The wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina led to huge migrations of the people of Serbian nationality, who found refuge in their mother republic – Serbia.
Depending on the source of data, estimates on the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) have varied from 350,000 to 800,000. Terrorist attacks by the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army, the 1999 air campaign of the NATO alliance and the arrival of KFOR troops have forced the non-Albanian population to flee the territory of Kosovo-Metohija.
In cooperation with the UNHCR, a registration of IDPs from Kosovo-Metohija was carried out in the Republic of Serbia in the year 2000. The initiative continued after April 2000, as the non-Albanian population continued to migrate out of the territory. By July 2001, more than 200,000 IDPs had been registered in Serbia.
In April 2001, the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, in cooperation with the UNHCR, again carried out a registration of refugees and others who had fled to Serbia because of the war. The first analyses of the data from July 2001 registered 451,980 persons in Serbia. Of that population, 377,731 had the refugee status, while 74,249 did not meet all the necessary conditions to acquire this status under international law. The greatest number of refugees were from Croatia (about 63%), while the percentage of those from Bosnia-Herzegovina dropped to 36%.
Regardless of possibilities for return, the majority of refugees and IDPs (60.6% of those from Croatia and 59.8% of those from Bosnia-Herzegovina) opted for integration into the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.
In 2001, 408 collective centres were registered in the territory of Serbia, accommodating 30,056 people. Of this number, 20,949 were refugees, while 9,107 were IDPs from Kosovo-Metohija. About 10,000 lived in unregistered collective centres, while others lived either with their relatives or friends, or paid housing rents.
The greatest number of refugees was recorded in Vojvodina, Belgrade and in the municipalities of Loznica and Sabac.
The displaced from Kosovo-Metohija mainly resided in central Serbia, with the greatest concentrations in Belgrade, Kraljevo, Kragujevac, Nis, Smederevo, Krusevac, Leskovac, Vranje and Kursumlija.
In a new process of registration of refugees in Serbia, carried out from November 27, 2004 to January 25, 2005, 139,483 persons with the refugee status applied for registration, which is 50% less in relation to the registration from 2001.
The number of approximately 140,000 refugees does not mean that today there are two times less refugees in Serbia than in 2001, but that some 100,000 people have obtained the citizenship, while a smaller number returned to the country they had fled from or went to a third country.
Some 140 collective centres, including 19 in Kosovo-Metohija which house 1,000 IDPs, give home to a total of 11,000 refugees and IDPs who are in the most difficult position, as shown by the latest registration.
There are three basic methods in which the problem of refugees can be permanently solved. These are:
- Repatriation to the communities from which the refugees came;
- Integration into the communities to which the refugees settled;
- Emigration to a third country
Both Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Accord and the Agreement on the normalization of relations between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the Republic of Croatia confirm the right of refugees to return.
The priority of the Republic of Serbia is repatriation, considering this the most acceptable and long-term solution. The realisation of this form of permanent solution requires previous guarantees of the international community and the governments of the countries refugees are returning to. Refugees must be accepted into their communities and provided conditions to live in security and dignity.
In April 1998, a protocol on the procedure for organised return of refugees to Croatia was signed between the governments of the FRY and the Republic of Croatia. The protocol gave the UNHCR the role of international coordinator, which would, pursuant to its mandate, assist in the mutual implementation of the agreed system. Some 7,550 refugees returned home under this arrangement, while another 7,350 organised their own return to Croatia.
On October 6, 2003, the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina signed in Belgrade an agreement on the return of refugees who are in the territories of Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The agreement was signed by Minister of Human and Minority Rights of the former State Union of Serbia-Montenegro Rasim Ljajic and Minister for Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina Mirsad Kebo. This document created legal grounds for the acceleration of the process of the return of refugees and easier realisation of housing and other property rights.
Although repatriation is seen as the best permanent solution to the refugee problem, the Republic of Serbia respects the decision of the majority of refugees who have decided to make Serbia their home.
As early as 1994, the Serbian government and the Commissariat for Refugees of the Republic of Serbia began preparations for a programme for the permanent settlement of refugees in its territory.
In accordance with the above-mentioned programme, the Serbian government began construction of housing for refugees in Serbia in 1997. Significant budget funds were earmarked for that purpose. In the same year, the UNHCR initiated a similar programme in the FRY. This programme closely resembles that of the Serbian government, differing only in that the donor is the UNHCR, which provides funds for the construction of housing – while the state, namely municipalities where the construction takes place, provide for infrastructure and employment for one member of each refugee family.
The beneficiaries of this program acquired the citizenship of the former FRY. Large families, the disabled and single mothers had a priority in the process of acquiring permanent accommodation.
Departure to a third country
One of the remaining options for a permanent solution to the refugee problem is their departure to a third country. The greater number of those who had opted for emigration to a third country have done so through the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR. Refugees mostly emigrate to Canada, Australia and the USA.
The Serbian Commissariat for Refugees will continue to work, within its possibilities, on the processes of repatriation and integration of refugees, which it sees as the two most important approaches to the refugee problem in Serbia.