Written by Ian Bancroft
Protests by ethnic Albanians over the Easter period against the return of twenty-six Serb families to the village of Zac, near Istok in the Pec district of north-western Kosovo, have once again shed light on the problems affecting internally displaced persons (IDPs). The lacklustre return of Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities to Kosovo has long constituted a major failure of the international presence in Kosovo; one that undermines assertions of Kosovo’s supposedly multi-ethnic character. Without further steps to ensure the sustainable return of Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities, the prospects for conflict transformation in Kosovo look bleak.
On 4 December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 55/76 decided that, from 2001, 20 June would be celebrated as World Refugee Day. In this resolution, the General Assembly noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. African Refugee Day had been formally celebrated in several countries prior to 2000. The UN noted that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had agreed to have International Refugee Day coincide with Africa Refugee Day on 20 June. In the Roman Catholic Church, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees is celebrated in January each year, having been instituted in 1914 by Pope Pius X.
Eduardo Arboleda, the head of UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) in Serbia, insists that “the return of displaced persons literally stopped” following Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. According to UNHCR statistics, only 631 persons returned to Kosovo last year, leaving some 205,835 registered Serb IDPs from Kosovo; with some estimates suggesting that a further 20,000 Serbs remain IDPs inside Kosovo itself. In response to these protests, Serbia’s secretary of state for Kosovo and Metohija, Oliver Ivanovic, has called upon the international community to “send a clear message to Albanians about their position over this, if their statements about supporting the return of Serbs are in fact sincere”.
A highly-critical report published last summer by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) detailed how members of minority communities were leaving Kosovo due to persistent exclusion and discrimination. Entitled ‘Filling the Vacuum: Ensuring Protection and Legal Remedies for Minorities in Kosovo’, the report concluded that Kosovo “lacks effective international protection for minorities, which is worsening the situation for smaller minorities and forcing some to leave the country for good”. These minorities include not only Kosovo’s Serbs, but also Ashkali, Bosniaks, Croats, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma and Turks, who together make up around 5% of the population of Kosovo according to local estimates.
MRG’s report also goes on to describe how “a lack of political will among majority Albanians and poor investment in protection mechanisms have resulted in minority rights being eroded or compromised in the post-independence period” and that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence has left “a vacuum in effective international protection for minorities”.
A spate of recent incidents have highlighted the lack of security guarantees that only provide a further disincentive for potential returnees. KFOR, for instance, recently condemned the desecration of several tombs in the village of Rabovce, near Lipljan in central Kosovo, emphasizing that “such incidents jeopardize productive and decent coexistence”. The grave of an ethnic Serb woman, meanwhile, the first to be buried in Gnjilane cemetery since 1999, was also vandalized. The on-going failure to tackle deficiencies in the area of the rule of law has further contributed to the plight of Kosovo’s minorities.
Mark Lattimer, the executive director of MRG, also emphasised how “restrictions of movement and political, social and economic exclusion are particularly experienced by smaller minorities”. Such conditions have been further aggravated by the worsening economic situation in Kosovo, especially for the Ashkali, Egyptian and Roma communities that suffer from deeply ingrained poverty and marginalisation.
Arboleda, however, criticised some displaced persons for not accepting the conditions offered and for demanding “really new houses and cable TV with Serb channels”. Arboleda added that, “we are under obligation to offer assistance to each returnee, but there are conditions – UNHCR is not a development agency, we can only repair houses that were damaged slightly”.
The OSCE Mission in Kosovo recently issued a report, entitled “In Pursuit of Durable Solutions for those Displaced in the Collective Centres in Strpce/Shterpce Municipality”, which described the conditions of some 700 displaced Kosovo Serbs and Serb refugees from Croatia living in collective centres and social housing as “appalling”. The report called upon the local authorities – who “have done little to encourage displaced persons to return” – to provide sustainable solutions, including the provision of better housing conditions and electricity.
The situation is such that the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has called on European countries to halt the forced return of refugees – primarily Roma – until the Kosovo authorities provide adequate living conditions, social services, employment and health care. Hammarberg insisted that, “a quick deportation from European countries now to Kosovo is irresponsible…the majority of those who are sent back are leaving Kosovo again and trying to reach other parts of Europe”.
This latest series of protests has refocused attention on the insufficient political will to ensure the sustainable return of Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities to Kosovo. In the absence of basic security guarantees and adequate living conditions, the prospect for future returns continues to diminish, despite statements to the contrary from both domestic and and international actors. The litany of failures with respect to minority rights have only been further exacerbated and entrenched by Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. Contending with the problems faced by IDPs, however, is key to alleviating a persistent source of tension and instability throughout the entire Western Balkans.
*Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.