The Norwegian Refugee Council has the following goals for its work in Serbia
- Contribute to refugees from Croatia
and Bosnia and Herzegovina being able to return home
- Assist integration of refugees in Serbia
who cannot or choose not to return to their home country
- Facilitate return of internally displaced
Serbs, Romanis (gypsies) and other minorities to Kosovo
- Help ensure refugees' and internally
displaced persons' basic civil rights
- Help strengthen the development of a state ruled by law and respect for human rights, including equal treatment of different ethnic groups
- Running legal aid projects for refugees
and internally displaced persons, consisting of a combination of information
about their rights, legal assistance for individuals and spokesperson activities
on the basis of systematic results from individual cases
- Providing information and guidance in
connection with repatriation
- Contributing building materials for
improvement of homes for refugees that have already started the integration
process and for internally displaced persons
- Expanding the capacity of old people's
homes, so as to ensure place for lone elderly refugees, especially from
- Building up the capacity of local organizations to improve civilian society, with particular focus on legal aid organizations
The Norwegian Refugee Council has worked with free legal aid for refugees in Serbia since 1997 and for internally displaced persons from Kosovo since 1999. These activities are now run from five offices in Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Kraljevo and Nis and using mobile teams to reach people who live a long way from the Norwegian Refugee Council's offices. The regional collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council's offices in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo is crucial to be able to protect and promote the clients' interests in their current place of residence as well as their home place.
There are other organizations that also provide free legal aid for the same target group, but the Norwegian Refugee Council has tended to pursue more cases through the courts than other organizations, where this was necessary, including the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. This has provided a particularly solid basis for the spokesperson activities the organization runs, with a view to removing obstacles to return and integration. The legal aid project appears to be developing in the direction of fewer, but more complicated and labour-intensive cases, at the same time as ever more resources are being used for spokesperson activities.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has run building projects in Serbia since 1995; at first building new homes and old people's homes for refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. In 1999, a build-it-yourself project was started for rehabilitation of homes for internally displaced persons and their host families in order to relieve the acute and very difficult housing situation. This was later expanded to also include refugees and is still going on today. In addition, we are increasing the capacity in several centres for the elderly to make space for elderly refugees from collective centres.
Recent developments - the conflict and the refugee situation
In autumn 2000, a peaceful "revolution" resulted in a new, democratic regime coming to power in Belgrade. This spelt the end of more than a decade of isolation and paved the way for international support for the country. Some of the support was withheld as a means to put pressure on the authorities to collaborate with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. But the country is still a long way from the economic level it had before Milosevic came to power. The infrastructure was badly damaged during the NATO bombing, and the economy, which was under strain before the war, has deteriorated rapidly. The United Nations estimates that more than 35 % of the population in Serbia and Montenegro are now living below the poverty line. At the same time, the country still houses the largest number of refugees of any European country.
Just under half a million of the refugees in Serbia are from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and have been refugees for seven or more years, while some 200 000 Serbs, Romanis and other minorities are internally displaced persons from the Kosovo province.
Repatriation of the refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia happened extremely slowly, but recent developments have been promising, especially regarding Bosnia, not least as a result of the fact that many refugees have had returned to them their previously occupied properties or their leases. In Croatia too, there has been a slight increase in the number of returning refugees, but there are still numerous major administrative and legal obstacles - particularly in terms of property issues. However, the security situation has improved for the people returning to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and serious episodes are few and far between. The picture is somewhat different in Kosovo. Although international authorities report slight improvements in the security situation for minorities and in association with UNHCR and others are facilitating return to areas other than the small minority-dominated areas, in practice, very few people return. Tension is till high in areas on both sides of the (administrative) border with Kosovo.
The Cold War had scarcely ended before major conflicts began to surface in the former Yugoslavia. The country was populated by people from many different ethnic groups, and in the struggle for political power, politicians stirred up ethnic differences and conflicts. This tactic was used in particular by the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who shelved the communist slogans, playing instead on Serb nationalism.
The internal tensions in Yugoslavia broke out into full-scale war when Slovenia and Croatia demanded independence in 1991. In Croatia, the war resulted in huge waves of refugees, both Serbs and Croats. In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina demanded independence, and the bloody civil war that ensued sent 700 000 Bosnians fleeing from the country, while some 1.2 million were internally displaced.
Serbia and Montenegro formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1995, several hundred thousand Serbs fled from the Krajina area of Croatia and out of the country after an attack by the Croatian authorities. Most of them fled to Yugoslavia, which received at least 700 000 Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s.
In the summer and autumn of 1999, after the end of the NATO attack and when the Albanian population had returned to the province in the course of a few weeks, another mass exodus began; this time of the minority population in Kosovo of Serbs, Romanis, etc. who felt threatened. Some 220 000 people left the area, approx. 200 000 of whom ended up in Serbia.
Kosovo is under the administration of the international community through the United Nations (see the presentation of the situation in Kosovo for more details).