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Serbia/Montenegro: The Helsinki Committee's Report on the Project "I want to go home" for 1999

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"I Want To Go Home" is a project of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, articulating all of the committee's activities and experiences acquired since 1995 through its work with refugees temporarily accommodated on the territories of Serbia and Montenegro. On the basis of these experiences, the realization of the "I Want To Go Home" project started in February 1998 and it is being carried out by four activists - three refugees from Croatia and one jurist from the FRY. So far, the project's activities have been supported by numerous international organizations (UNHCR, USAID, ICMC, CRS, SDR, DRC) with which we have achieved close cooperation. We keep all relevant international organizations - the OSCE, UN, EU and donors regularly informed about our work and the problems we observe in the process of the refugees' return to Croatia.

The "I Want To Go Home" in Belgrade has also established bridge-cooperation with non-governmental and international organizations in Croatia, such as the "I Want To Go Home" Association of Knin, whose foundation was also initiated by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, the Dalmatian Solidarity Committee, the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and so on.

Status and Position of Refugees from Croatia in Serbia and Montenegro

According to the Croatian authorities' information, since the Croatian government adopted the Program for the return of refugees a year and-a-half ago, a total of around 58 thousand Serbs who fled in the wake of the "Storm" and "Flash" operations in 1995 have returned. It is, however, impossible to verify this figure since a large number of refugees are still indecisive, primarily for economic reasons. They occasionally go to Croatia, somewhat repair their houses, cultivate their land and keep creating conditions for their permanent return, after which they go back to Serbia to earn money by doing the most difficult physical jobs and engaging in the gray economy.

Now remaining in Serbia is the most difficult and most afflicted category of refugees from Croatia. Those who had any money and who had no problems in obtaining documentation, i.e. those whose citizenship of the Republic of Croatia is not in dispute, have already returned. Part of the refugees, some 30 thousand of them, have moved to third countries, while some opted for integration. However, the largest is the number of those who wish to return to Croatia and they are mostly accommodated in collective centers in Serbia and Montenegro. According to our knowledge, there are over 50 thousand of them.

Apart from being in a total information blockade, refugees accommodated in collective centers in Serbia are often also manipulated by both those who run the centers and local power-holders on the one hand, and by people at the highest, state level on the other. The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has learned that refugees in collective centers, as a rule dislocated from "civilized" environments for the purpose of settling insufficiently developed and populated regions, are abused by having to work in fields for inadequately low wages. As we have been told by refugees, at the "Krnjaca" collective center on the outskirts of Belgrade, they are exposed to various forms of blackmail by the heads of the center, but also to political manipulation to the benefit of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), Yugoslav Left (JUL) and Serbian Radical Party (SRS). At the same time, they say, those running this collective center keep the refugees in a ghetto, not allowing them to be visited by representatives of non-governmental organizations, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. There are around 600 refugees in Krnjaca. We have heard similar stories from refugees in other collective centers throughout Serbia where, they say, even prostitution has become a means of survival.

The abuse of refugees and the drastic violation of international conventions on the status and rights of refugees, were especially visible during the NATO intervention. The Serbian authorities then mobilized capable men, especially those accommodated in Kosovo. Also, men able to serve the army who possessed Croatian documents were banned from leaving the country, that is from returning to Croatia. Not a small number of them were returned from the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, since the northern border with Croatia was closed at the time.

The Serbian authorities are also doing nothing as regards those refugees who have decided definitely to stay in Serbia. A small number of people have acquired citizenship or permanent jobs, while the not numerous apartments whose building was organized by the Serbian Commission for Refugees, were afforded only to the politically "suitable" and those "meritorious" in the war. The same criterion was also applied for granting citizenship.

The pressure on refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to stay in Serbia is also visible on the example of university education for refugee children. One of the preconditions for enrolling in a faculty was Yugoslav citizenship or a certification from the authorized Interior Ministry that the person had submitted a request for Yugoslav citizenship.

Previous Activities

"I Want To Go Home" mediates in the process of the return of refugees to Croatia, which we perform in cooperation with the Republic of Croatia's embassy in Belgrade. Having noticed that refugees from Croatia are very insecure and scared, we decided to organize, in villages, groups of some twenty people who would obtain, with our help, all the necessary documents and leave for their earlier places of residence. Such a model, launched with the pilot project for return to Plavno near Knin, very soon proved to be effective. The refugees felt more secure on the one hand, they helped one another in the reintegration and re-socialization into the old environment in the new circumstances, while, on the other hand, they were "noticeable" enough not to be ignored by either the local authorities in charge of their safety or international organizations. On their return to their environment they, at the same time, created a "nucleus" for the return of their other fellow residents.

Since this model of return has proved to be very effective, especially as it also includes assistance by humanitarian organizations immediately upon return, previously coordinated by "I Want To Go Home", certain non-governmental organizations have tried to organize return to Croatia, and to Bosnia-Herzegovina as well, but were unsuccessful. The "I Want To Go Home" project has established itself in this sense and is based primarily on regular cooperation with the Croatian embassy in Belgrade, as well as with the "I Want To Go Home" Association of Knin, whose foundation was initiated and logistically supported by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rughts in Serbia, and also other organizations acting in Croatia. Thus, of great importance is the fact that we provide refugees with timely and relevant information about the situation in the environment to which they are returning, their rights and obligations upon return, as well as all other aspects concerning their decision. Also, we "detect" all the problems in time and inform all relevant international organizations and diplomatic missions about them.

In the course of 1998, around 7,500 refugees from Croatia passed through the office of "I Want To Go Home", and we also received about 2,500 telephone calls. We are at liberty to say that, through our direct mediation and assistance, 746 refugees returned to Croatia during 1998.

Let us mention here that the interest of refugees in this form of return was by far greater, but that the Croatian embassy in Belgrade limited the issuing of traveling certificates ("putni list") to around 50 per week.

At the same time, the "I Want To Go Home" project has filled the "voids" in the overall procedure of refugee return, and of special importance is the fact that the various services we offer refugees free of charge (filling in and submitting forms, collecting and issuing traveling certificates, photocopying documents and completing the documentation necessary for the issuing of traveling certificates, issuing and filling in powers of attorney, requests etc.) have reduced to a minimum the possibility of various private "agencies" and individuals earning money in such a manner. We detected such persons on several occasions and informed refugees about their activities by means of leaflets.

Activities in 1999

Already at the end of 1998, the interest of refugees in returning to Croatia registered a considerable rise. The reason for this, along with the already previously present economic exhaustion, was also the situation in Kosovo, and the then intimations of a possible NATO intervention. Having lost faith in the return procedure through municipal commissioners of the Serbian Commission for Refugees, since thousands of requests had not been resolved even after a two-year period, as many as up to a hundred people visited the office of "I Want To Go Home" daily. However, the pace of work this year was dictated by the well-known circumstances caused by the NATO intervention.

From January 1st to March 24th we registered a larger number of refugees than in the previous winter months - a total of around 6,000. From March 24th onwards, at the time of the NATO intervention, return was completely suspended. The Croatian embassy did not work, which prevented the issuing of traveling certificates, the only document with which a refugee can cross the border. During that time, until June, the number of refugees in our office drastically dropped since it was not possible to travel, and often not even to make telephone calls in the newly created circumstances.

With the cessation of the NATO intervention on the territory of Serbia and Montenegro, over the following months the offices of "I Want To Go Home" started being visited again, this time by hundreds of refugees daily. The monthly average of all the services offered at our office reached the figure of around 2,200. Until December alone, we were addressed by around 10,400 refugees from Croatia. In December we expect, together with the already scheduled and processed cases, the number of our services to grow in accordance with the dynamics from the previous four-month period, and to account for around 2,200 services. In the course of 1999, the office of "I Want To Go Home" offered refugees a total of around 18,600 services.

Due to the large number of refugees who opt for returning to Croatia, especially following the NATO intervention, and on the basis of mutual trust, we have managed to "soften" the Croatian embassy's previously rigid procedure for issuing traveling certificates. Refugees now no longer have to stand in front of the Republic of Croatia's embassy in Belgrade like before. All the documentation is, according to the set procedure, completed by activists of "I Want To Go Home". They submit the cases for processing, collect traveling certificates and hand them to refugees. We have managed to raise the number of cases processed weekly by the Croatian embassy to around 120.

For a short period of time at the beginning of the year, in cooperation with the UNHCR, we organized free transport to the refugees' previous places of residence for those without money, although part of them opted for independent departure. We previously informed them in detail about all the rights they were eligible for immediately upon return, everything they should do to obtain their property and whom to address for humanitarian assistance or repair.

Even though the "I Want To Go Home" project has been financially "uncovered" since this April, along with all the present activities, we are planning new ones as well. The already prepared project "I Want To Go Home" Benkovac, with subprojects for return to Jagodnja Gornja, Zapuzane, Pristeg and Miranje Gornje, has aroused the interest and, as a model, met with the support of international organizations acting in that region, primarily the OSCE in Zadar and Knin, as well as the UNHCR, CRS and IRC, and also organizations in Serbia, especially the IOM, with which we plan to achieve cooperation as regards organized group return. The Benkovac region is under the strong influence of right-wing parties and currents in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union and it is precisely for this reason that the return is minimal. According to our estimates, this region has the lowest percentage of returnees of all the municipalities in Croatia. It is precisely due to this that we consider these projects to be of great importance, since they provide a "nucleus" for a more massive and better quality return in the near future, all the more so since the interest of refugees from that region is truly large. "I Want To Go Home" possesses lists of several hundred people who are ready to have us organize their return at any time.

At the end of 1999, on the example of our previous group return model, we started forming a group of returnees interested in a permanent, organized return. In cooperation with the ICMC, we launched the realization of this project. Namely, the ICMC transports returnees to Croatia, helps in obtaining documents and assists in minor house repairs. We organize our clients, whom we have helped to obtain traveling certificates, i.e. whom we have acquainted with the possibilities of organized return, into groups which they transport. The first such group left for Sector North on November 19th, and the second for Sector South on November 26th. By contacting the offices of international organizations in Croatia we endeavor to obtain information about our returnees and we intervene if necessary.

On November 29th, in cooperation with the UNHCR, a pilot-group of returnees with traveling certificates was transported to Croatia. Talks are expected to be conducted with the UNHCR on the possible continuation of cooperation as regards organized return, so we hope the transport of returnees with traveling certificates will be realized on a regular basis. The dynamics according to which the UNHCR returns groups of refugees is much slower due to their procedure, agreed on with the governments of the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

All the information received upon the arrival of refugees to their original places of residence is encouraging, since not a single incident has been registered, and they have also received humanitarian assistance in a relatively record period of time. The interest of refugees in organized return is very large, so that, with the improvement of the weather conditions, we expect a large refugee wave in the spring.

Future activities

On the basis of hitherto experiences in the return of refugees to Croatia, we consider it necessary to expand the office network of "I Want To Go Home" in Serbia and Montenegro, especially in the places where the Croatian embassy has opened consular sections, in Subotica and Kotor. Since even the most trivial reason of not having money for a ticket to Belgrade often prevents refugees from addressing us for assistance in their return, "I Want To Go Home" is planning, with the help of donors, to open offices in the places where a larger concentration of the refugee population has been registered, primarily in Kragujevac and Nis.

For the same reason, we will also initiate the opening of "I Want To Go Home" offices in the places in Croatia where refugees are returning to, so as to establish firmer bridge-cooperation on the model of the hitherto experiences with Knin. Also, we will work on linking all non-governmental organizations so that the return process would proceed as fast as possible, and in order for us together to surmount the obstacles and barriers posed by the current authorities.

We consider it of great importance to lobby among refugees from Croatia for them to vote at the upcoming parliamentary elections in Croatia to be held on January 3rd 2000. All refugees with a certificate of Croatian citizenship ("domovnica") have the right to vote, and they will be able to cast their ballots at the Republic of Croatia's diplomatic-consular missions. "I Want To Go Home" will endeavor, in cooperation with the UNHCR, OSCE and other international organizations, to organize the transport of refugees from collective centers to polling stations, and to inform them, through the media and with leaflets, about the importance of their decision to vote.

By treating the problem of return as a regional problem, and in view of the fact that refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially from the territory of Republika Srpska, live in the houses of Serbs who have fled Croatia, we plan to open an "I Want To Go Home" office in Banja Luka, as well as in Brcko and other places from which Croat refugees originate. Return to these places is also possible on the model of the "nucleus" groups, which has been attested to by the example of the return to Drvar which, through the Association of the Citizens of Drvar in Belgrade, was organized by an activist of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Many other non-governmental organizations acting on the territory of the former Yugoslavia could, on the positive example of the activities by "I Want To Go Home", apply this method of offering assistance to refugees for their permanent return home.

To our best knowledge, interest in returning does exist among refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, both those accommodated in Croatia and those on the territories of Serbia and Montenegro, despite the authorities of both states which keep hindering it for the purpose of "improving" the ethnic picture, that is verifying the carried out ethnic cleansing. At the same time, they have not ensured even the most basic preconditions for the integration of this category of their temporary residents.