YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Population displacement is now set in stone

YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Population displacement is now set in stone
This first-hand experience of displacement partly explains the region’s admirable response to the Syrian refugee crisis in contrast to its EU neighbours.
By Alex Young in Belgrade June 13, 2016

Civilians are always the foremost victims of war. Half of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s population were forced from their homes by the fighting of the early nineties; 1.2mn fleeing the country as refugees, 1m becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of these refugees fled the former Yugoslavia entirely, making new homes across Europe.

This first-hand experience of displacement partly explains the region’s admirable response to the Syrian refugee crisis in contrast to its EU neighbours. Yet faced with an ageing population (except in Albania and Kosovo), this loss of human capital is greatly rued. Efforts to encourage return are, however, being substituted by initiatives to strengthen ties with diaspora, on whom many depend for remittances. The consequences of displacement in the former Yugoslavia are now increasingly set in stone. 

Nearly every corner of the former Yugoslavia has had to deal with the impact of population movements. At one stage, some 700,000 people in Serbia were registered as refugees/IDPs from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo; an enormous burden for a country suffering from the impact of sanctions. Croatia has also had to contend with the twin legacies of internal displacement and an influx of Croats from Vojvodina, an autonomous province in neighbouring Serbia. Kosovo’s own 1999 refugee crisis - where some 850,000 crossed the border into Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) - promoted Nato’s humanitarian intervention to expel the Serbian military.

The war in Bosnia & Herzegovina did however create a new human right; namely, to have one’s property rights restored. This right was afforded to upwards of a million people.

Restoring property rights, however, did not restore the fabric of the communities destroyed by war. Many either sold or exchanged their properties. It was often only the elderly who returned; returned in order to die in the place they were born. Young people sought to rebuild their lives elsewhere. The goal of recovering Bosnia’s patchwork of inter-ethnic communities living harmoniously together was never achieved.

Property restitution, however, remains one of the key obstacles to return in Kosovo, especially for IDPs in Serbia seeking to recover their illegally occupied property.

Efforts to promote sustainable return are still ongoing, though diminishing. A large regional housing project focusing on the most socially-vulnerable refugees/IDPs is being implemented in Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia. Serbia is planning an extensive housing project in ‘Sunny Valley’ in north Kosovo; though it has been met with accusations of demographic manipulation, especially as many Albanians expelled from the north have not yet been allowed to return.

Population drain

Whilst security remains one prime consideration, the lack of jobs is the main impediment to return across the former Yugoslavia. Many have made new lives elsewhere, and have little appetite for returning to their birthplace.   

Hundreds of thousands of refugees left the region entirely, further decimating its stocks of human capital. Recent census results graphically illustrated that this trend has continued. Bosnia & Herzegovina’s population has plummeted 13% since 1991, whilst Serbia lost some 5% of its population between 2002 and 2011. The EU’s newest member state, Croatia, had 150,000 fewer inhabitants in 2011 than a decade before.

Few members of the diaspora seek or intend to return. Every summer they flood back to project the success of their new-found life abroad. Many save the entire year to be able to afford to hire cars and shower their extended friends and families with dinners and drinks.  

Instead, former Yugoslav countries are now trying to foster ties - economic or cultural - with those who have departed. The Serbian government, for instance, has a dedicated Office for Cooperation with the Diaspora and Serbs in the Region, seeking to benefit from business and trade ties its former residents may be able to offer.

Remittances have not unsurprisingly become a vital source of income for nearly every country in the region; accounting for roughly 11% of GDP in Bosnia, 9% in Serbia and over 17% in Kosovo. Labour has essentially constituted one of the prime exports of the former Yugoslavia, a trend which continues through efforts by tens of thousands of the region’s citizens to gain asylum in Europe every year. Lost amidst the Syrian refugee crisis is the fact that some 40,000 Kosovars sought asylum in Europe in the early months of 2015.  

Where minorities remained, so disputes over their rights continue to be a source of tension. Serbs in the north of Kosovo maintain parallel institutions providing vital services with funding from Belgrade. Whilst some progress has been made on the integration front, most notably with the police, they continue to reject the writ of Pristina.

Serbia's restive Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) and Albanian populations remain a cause of concern, especially because of fears of radicalisation. Debates about language rights have reignited tensions in Croatia with its Serb minority, especially around the city of Vukovar. Bosnia's minorities - namely its ‘others’ who choose not to identify as belonging to one of the country's three constituent nations - are deemed key to building a civic state, though they remain marginalized from political life due to the structure of Dayton. The plight of the region’s sizeable Roma population, however, remains largely ignored.

Many former Yugoslav citizens were forced to make new lives after the collapse of their country, either elsewhere in one of the states which emerged or outside the region entirely. Whilst a great deal of international energy was sunk into restoring property rights and providing assistance, sustainable return has not been achieved and the demographic impact of war has not been undone. The region’s human capital has been permanently depleted, with only remittances by way of scant consolation.

Where pockets of minorities persist, disputes about rights and devolved powers continue to drive tensions. The Syrian refugee crisis has reminded the region of its own suffering in the face of war, and the trans-generational costs of forcing people from their homes. The scars of the Yugoslav wars continue to be lived on a daily basis. 

This article is part of a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.