Bosnia and Herzegovina + 3 more

Regional return initiative: 10th meeting of the Steering Committee on refugee matters

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Vienna, 29th of November 2002
1. The tenth Steering Committee meeting on displacement related matters was chaired on behalf of the RRI/MAI Chairman Mr. Jessen-Petersen, by Mr. Kilian Kleinschmidt, Executive Secretary who welcomed all participants. He apologized for the absence of Mr. Jessen-Petersen who could not be present due to a recent accident. He conveyed the best greetings and wishes for the holiday season from the Chairman.

General, bilateral and national update

2. Mr. Kleinschmidt started with an overview of events since the last Steering Committee was held in Geneva in June 2002. Despite the summer break there had been considerable progress. Among the key developments was the plan to merge the MAI and the RRI into a new initiative to stabilize and manage population movements in SEE - the Migration, Asylum Refugee Regional Initiative or MARRI. He thought that the most important achievement of the RRI had been to retain the issue of displacement on the international agenda and that the AREA had become a reference in events and documents prepared by OSCE, the Council of Foreign Ministers of the EU, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the COWEB to name a few. Key recommendations and the important issue of transition from humanitarian action to development had now been understood and were reflected in national and international policy.

3. He warned that, while it was most encouraging that some 130.000 persons had found solutions in 2002 so far, it would be necessary to take a close look at what reality for the people might be hiding behind return figures and statistics. Ensuring the sustainability of return and integration would remain a central objective for 2003. Mr. Kleinschmidt congratulated Bosnia on the excellent PLIP rate, which had reached 62%, but stressed that this meant for many being evicted from urban centers with some opportunities, without other options than to return into subsistence in rural areas. Many returnees returned to nothing or little in the absence of sufficient resources in support of re-integration. The sustainability of such returns was highly questionable, with the danger of ultimately resulting in renewed displacement and migration. This issue remained a high challenge for everyone and these "human consequences of the war" with the losers and real victims only becoming visible now, had to be addressed most urgently and more prominently. Mr. Kleinschmidt underlined that this was not a humanitarian appeal but a deep concern, based on a grim reality on the ground, which required social and economic answers. The inclusion of these persons in the newly emerging economic system and recovery process would need innovative and new answers. Ensuring and promoting self-help through improved access to the economic system and mechanisms, such as banking services and establishment of associations and cooperatives (i.e. housing cooperatives), would be the only way ahead in absence of new donor resources. In this context an active involvement of Working Table II at the Stability Pact was now most crucial.

4. He informed that there had been tremendous efforts by the governments to improve and enhance bilateral contacts in SEE with a constructive and regular dialogue now taking place in the region. At the national level better coherence on planning and policy level had been achieved. A new Bosnian return strategy was almost completed and the Serbian national strategy had been launched and was being implemented. Besides continuing implementation of its national plan, Croatia had adopted important amendments to the law on the Areas of special state concern. With regard to other actors, UNHCR was preparing its down-phasing from humanitarian action and seeking to return to its core mandate, while handing over its activities to others. OSCE continues to be proactive in the field of human rights, with a special focus on minorities and minority return throughout the region and was looking at new issues and assuming a coordinating role, such as in the field of "Education" in Bosnia. NGOs were increasingly in contact with the RRI and cooperation with financial institutions such as he World Bank had become very constructive during the past year. With its new poverty reduction strategy for SEE and the recognition of the importance of addressing some of the key issues of concern to the RRI, such as housing, the World Bank had become an important actor in the RRI. CEB continued to be an active partner in the field of long term financing and was preparing new loans for Croatia and a first loan for Serbia.

5. Bosnia and Herzegovina outlined the progress achieved since the June meeting. The year 2002 had been a year of success in the field of returns. Some 95.000 returnees had been registered so far. However, most of the returnees were recorded in the Federation (Federation 47%, RS 23% and Brcko 2%). The overall climate towards returnees was now becoming more positive, but the reintegration process, employment and living conditions for most remained difficult. Within BiH there were 570.000 IDPs registered out of which less than 300.000 were still looking for a solution. While there had been more reconstruction financed by the authorities in 2002, due to more budgetary allocations, this was not enough to cover the immediate need for housing as international resources continued to decrease. At this point the gap was estimated at some 50.000 housing units, which would need to be reconstructed. De-mining was a big challenge and mine accidents had increased with more returns to rural areas. Still, 4% of Bosnian territory was mined at this stage. The two remaining key problems with regard to return concerned the (1) return of tenancy and property rights and (2) reconstruction. The estimation was that three more years would be needed to resolve all these problems.

6. During the ensuing discussion, Norway informed that it had supported activities in de-mining since 1996 and that the national trust fund in Bosnia had received considerable funding. The representative expressed his view that rather than more funding for de-mining as such, mine awareness programs would need to be enhanced. UNDP generally supported this approach, but urged all participants to continue the funding for the trust fund, which was doing crucial work in the field of de-mining.

7. OHR highlighted the current transition process, supported current activities by the Bosnian government and wanted to support the centralization of the governmental structures. With regard to housing, the representative underlined the need for Bosnia to develop a social housing policy. While a lot of resources continued to be used in the housing sector there was still no coherent policy and long-term approach.

8. OSCE Bosnia informed that since 12 September a new initiative called "New Strategic Direction" was launched in order to speed up the process of property repossession. The "New Strategic Direction" was drafted and promoted by the PLI (Property Legislation Implementation) agencies (OHR, OSCE, UNHCR, UNMIBH). It is hoped that 80 to 90% of all cases should be solved by the end of 2003. Experience had shown that in the municipalities, which had finished the process of property repossession, many persons would still need assistance, thus requiring a social welfare and housing policy.

9. Serbia informed about the adoption and implementation of the National Strategy to solve the refugee problem. With regard to latest refugee figures, participants were informed that Serbia still hosts 284.476 refugees from Croatia, 165.695 from Bosnia and 210.000 IDPs from Kosovo. The current priority in Serbia was the closure of Collective Centers (CCs) in the year to come. The Commissioner informed about the local integration conference, which was held in Belgrade in November and the establishment of working groups and a Secretariat for social and affordable housing. The tasks for the near future would be the following: (1) de-registration exercise, (2) financing of the program and (3) resolution of the issue of lost tenancy rights in Croatia.

10. Montenegro informed that there were 42.000 refugees and IDPs in Montenegro, which equals 7% of the local population. Of these refugees and IDPs 5% lived in Collective Centers and would need sustainable solutions as soon as possible. The CCs had become an urgent matter since many owners of private CCs would like to use their property for their intended purposes (such as hotels). As the status of the refugees and IDPs had not been addressed, in the absence of a national strategy, there was little perspective for these persons to find sustainable solutions. There was an urgent need for the establishment of elderly homes for persons who could not live on their own anymore. Mr. Scepanovic informed that there was only one elderly home in Montenegro. At this point the Chairman encouraged Montenegro to finalize the national strategy on the refugee problem.

11. Mr. Schwarz-Schilling, International Mediator for Bosnia Herzegovina welcomed the initiatives of the RRI. He highlighted newly emerging issues such as the economic and social challenges but also educational problems. Schooling refugees was not a problem of ethnic constellation but often a simple question of curricula. He thanked the RRI secretariat for the excellent description of poverty and the human dimension hidden behind the statistics. He endorsed that voluntary return is often made extremely difficult or even impossible due to the lack of infrastructure and other damaging factors. He informed about his recent visit to Srebrenica and Bratunac. While these cities were deserted in 1999, returns were taking place today and the municipalities were cooperating. Another problem was lacking transport and communication systems between the entities. The bus services, which had been operated by UNHCR most successfully, had unfortunately been stopped due to funding shortages. With regard to Croatia Mr. Schwarz-Schilling acknowledged positive developments, but was concerned about implementation on the local level.

12. Croatia informed about its efforts and the projected budget of over 200 million Euros in 2003, which would help to find sustainable solutions for 20-25.000 families by the end of 2003. Also, Croatia informed that the closure of collective centers would be finalized by the end of 2003. 5.000 families remained occupants of property in Croatia and action would be taken. As regards de-mining an estimated 1 billion Euro was needed and incidents were still taking place On the local level it was highlighted that in the last elections many Serb representatives had been elected into the municipal councils which was a positive sign toward normalization. Construction and reconstruction efforts would need additional funding and especially infrastructure, water and electricity supply, particularly in rural areas, were costly investments. Participants were informed that the governments view is to resolve the refugee problem by the end of next year. Reconstruction efforts, however, would need to continue until the end of 2004.

13. UNHCR was very pleased with the progress of PLIP in BiH and the prioritization of the Collective Center residents for repossession of property. UNHCR was supportive of the strategy in Serbia and raised concern about the Collective Centers in Montenegro. The organization appealed for continued support to de-mining through UNDP. While refugees are the core business of UNHCR and it would carry out its protection mandate, humanitarian operations in SEE were being downsized. Support for the RRI initiative would need to continue in view of the importance of a transition to development activities. Towards the end of next year UNHCR would reduce its field presence considerably and concentrate more and more on capacity building work.

14. Mr. Kleinschmidt introduced the issue of IDPs from Kosovo and informed that UNMIK had send apologies for not being able to attend the meeting. Following the decision at the last meeting to include Kosovo into the AREA process, the RRI Chairman and secretariat had made the necessary contacts with the relevant counterparts in Belgrade and Pristina and had offered support. Due to some reservations by the SRSG to date Kosovo would only be part in the housing related activities of the RRI. What would be needed, however, was a joint vision on the way ahead and a combined joint strategy bringing the two existing plans by UNMIK and the authorities in Belgrade together. The RRI Chairman would be prepared to facilitate this process.

15. OSCE Croatia welcomed the important resources the Croatian government (GoC) intends to make available for reconstruction and alternative housing. This budget and the readiness to accept loans from international financial institutions as opposed to donations demonstrated the political commitment of the government to solve the refugee problem but faced some shortages in implementation on the ground. The cooperation of the Croatian government with the OSCE had seen a considerable qualitative improvement over the past months. However, a lot remained to be done. This refers particularly to the proper implementation of the Governments commitment for property repossession. The tenancy right issue remained important and should be addressed properly also outside of the areas of special state concern were most families were deprived of their right to home. Experts of the IC and the GoC had finalized in summer a Joint Recommendation to the government on the full implementation of the Reconstruction Law, particularly in regard to destroyed residential property outside the war-affected area. Another Joint Recommendation already has been considered by the GoC in the draft Law on Foreigners pending in Parliament. It aims at facilitating legalization of the status of those returnees who had not yet acquired Croatian citizenship.

Housing

16. With regard to housing Mr. Kleinschmidt highlighted the holistic approach taken by the RRI. There had been progress and the lobbying had succeeded to bring the previously neglected issue of housing on the international agenda. Activities in housing and related capacity building had been successful in Serbia and soon in BiH with the establishment of a housing secretariat. In Montenegro the feasibility study on a legalization program for illegal settlers for the Podgorica municipality had been finalized. Approaching private partners had been successful and the Sarajevo model with the construction of 164 apartments by an Austrian housing association was one example of the fruitful cooperation. Other investors had been contacted and an agreement with a Greek company had almost been concluded. He informed that the World Bank would eventually be willing to establish a trust fund for regional technical support, while details would need to be discussed further. The housing conference on housing policy and financing, hosted by the WB and the CEB would take place in Paris on 23/24 April 2003.

17. CEB informed about the preparations of the conference. The meeting would be a high level conference on housing reforms in SEE and ministries of housing and finance would be invited. The themes of the conference would be (1) housing financing, (2) social housing, (3) housing and refugees and (4) management of housing stock. It would be an excellent opportunity to move into long-term planning for the housing sector and away from emergency refuge housing.

18. Sweden informed that it had reconstructed 16.000 houses in the region so far. Sweden was considering increasing the support for Bosnia in the next year while support for Kosovo would be reduced. The representative raised Sweden's concern that new construction would keep persons from returning and that Sweden was reluctant to support new construction activities. In response the Chairman suggested to see social housing as a combination of private public partnerships as a way ahead.

19. Serbia strongly supported the social housing approach. While reconstruction was necessary it was clear that construction would also be needed to facilitate the integration of IDPs in Serbia. In addition, 240.000 refugees had opted for integration and half of these would need support for housing. The Commissioner described a program in which country houses were purchased for refugees. The houses averaged 80m2 and had gardens of up to 1000 m2. The costs for such houses varied between 5.000 and 10.000 Euro.

20. Switzerland gave an overview of ongoing activities and informed that it was thinking along the lines of the Stability Pact. It announced that Switzerland would stay involved in the region but with reduced funds. SDC would like to focus increasingly on capacity building in the housing sector. Switzerland informed that it was cooperating with CEB in providing the guaranty for a loan to Serbia. With regard to durable solutions for collective centers the Swiss humanitarian aid would prioritize the issue in 2003.

Collective Center Closure

21. Mr. Kleinschmidt announced that the closure of CCs would be a priority for 2003 and that more coordination between the different actors was needed to ensure efficient use of existing resources. It would be useful to agree on focal points at the local authority level. A study to develop a coherent regional approach, initiated by SDC, had now been finalized and would be shared soonest.

22. Serbia pointed to the need to have data exchange and a regional census in this regard.

23. Croatia informed that its expenditures per month per person in Collective Centers were extremely high and that therefore solutions had to be found.

Property related Data Exchange

24. On data exchange Mr. Kleinschmidt raised attention to the fact that this issue was urgent but complex. He reported on the findings of the trilateral meeting the previous day: (1) that all governments agreed that data exchange was necessary, (2) that it was not possible to merge data bases at this point, (3) that immediate solutions would be needed, while moving towards a long term approach, (4) that a central mechanism would be needed (with Croatia opposing the establishment of any new regional institution or mechanism (5) that a SP project team would act in a role as a facilitator or manager, (6) that according to the governments most information to be exchanged would not violate international data protection standards.

25. Mr. Kleinschmidt announced that, based of the conclusions of the trilateral meeting, the RRI would move ahead to set up a central project team with the interested parties and was seeking funding support beyond the already secured startup funding from CH and the NL. UNHCR announced that it had a system for registration in place in Afghanistan and Pakistan and would like to develop this further as a part of global efforts to improve registration efforts.

26. Mr. Kleinschmidt announced that governments had agreed to consider a simultaneous regional registration exercise.

27. The representative of the Netherlands announced that NL would continue to support the data exchange program, but was wondering about concrete implementation modalities.

28. Croatia pointed to the need to obtain legally valid information, which could be used in Courts. The legislation in place would provide that persons who have property elsewhere or outside of Croatia would not qualify for alternative accommodation and had to vacate occupied private property. With regard to Bosnia Herzegovina the representative called on the responsible international actors to provide Bosnian government finally with access to the existing databases.

29. Serbia highlighted the need to exchange information on receipt of pension payments.

30. Norway supported the idea to create the project team and begin with the implementation of concrete work.

31. Mr. Kleinschmidt concluded that with the kind support of the Netherlands the project team would be able to start for those interested in the programme.

Social and Pension Rights

32. With regard to social and pension rights Mr. Kleinschmidt pointed to some delays in the implementation of bilateral agreements. Croatia and Serbia would still need to conclude an inter-banking agreement. Mr. Kleinschmidt kindly asked UNHCR to update the existing paper on this issue.

Legal Aid

33. With regard to legal aid Mr. Kleinschmidt pointed to the need for better coordination in times of declining resources. During the discussion it became clear that there is a continued demand for legal advice and a need to ensure the sustainability of this public service.

Education

34. Education had been identified as one of the key factors influencing individual decision whether to return or to remain.

35. The representative of the SP Education TF outlined the activities of the TF and offered to launch a regional research and overview on key education issues affecting refugees and returnees. This idea had been discussed previously with the RRI secretariat, but not been realized due to time and funding constraints. In view of the observations made by the actors on the ground, and the obvious importance in the context of sustainability, it was decided to proceed with the overview.

36. OSCE BiH informed on the recent efforts to better coordinate the education sector in BiH. The representative invited the Education Task Force to take part in the regular coordination meetings in BiH.

Regional Initiative to Manage and Stabilise Population Movements

37. Mr. Kleinschmidt outlined the purpose of the new initiative 'Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative' (MARRI), which had been introduced by the RRI/MAI Chairman. The strategy paper had been the outcome of extensive consultations and had received broad support.

38. Representatives of the Migration and Asylum (MAI) unit introduced their work and the objective of the upcoming regional conference in Tirana.

39. The European Commission supported the merger of the RRI and the MAI and informed that this was consistent with the Commission programs. Preparations for this exercise had taken place in close cooperation. Several meetings between the Stability Pact and the Commission on the new initiative have taken place.

Concluding the meeting at 16.00 hrs, Mr. Kleinschmidt thanked the participants for the constructive discussion in this last meeting of the RRI Steering Committee. He reassured that the consultative process and constructive cooperation established would continue within the new MARRI initiative, although in a changed format. He felt that more focused technical sessions would be useful to progress on displacement matters, while policy setting within MARRI would be on the level of a political steering committee.