains towards Serbs who fled to the province during the wars.

Vojvodina Refugee Tensions

Hostility remains towards Serbs who fled to the province during the wars.

Tuesday, 21 August, 2001

Milan Kuzman used to earn a good salary as a mechanical engineer in the Bosnian town of Travnik. But the war forced him to flee to Serbia, and he now runs a fruit stall with his wife in Novi Sad, capital of the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

In their ten years as refugees, Kuzman and his wife have bought a flat and put their two sons through school. Both of which make the Kuzmans exceptional.

Most of the 200,000 refugees in Vojvodina are not success stories. Arrived from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, most still survive on aid hand-outs and live in refugee centres. In the depressed economic climate of Vojvodina, they form a social class at the bottom of the pile.

A recent poll by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights showed that non-refugee residents of Vojvodina - Hungarian, Serb, Croat and Slovak - harbour enormous animosity for the refugees, deriding them as culturally inferior and prone to laziness. Most, said Dr. Vladimir Ilic, the sociology professor who led the research team, would prefer the refugees to go home, "or go anywhere but here."

But despite the hostility towards them, and their generally poor living conditions, less then five percent are willing to leave.

The hostility arises mostly from competition for jobs, which are scarce for all sectors of the population. Almost half of those polled believed refugees get priority for jobs over "natives". In fact, the refugees are just labour that can be bought more cheaply.

The influx of refugees has had a huge effect in Vojvodina. The province has only a fifth of Serbia's population, but over half its refugees.

The refugee flow has skewed the ethnic make-up of the province, making it more Serbian than before. The number of Serbs rose, while the number of Croats was almost halved in ten years to 40,000. The numbers of Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and other ethnic communities has also fallen.

Another flashpoint for intolerance is collective memory: Most people remember that Milosevic's government used new Serbian refugees to ethnically cleanse Vojvodina of non-Serbs.

In Srem, tens of thousands of native Croats were expelled. In the village of Hrtkovci, Serb refugees forcibly seized Croat and Hungarian houses, throwing their inhabitants onto the street. This happened to 350 families.

Such examples of violence were committed by individuals, not the refugees as a whole. But residents still remember it and now - unreasonably - attribute a propensity for violence to all refugees.

Radenko Popic, a refugee from Sarajevo, says these prejudices are unfounded. He cites a census of refugees carried out in March, which showed that the average refugee is better educated than the average Vojvodina citizen.

Refugees are not violent, he continues, but are instead the biggest victims of the international conflicts initiated by Belgrade's political elite.

At the beginning of the war while still at home in Bosnia, he was visited by the Serbian paramilitaries the White Eagles. "They said they would kill me if I didn't join them. That was enough for me to seek refuge elsewhere," he said.

Despite the underlying tensions, there is no threat of immediate inter-ethnic violence, according to Professor Ilic. Certainly nothing approaching the events during the war, or during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, when NATO planes flying in from Hungary caused enormous tensions on the ground between ethnic Hungarians and Serbs.

Ratko Bubalo, director of the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Tolerance in Novi Sad, has no doubt that the refugees can successfully integrate. And anyway, he points out, facts of life give Vojvodina no choice - with a tiny birth rate, the refugees are a vital injection of new blood, however problematic.

Jan Briza is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik.

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