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Croatia: Plight of Returning Serb Refugees May Slow EU Bid

EU Should Press Zagreb to Take Stronger Action on Security, Housing, Employment

Serb refugees returning to Croatia face significant obstacles to the full enjoyment of their human rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Croatia is a candidate for European Union membership, and respect for minority rights is a requirement.

The 41-page report, “A Decade of Disappointment: Continuing Obstacles to the Reintegration of Serb Returnees,” analyzes the key human rights problems affecting returning Serbs, including violence and intimidation, the loss of housing rights and limited access to state employment. Successive government programs to assist returning Serbs have failed to deliver real benefits, with the qualified exception of a program to rebuild war-damaged homes.

“Serb returnees in Croatia still live a precarious existence,” said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director. “The Croatian government needs to get more serious about improving life for this community if it expects progress on EU membership.”

As many as 350,000 ethnic Serbs fled their homes in Croatia during the 1991-95 war. The Croatian government has registered around 120,000 returns, but the actual number is almost certainly lower. Because of the poor conditions, many Serbs stay only for a short time in Croatia, before returning to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The failure to address housing rights stripped from Croatian Serbs during the war continues to obstruct sustainable return to urban areas. Many Serbs who enjoyed permanent rights to occupy state apartments had these rights terminated when they fled their homes during the war. Government programs designed to provide them with substitute housing have proved ineffective, making return to Croatia difficult or impossible.

“Croatia’s failure to address housing rights stripped in the war sends a message that Serbs are second-class citizens,” said Cartner. “Finding a solution would signal an important shift in Croatia’s attitude toward its Serb population.”

There has been a recent upsurge of violence and intimidation against members of the Serb minority in Croatia, including several murders and bomb attacks, as well as assaults and damage to Serb-owned homes and vehicles. Some of the incidents are clearly motivated by ethnic hatred, while others strongly suggest such a motive. The Interior Ministry registered at least 48 such incidents in 2005. They have continued this year, particularly in the Zadar area. Although the government established regional focal points to monitor incidents, and stepped up police patrols in some areas, the police failed to apprehend the perpetrators in most cases.

Despite several laws enacted last year to promote public sector employment for Serbs and other minorities, there are few Serbs in state employment in the areas to which they have returned. There are almost no Serb judges in these areas, for example, despite a well-qualified pool of candidates for appointments. The limited number of Serbs in state employment contrasts with the private sector, which has made greater strides in hiring Serb returnees, suggesting that discrimination may be a factor.

Other concerns include the slow progress in restoring electricity to Serb returnee communities and, in one part of the country, the inability of the Serbs to regain full access to their agricultural land.

One partial success story is the reconstruction of Serb homes damaged or destroyed in the war. Around 4,000 houses have been reconstructed in the past two years, most of them Serb-owned. But the program took years to begin, the appeal process is slow, and there is a large backlog of applications.

With the number of Serbs returning to Croatia slowing significantly in recent years and large-scale returns now unlikely, it is critical that the Croatian government deliver progress for those Serbs who have returned to Croatia. Croatia is an official candidate for EU membership, and respect for human rights and the rights of minorities are part of the requirements for accession to the European Union, commonly known as the Copenhagen criteria.

The report includes recommendations to the Croatian government to improve the human rights of Serb returnees, including by ensuring:

  • permanent housing for Serbs who lost their housing rights during the war;

  • immediate public condemnation by senior officials of all ethnically motivated incidents and a commitment to bring those responsible to justice; and

  • the presence of Serbs on recruitment panels for public sector employment.
  • The report also calls on the European Union to include progress on security, housing and employment for Serbs in its negotiations with Croatia over EU membership.

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