Refugees can never go home, says UN

Former Yugoslavia: Two unreleased reports show that the goals of the Dayton peace agreement look increasingly untenable
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The Independent Online
Nine months after the Dayton peace accords, the United Nations has given up returning all Bosnian refugees to their homes, and accepted an "ethnically cleansed" Bosnia.

An unpublished report, obtained by the Independent, reveals that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has decided drastically to scale down the number of refugees it will help. In a surrender to the reality on the ground, the UNHCR says it will no longer attempt to return Bosnian refugees to areas where they would be a minority.

The report states that only refugees returning to areas where they would be in the majority can except UN assistance, and it highlights 19 "priority" areas.

More than 2.4 million refugees fled Bosnia during the war and hundreds of thousands of Bosnians are "displaced" inside the country. As recently as March the UNHCR's objective was to return 870,000 this year. Now that target has been reduced to 135,000.

The immediate effect will be that many of these people - Muslims, Croats and Bosnian Serbs - will never be able to return home. For example, the Muslim women who fled the Srebrenica massacre last July now know that they will receive no UN help should they wish to return to the town which now has a Serb majority. Only six days ago the international community pledged "never to forget" the women of Srebrenica.

The policy change is certain to further undermine the credibility of the United Nations in Bosnia, where it will face accusations that it is not only accepting the de facto ethnic division of Bosnia, but making the UN a party to the process.

The UNHCR report constitutes another nail in the coffin of the Dayton peace accord. Dayton envisaged a multi- ethnic Bosnia, in which freedom of movement would be secured for all ethnic groups. It aimed to create a climate in which all refugees would feel secure enough to return to their areas.

The international community was insistent that peace in Bosnia would not mean victory for "ethnic cleansing".

In the report, entitled "Priority areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina for reconstruction and return of displaced persons and refugees", the UN accepts that the return of refugees has "proceeded more slowly than was hoped for". Only 70,000 have returned to their homes since Dayton "and to date virtually no returns to minority areas have taken place."

The reports cites "freedom of movement and security concerns" as the main reason. This is an acknowledgement of the failure of the American- led I-For force, which is responsible for the military aspects of the peace deal, to get rid of road blocks and stop the use of threats and intimidation, which prevent refugees returning to areas where they are a minority.

The report says the reconstruction effort in Bosnia has been so limited that it is impossible for most refugees to even consider returning, and the UNHCR calls for an extra $160m (pounds 103m) in aid, in addition to the $6bn already agreed for reconstruction. New infrastructure built so far meets only a "small portion" of refugees' needs, the UNHCR says. The UN's decision to rationalise its refugee effort may partly be due to pressure from Germany to speed up the return of more than 320,000 Bosnian refugees still on German soil. Germany, which received more Bosnian refugees than any other country, has been exerting mounting pressure on the UN to find ways of removing them.

On Monday, Bonn presented its own list of "priority areas" for return to a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. But, in another sign of discord in the West over Bosnia, the German "priority areas" were totally different from the UN "priority areas".