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Refugees In Serbia

With the outbreak out of war in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), Serbia faced a serious refugee problem for the first time since the Second World War. Even before conflict broke out in the SFRY, people from certain republics had begun to flee to the territories whose population was dominantly of their own nationality, in fear of the impending war. With the escalating chaos, many of those who fled from other republics had no choice but to remain in Serbia and Montenegro. By the end of 1999 nearly 50,000 people had found refuge in those republics, with no realistic possibility of returning home.

The fighting in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina led to huge migrations, particularly of the Serbian and Montenegrin populations, who found refuge in their mother republics Serbia and Montenegro.

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 forces have led the non-Albanian population 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 have 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 register 451,980 persons in Serbia. Of that population, 377,731 have refugee status, while 72,249 do not meet all the necessary conditions to acquire this status under international law. The greatest numbers of refugees are from Croatia (about 63%), while the percentage of those from Bosnia-Herzegovina has declined to 36% as refugees from the latter return to their homes in greater numbers than those contemplating return to Croatia, where the process is quite difficult.

Although it is in some cases possible to return, the majority of refugees and IDPs (60.6% of those from Croatia and 59.8% of those from Bosnia-Herzegovina) have opted for integration in The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Within Serbia, there are 408 registered collective centers, accommodating 30,056 people. Of this number, 20,949 are refugees, while 9,107 are IDPs from Kosovo-Metohija. About 10,000 live in unregistered collective centers, while still others live with their relatives or friends, in their own houses and apartments or in rental housing.

The greatest numbers of refugees are housed in Vojvodina, Belgrade and in the municipalities of Loznica and Sabac.

The displaced from Kosovo-Metohija mainly reside in central Serbia, with the greatest concentrations in Belgrade, Kraljevo, Kragujevac, Nis, Smederevo, Krusevac, Leskovac, Vranje and Kursumlija.

Immediately after the cessation of armed conflict, it became clear that refugees not only had to be cared for in the short term, but a permanent solution to the problem needed to be found. There are three general outcomes for refugees:

  1. Repatriation to the communities from which the refugees came.
  2. Integration into the communities to which the refugees settled.
  3. Emigration to a third country.


Both Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Accord and the Agreement on the normalization of relations between the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Croatia grant refugees the right of return.

The priority of The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro is repatriation, considering this the most acceptable long-term solution. Carrying out this strategy requires implementation of 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 organizing the 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 7,350 organized their own return to Croatia.

There is still no interstate agreement between The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina providing for an organized return of refugees. The idea that investing funds in the reconstruction of certain municipalities in Bosnia would encourage the return of refugees proved to be unsuccessful, as evidenced by the modest number of returnees. Major cities such as Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla, from which the greatest number of Serbs fled, have still not received the status of "open cities", which thus inhibits the return of a significant numbers of people.


Although repatriation is seen as the best permanent solution to the refugee problem, The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro respects the decision of the majority of refugees who have decided to make Yugoslavia their home.

As early as 1994 the Serbian Government and the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees began preparations for a programme for the permanent settlement of refugees in The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

In accordance with the above-mentioned Program, 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 have either already acquired or are about to acquire Yugoslav citizenship. Large families, the disabled and single mothers had a priority in the process of acquiring permanent residence.

So far, the program has been highly successful. Refugees have shown great interest in taking up permanent residence in The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Furthermore, Serbian municipalities are prepared to provide residential buildings and arable land, as well as employment for members of refugee families. The limited funds available to the Serbian Government and the UNHCR are the single main obstacle slowing construction in these housing projects.


One of the possible 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 Organization 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 means, on the processes of repatriation and integration of refugees, which it sees as the two most important approaches to the refugee problem in The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.


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