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Between 300,000 and 350,000 Serbs left their homes in Croatia during the 1991-95 war. This report describes the continued plight of displacement suffered by the Serbs of Croatia and identifies the principal remaining impediments to their return. The most significant problem is the difficulty Serbs face in returning to their pre-war homes. Despite repeated promises, the Croatian government has been unwilling and unable to solve this problem for the vast majority of displaced Serbs. In addition, fear of arbitrary arrest on war-crimes charges and discrimination in employment and pension benefits also deter return. Human Rights Watch believes that these problems are a result of a practice of ethnic discrimination against Serbs by the Croatian government. The report concludes with a list of recommendations to the government of Croatia and the international community to deal with these persistent problems and finally make good on the promise of return.

Precise statistics for how many of the more than 300,000 displaced Serbs have returned do not exist. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by June 2001, between 100,000 and 110,000 Croatian Serbs had returned.1 The number of returns registered by the Croatian government in November 2002 was 96,500.2 Both UNHCR and the government figures overrate the actual number of returnees, because, after a short stay in Croatia, many depart again for Serbia and Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina.3 Among those who stay in Croatia, most are elderly. Families with children rarely decide to return, and, unless the trend changes in the near future, it is likely that within a decade or two, the Serb population in most parts of Croatia will all but disappear.4 While in 1991 Serbs made up 12.1 percent of Croatia’s population, the 2001 census showed their number had fallen to a mere 4.5 percent.5

At first sight, one might expect that responsibility for the failure of refugee return lies with the Croatian nationalist parties now holding power locally in many former Serb communities, rather than with the central government currently dominated by moderate political parties. Certainly serious problems persist at the local level: local courts and administrative bodies have failed to evict Croat occupants of houses belonging to returning Serbs; the local police and state prosecutors carry out arrests of Serbs on often-frivolous war-crime charges; and local public enterprises fail to employ returning Serbs.

On closer inspection, however, the role of the central government emerges as equally, if not more, important. Most importantly, the central government has failed to create a political climate conducive to return. This failure has been a disappointment to observers sympathetic to the democratic changes in Croatia at the beginning of the decade. In the parliamentary elections held on January 3, 2000, and the presidential elections of February 7 of the same year, a coalition of parties with a professed strong commitment to democracy and human rights defeated the then-ruling Croatian Democratic Union of the late president Franjo Tudjman.6 On February 8, 2000, the new government unveiled its legislative program, committing itself to uphold minority rights and to carry out the legislative and administrative changes necessary to facilitate the return of Serb refugees. In April 2000, the new parliament adopted laws on minority languages and education; in June, amendments to the reconstruction law and the law on the so-called “areas of special state concern” for the first time offered the prospect of equal treatment for displaced and refugee Serbs seeking to return to their homes in Croatia.7 In recognition of Croatia’s progress toward democratization, in May 2001, the European Union entered into a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Croatia, establishing favorable economic and trade relations and cooperation in justice and internal affairs.8

Notwithstanding the early positive signs, hopes that the new government would truly commit to the return of Serb refugees have remained unfulfilled. The government has never genuinely attempted to build a public atmosphere in which the populace would welcome return of Croatian Serbs. Instead, the authorities have consistently prioritized the needs and rights of ethnic Croats—including Croat refugees from Bosnia—over the rights of Serb refugees and returnees. This official posture both reflects and reinforces public opposition to refugee return.9 Only in June 2003, eight years after the end of the war, did the Prime Minister of Croatia for the first time publicly invite Serb refugees to return to the country.10

The central government has made little headway toward resolving the issue of tenancy rights stripped from tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs during the war. While the government has done impressive work in reconstructing the damaged or destroyed houses of ethnic Croats, reconstruction assistance to returning Serbs began only at the end of 2002. A web of return-related laws and regulations, often mutually exclusive or overlapping, has for years created a legal conundrum utterly incomprehensible to prospective returnees. The competence of various agencies involved in the returns process is also ill-defined, further hindering return. In the words of an international official in Croatia, due to the complicated and contradictory legislation “even an official with the best will in the world finds it difficult to help a Serb who wants to return.”11 The parliament has failed to enact a number of reforms required to facilitate return, and the measures it has adopted have been belated or flawed.

Beyond the unconstructive role of the local and national authorities in Croatia, an additional obstacle to Serb return to Croatia is the attitude of the authorities in Serbia and Montenegro, where many Croatian Serb refugees reside. While paying lip service to the right to return, in practice the authorities of Serbia and Montenegro have subtly discouraged it, or at least kept the issue low on their agenda. Both the national and Serbian governments have shown much greater interest in receiving foreign funds for the integration of refugees in Serbia and Montenegro than in facilitating their return to their country of origin.12

Eight years after the end of the war in Croatia, the continued displacement of hundreds of thousands of Croatian Serbs remains one of its most lasting scars. This report surveys the principal impediments to return. Below are recommendations to the Croatian government and the international community to redress this situation. Notwithstanding progress on reform in other areas, to date the government has lacked that essential political leadership to effectively facilitate minority return and rebuild Croatia as a multi-ethnic state.

1 “Croatia Pledges to Solve Refugee Problem by End of 2002,” Agence France Presse, June 8, 2001 (statement by Robert Robinson, then-head of the UNHCR mission to Croatia).

2 OSCE Mission to Croatia, Status Report no. 11, November 18, 2002, p. 12 (quoting Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction, Department for Expellees, Returnees and Refugees).

3 A February 2001 field survey conducted by the OSCE field office in Gracac found that “out of a sample of 351 names on UNHCR returnee lists for seven outlying villages in Gracac municipality, only about 60 percent are still in the area, most of the rest having moved back to FR Yugoslavia or other areas.” [OSCE Field Office in Gracac,] “Gracac Municipality: Overview,” February 2001, p. 3. OSCE officials in Pakrac (Western Slavonia) told Human Rights Watch in June 2002 that in the Brodsko-Posavska county only one third of the returnees stayed. Human Rights Watch interview with OSCE officials in Pakrac, June 18, 2002. Based on regular visits to the returnees in the municipality, the Benkovac office of the Serbian Democratic Forum established that, as of May 2003, there were only 1,230 returnees in the area, although government statistics put the figure at 2,220. Serbian Democratic Forum office in Benkovac, statistics on returns, May 2003 (on file with Human Rights Watch). (The Serbian Democratic Forum, the leading association of Croatian Serbs, is an implementing partner with the UNHCR on returns issues.)

4 The Croatian Ombudsperson Ante Klaric recently observed that “the Serb youth does not return, and for that reason some parts of Croatia have become depopulated.” Snjezana Canić Divic, “Ne vracaju se mladi Srbi, zbog cega su neki hrvatski krajevi opustjeli” (“Parts of Croatia Have Become Depopulated Because Young Serbs Do Not Return”), Vjesnik (Zagreb), June 10, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 20, 2003) (statement by Ante Klaric).

5 Croatian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population, Households and Dwellings, 31st March 2001 [online], (retrieved June 20, 2003).

6 Tudjman died on December 11, 1999, three weeks before the parliamentary elections.

7 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, chapter on Croatia, at

8 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, chapter on Croatia, available at Croatia and the E.U. signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement on October 29, 2001. As of this writing, ratification by some E.U. member state parliaments was still pending. The Netherlands decided in December 2002 not to ratify the agreement due to Croatia’s refusal to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

9 A majority of the population continues to harbor strong anti-Serb sentiments. In a poll administered in early 2002, just slightly over a half of the Croatian respondents (54.2 percent) said they would not object to a marriage between a family member and a Serb. Substantially more respondents said they would approve a marriage of a family member to members of other ethnic groups: 86.7 percent were in favor of marriage to Italians; 80.9 to Hungarians; 80.7 to Slovenes; 68.7 to Bosnians; and 62.9 to Montenegrins. Irena Kustura and Maja Pejkovic-Kacanski, “Madjari najdrazi susjedi, Talijani najbolji za brak” (Hungarians Favorite Neighbors, Italians Best for Marriage), Vecernji List (Zagreb), January 28, 2002 [online], (retrieved June 20, 2003).

10 Dada Zecic, “Racan pozvao izbjegle Srbe da se vrate u Hrvatsku” (“Racan Invited Refugee Serbs to Return”) Vjesnik (Zagreb), June 13, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 20, 2003).

11 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Becker, deputy head of OSCE mission in Croatia, Zagreb, August 22, 2001.

12 The Serbian government, for example, still holds birth and residence registers from the municipalities of Plaski, Dvor, Drnis and Glina, which were Serb-controlled during the 1991-95 war. V.R., “Odnesene maticne knjige iz Plaskog, Dvora, Drnisa i Gline” (Registers from Plaski, Dvor, Drnis and Glina Taken Away), Vjesnik (Zagreb), June 4, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 20, 2003) (statement by Slobodan Ljubisic, Assistant to the Minister for General Administration and Civil Affairs). This hinders issuance of identity documents for the Serb refugees from these areas. Human Rights Watch interview with Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, then-Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, Belgrade, Aug. 21, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Mirko Vukcevic, lawyer at the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Belgrade, December 11, 2002.

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September 2003