The Croatian government has failed to take significant steps to facilitate the return of Serb refugees, despite pledges by the new prime minister and calls by the European Union as part of accession talks, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The briefing paper assesses Croatia’s progress on the return of Serb refugees and internally displaced persons since September, 2003, when Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive, 61-page report Broken Promises: Impediments to Refugee Return to Croatia .

“The Croatian government must take stronger measures to facilitate the return of Serb refugees,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “The new government’s statements are welcome, but they must be matched by action.”

Since September, Croatian authorities have made little progress toward the repossession of Serb-owned properties or identifying alternative housing for Serbs who lost the right to use state-owned (so-called “socially owned”) apartments. Flawed domestic war crimes trials marked by ethnic bias against Serbs also dissuade refugees from returning.

The Croatian parliament elected a new cabinet on December 23, following parliamentary elections on November 22. The new prime minister, Ivo Sanader, has made repeated calls for Serb refugees from Croatia to return to the country and pledged to make improvements for the Serb minority in various sectors of political and social life.

On April 20, the European Commission recommended that negotiations for accession to the European Union be opened with Croatia. The Commission, however, also stressed that Croatian authorities needed to “accelerate efforts to facilitate the return of Serb refugees from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and “ensure that the rights of minorities, in particular of the Serb minority, are fully respected.”

“The European Commission’s recommendations give Croatia a historic opportunity to move forward on refugee returns,” said Denber. “Tangible progress on returns must remain a precondition to EU membership for Croatia.”

Around 300,000 Serbs fled Croatia during the 1991-1995 war. There are no precise figures for the numbers who have since returned. The Croatian government has registered more than 108,000 returns, but after a short stay, many returnees depart again for Serbia or Bosnia. In some parts of Croatia, less than half of those who return remain in Croatia permanently.

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper finds that progress on the repossession of Serb properties by the Croatian government has been unjustifiably slow. The inability to repossess property held illegally by temporary occupants remains a key obstacle. Virtually no progress has been made in providing housing for Serb refugees who were deprived of their tenancy rights for socially owned apartments, during and after the war.

“The government should improve and implement legislation to provide housing to former tenancy rights holders who return, and it should devise a compensation scheme for those who choose not to return,” said Denber.

In positive contrast to slow progress on property repossession, the government has continued to reconstruct thousands of destroyed Serb houses, Human Rights Watch found.

Throughout the country, arrests and trials for war crimes remain marred by ethnic bias, which deters return even for those Serbs who have not been indicted. Little or no progress has been made in tackling discrimination in employment or providing compensation for lost pension payments.

The briefing paper includes recommendations to the Croatian government to facilitate the return of Serb refugees. These measures include tackling the use of Serb-owned homes as businesses or second homes by Croats, allowing holders of tenancy rights to reoccupy their former apartments where they have not been privatized, and dropping war crimes indictments against Serbs where there is no prima facie case on the evidence.