At the beginning of this month, I attended in Belgrade the successful Ministerial Review Conference on Resolving the Refugee Situation in the Western Balkans. At the event, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia signed a joint declaration aimed at providing durable solutions to the 74,000 remaining most vulnerable refugees and IDPs in the four countries. They agreed to close the remaining collective centers where many thousands of refugees are currently living and to provide durable housing solutions for them and other at-risk displaced persons. The agreement is a landmark achievement for humanitarian diplomacy and represents sustained effort by the four governments involved, the UNHCR, the EU, the OSCE, the United States, and others.
PRM delegation and partners in front of Raca collective center. Photo: Department of State
Resolving the Balkans refugee crisis is part of a broader UNHCR strategy to address protracted situations worldwide, an effort PRM has aggressively joined. UNHCR currently defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which 25,000 or more refugees originating from the same country have sought refuge in another country for at least five consecutive years. More than 10 million people currently live in protracted refugee situations in 30 countries, almost two-thirds of the global refugee population.
In the Balkans, as of the beginning of 2011, a total of 99,000 refugees remain displaced in the region due to the 1991-1995 conflict and more than 15 years after the signing of the Dayton Accords. In addition, some 328,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) live in the region, many of them displaced during the more recent conflict in Kosovo. Both the 1995 Dayton Accords and the Sarajevo Declaration of 2005 supported the universal right of refugees to return. Although many refugees returned to their countries of origin, especially to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the process for comprehensive resolution of the legacy of the Balkans War stalled over time. Inadequate housing, with many refugees still living in collective centers in the region, unemployment, lack of documentation, as well as unresolved claims to tenancy, property, and pensions, challenged refugees’ ability to either integrate locally or repatriate. The new agreement reaffirms the right to return and provides concrete assistance to make it a reality.
On the margins of the conference, I also had the opportunity to visit a number of PRM-funded projects in Serbia, including a remarkable family that turned an income generation grant into life-changing self-sufficiency, and I reviewed a range of housing solutions that PRM has funded including village housing, prefabricated housing, and "social housing" for people who will need on-going support. The same week I visited these initiatives, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Patrick Moon inaugurated another project--a block of 14 apartments for displaced persons--for which PRM provided $500,000, along with contributions from USAID and the local government. When UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited the project, the new residents immediately dubbed it "Villa Angelina." Whatever works.
PRM provided tools for upkeep of this displaced family’s vineyard. Photo: Department of State
Humanitarian diplomacy is as important a part of PRM’s mandate as is our programming. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful our efforts helped bring Balkan governments together to close a painful chapter in their shared history and to find dignified and durable solutions for 74,000 people who otherwise had little hope of a better future. We will continue our advocacy on behalf of other people caught in protracted situations and look forward to your continued support and partnership.
David M. Robinson
Acting Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration