Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans

The refugee question is of paramount importance in Balkans – still. Beginning 1991, political upheavals – such as the breakup of Yugoslavia – displaced millions of people. Officially one part of these people are refugees meaning that they have escaped to other country, one part is “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) meaning that they have escaped from their home village/-town but still are in the same country than before.

In contrast to the other regions, in Europe the refugee population increased slightly (+2%). This raise can partly be attributed to the figures from Montenegro in which 16,000 people from Kosovo (Serbia), previously reported as IDPs, were reclassified as refugees. Similarly, armed conflict in Georgia forced some 135,000 people to flee their homes in 2008; by the end of the year, an estimated 293,000 were considered internally displaced persons in Georgia, including 49,200 people in an IDP-like situation.


As source I have used UNHCR report 16th June 2009 and “Internal Displacement in Europe and Central Asia” report made by UNCHR and The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council. To table below I have collected the numbers of refugees and IDPs in western Balkans; the sum total includes also asylum-seekers, stateless etc. persons.

Country Refugees IDPs Total
Albania 65 0 87
Bosnia-Herzegovina 7257 124529 194448
Croatia 1597 2497 33943
(FRY) Macedonia 1672 0 2823
Montenegro 24741 0 26242
Serbia 96739 225879 341083

Most of Montenegro refugees – 16259 – fled from Kosovo. Nearly all of Serbia’s IDPs fled also from Albanian mayority parts of Kosovo province.

The table above is maybe surprising to those who have the picture – made by western mainstream media – in their minds, that (only) Serbs were making ethnic cleansing. In reality today the Serbs are the biggest victims of Balkan wars.

Behind of the numbers

Bosnian war (1992-95) included massive transfer of populations so it was possible to draw new boundaries according ethnic groups. Armed conflict between Yugoslav, Croatian and Bosnian forces and militias, accompanied by massive human rights abuses and violations, led to the displacement of over a million people and the creation of ethnically homogeneous areas within the newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. By 2008, almost 600,000 people had returned to their places of origin, and the government reported that 124,600 people remained as IDPs.

Dayton Agreement 1995 created federation like Bosnia with entities according these lines so situation with IDPs in Bosnia-Herzegovina is quite stable.Under Annex VII of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, support to durable solutions has focused almost exclusively on the return of displaced people to their places of origin to the exclusion of other durable solutions, as any support to local integration was perceived as cementing the effect of the war and the “ethnic cleansing” which motivated the displacement.

In 2003, the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees took over from the international community the responsibility to implement Annex VII , and elaborated a National Strategy for Implementation of Annex VII which still focused mainly on return. In 2008 however, the Ministry revised this strategy, and from 2009, though the emphasis remains on return, it recognizes the need to compensate people for lost property (instead of a sole focus on restitution) and to assist the most vulnerable who cannot or do not want to return, thereby providing de facto support to local integration.

Between 1991 and 1995, 220,000 ethnic Croats and subsequently up to 300,000 ethnic Serbs were displaced by armed conflict in Croatia. Since then almost all the Croat IDPs have returned to their homes, while most of the Serbs displaced have resettled in Serbia or in the majority-Serb Danube region of Croatia.Since the end of the confl ict, only one third of Croatian Serb IDPs and refugees have been able to return.

In Serbia the refugee problem came when Serbs were expelled from East Croatia and Croatian Krajina. The IDP problem is a follow-up of Kosovo conflict when some 200.000 Serbs and some thousands of Roma were expelled from there to northern Serb-dominated part of province or to Serbia. During Nato bombings also Kosovo Albanians – about 700.000 – escaped from the province but most of them have returned back.

While new displacement was avoided, the rate of return decreased significantly in 2008 from an already low level, as most IDPs waited to evaluate the approach of Kosovo authorities towards Kosovo Serbs and other non-Albanian communities. Those who already returned to Kosovo struggle to find livelihood opportunities, notably because of widespread discrimination against Serbs and Roma. Local integration opportunities for Kosovo Serb IDPs are scarce since they live in complete isolation from Kosovo institutions. Most of them reside in enclaves relying on a parallel system of education, policing, and health care supported by Serbia. Security concerns have prevented them from returning to their repossessed property. Because of their limited freedom of movement and the discrimination they have faced, IDPs’ access to land and employment has been very limited. The most vulnerable IDPs are Roma people in both Serbia and Kosovo, who have specific protection needs because of their social marginalisation and lack of civil documentation, which prevents them from registering as IDPs and limits their access to housing assistance and other social benefits.

Tensions in Macedonia between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians culminated in violent confl ict in 2001 which displaced over 171,000 people, 74,000 of them within the country. Since then, over 99 per cent have returned and only around 770 people remained displaced. Most of those still displaced in 2008 were ethnic Macedonians or Serbs who did not feel safe to return to the Albanian-dominated Lipkovo-Aracinovo area.

Some remarks from my point of view

  • International administration and sackful of money does not guarantee better living conditions for refugees nor other vulnerable groups. One of the cruellest example I earlier described in my article UN Death camps, EU money, local negligence
  • Some 5 % of IDPs in Serbia is planning to return to their original hometowns partly because their property is occupied by Albanians. In Bosnia-Herzegovina property issues have mostly solved and refugees/IDPs have got rights to their original flats/houses, but in Croatia the Serbs lost their homes without rights nor compensation.
  • While in Kosovo the situation is frozen like the overall situation in province too elsewhere there is fears that the progress may go backwards. In Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnic tensions for some reasons are rising e.g. between Croats and Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while earlier these tensions were mostly between Serbs and other ethnic groups. This may be related to rising of conservative Wahhabism in region and tendency of total collapse of state as it is today. More about this in my article “Bosnia Collapsing?
  • To solve refugee and IDP problem in western Balkans there is a need of massive housing programme especially in Serbia and this can probably be implemented with help of international donors. Housing activities should also be supported by economical development programmes to decrease unemployment figures and social problems common in locations with big share of refugees/IDPs.
  • I think that the revised strategy implemented in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2008 has better change to be successful than the earlier attempts. The new approach recognizes the need to compensate people for lost property (instead of a sole focus on restitution) and to assist the most vulnerable who cannot or do not want to return, thereby providing de facto support to local integration. This strategy should be copied to Serbia/Kosovo too. For example since 2003, the European Commission has allocated over €30 million for minority communities throughout Kosovo and still the return numbers are quite modest; the same money invested to housing in Serbia could achieve better results.

Global fact box


There were some 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008.

This includes 15.2 million refugees, 827,000 asylum-seekers (pending cases) and 26

million internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Nearly 25 million people – 10.5 million refugees and 14.4 million IDPs – were

receiving protection or assistance from UNHCR at the end of 2008. These numbers

are similar to 2007.

In 2008, UNHCR identified some 6.6 million stateless persons in 58 countries. The

Office estimated that the overall number of stateless persons worldwide was far

higher, about 12 million people.

Some 604,000 refugees repatriated voluntarily during 2008. Repatriation figures have

continued to decrease since 2004. The 2008 figure is the second-lowest in 15 years.

More than 839,000 people submitted an individual application for asylum or refugee

status in 2008. UNHCR offices registered nine per cent of those claims. More than

16,300 asylum applications were lodged by unaccompanied and separated children in

68 countries. With one quarter of applications globally, South Africa is the largest

recipient of individual applications in the world.

UNHCR presented 121,000 refugees for resettlement consideration by States. More

than 67,000 refugees were resettled with UNHCR’s assistance during 2008.

According to Government statistics, 16 countries reported the admission of 88,800

resettled refugees during 2008 (with or without UNHCR assistance). The United

States of America accepted the highest number (60,200 during its Fiscal Year).

Women and girls represent on average 49 per cent of persons of concern to UNHCR.

They constitute 47 per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers, and half of all IDPs and

returnees (refugees). Forty-four per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers are children

below 18 years of age.

Developing countries are host to four fifths of the world’s refugees. Based on the data

available for 8.8 million refugees, UNHCR estimates that half of the world’s refugees

reside in urban areas and one third in camps. However, seven out of ten refugees in

sub-Saharan Africa reside in camps.

Pakistan is host to the largest number of refugees worldwide (1.8 million), followed

by the Syrian Arab Republic (1.1 million) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (980,000).

Afghan and Iraqi refugees account for almost half of all refugees under UNHCR’s

responsibility worldwide. One out of four refugees in the world is from Afghanistan

(2.8 million) and Afghans are located in 69 different asylum countries. Iraqis are the

second largest refugee group, with 1.9 million having sought refuge mainly in

neighbouring countries.

Pakistan hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its economic capacity.

The country hosted 733 refugees per 1 USD GDP (PPP) per capita. It was followed by

the Democratic Republic of the Congo (496 refugees per 1 USD GDP (PPP) per

capita) and the United Republic of Tanzania (262). The first developed country is

Germany at 26th place with 16 refugees per 1 USD GDP (PPP) per capita.

Source and more: UNHCR


Bloggers Unite is an attempt to harness the power of the blogosphere to make the world a better place. By asking bloggers to write about a particular subject on 1 day of the month, a single voice can be joined with thousands to help make a difference. A year ago I participated to Refugee event, this year I organized it again and one may find few other bloggers too writing today about different aspects of problem.

10 Responses to Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans

  1. […] Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans […]

  2. […] Read more from the original source: Forgotten Refugees: West Balkans « AriRusila's BalkanBlog […]

  3. Rob says:

    It seems odd to extrapolate notions of ethnic cleansing from these figures: surely the issue is to what degree the population transfer was forced or not? It seems disingenuous to class as the same the forced expulsion of Bosniaks from the Drina Valley, for example, and the movement of Croatian Serbs to Serbia once it became clear that there would be no independent Serb Krajina or independent Eastern Slavonia.

    Not that I’m arguing that the Serbs were the only ones committing ethnic cleansing, of course—I just find odd the notion that they were somehow the worst-affected.

  4. kris says:

    Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Croatia. I don’t know where did you got the idea that thay left of there free will. They were forced out and those that were too weak to run and staid were largely killed.

  5. L says:

    This article is full of lies. Just one aspect. You wrote:”During Nato bombings also Kosovo Albanians – about 700.000 – escaped from the province but most of them have returned back.” No ser, they didn’t escape during Nato….. You have to write the truth. Nato did what we all know… bombings serbs army… because serbs forced out kosovar albanians. With NATO’s help kosovars returned to their land.
    Ms. Ari Rusila, please go and do your job as a development project management expert. Don’t mess up with Balkan issues! Do you get paid to write those lies?

  6. The refugees came to Serbia from other parts of Yugoslavia where they were expelled.Serbia bears a great burden and economic does not know how to take care of these people.

  7. […] Tilastoja ja taustoja tarkemmin UNHCR:n raportissa “Internal Displacement in Europe and Central Asia” sekä kirjoituksessani “Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans” […]

  8. […] Balkanin pakolaisongelmasta: “Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans” […]

  9. […] Refugees and IDPs after Balkan wars: “Forgotten Refugees – West Balkans” […]

%d bloggers like this: