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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: National minorities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat are minorities?- some possible criteria
View the documentThe basis of prejudice
View the documentPolitical representation
View the documentInternational legal protection
View the documentThe minority lights trap
View the documentThe African context: asset or liability?
View the documentA policy overview
View the documentTowards a new system of protection
View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
View the documentCreating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe
View the documentIndigenous peoples
View the documentSome examples of minority situations

Creating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe


We have seen from the foregoing articles that there are many different types of minority situation, characterised, on occasion, by social cohesion but often, sadly, by varying degrees of tension up to and including outright conflict. In ex-Yugoslavia, the 'minority question' is an important element in the current turmoil as the different ethnic/ religious groups (Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims) have split apart and proceeded to fight over previously- shared territory.

Such conflict creates a particular minority situation which has not Yet been covered in this Dossier-that of the refugee forced to flee his homeland and 'settle' in a neighbouring host country. Such people have very special needs but, in catering to these needs, there is a risk of alienation and suspicion vis-a-vis the host population. In this article, Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond of Oxford University's Refugee Studies Programme examines the case of the Bosnian refugees in Slovenia and Croatia. And she has some critical things to say about the possible effects of the so-called 'relief-model' which has been applied to these countries by external donors.

The crisis of those uprooted by the war in Bosnia has prompted an outpouring of humanitarian concern from ordinary people as well as the mobilising of European non-governmental agencies, many of which have established offices in the neighbouring host countries. Unfortunately, however, if the situation in Croatia and Slovenia is typical, despite knowledge acquired elsewhere, humanitarian agencies are busy implementing relief programmes in Europe which are likely to have certain negative consequences. Rather than providing the basis for encouraging tolerance of those in exile, these relief programmes are marginalising refugees and displaced Croatians as dependent minorities. As much of the money involved comes from Members of the European Community, it is relevant for Courier readers to consider their characteristics and impact.

Precisely because the relief model is now being implemented in the context of Europe, humanitarian agencies are being provided with a unique opportunity for learning. Slovenia and Croatia are experiencing at first hand what it means to be the target of such approaches and some articulate their resistance in remarks such as 'We are not Ethiopia', or 'We are civilised !' If this resistance can be turned into dialogue, the situation provides an opportunity for the humanitarian regime to improve approaches to assistance everywhere, because the problems of the relief model appear all over the world-including in Ethiopia.

There are many issues which would benefit from open discussion. For example, while the sectarian practices of Christian humanitarian agencies often go unchallenged, the arrival in the region of large numbers of Muslim agencies has made the fear of proselytising a salient issue. At the same time, both Christian and secular agencies could learn a great deal from the humane and respectful 'style' of giving by some of those Muslim agencies observed.


Both Croatia and Slovenia have been recognised as independent states and have become members of the United Nations within the last two years. At the same time as these new countries are responding to the challenges of restructuring governmental and economic institutions, and developing a new legislative system, they are having to cope with the humanitarian crisis caused by the war.

Very briefly, the war in Croatia began to displace people in December 1991, affecting both Croatia and Slovenia.

Refugees from Bosnia began to arrive in both countries from April 1992.

Although Slovenia has attempted to seal its border with Croatia since August 1992, Bosnians continue to arrive.

In Croatia, there are an estimated 535 000 Bosnian refugees and Croatians displaced from the territories occupied by Serbian forces. Slovenia estimates that it is currently hosting some 70 000 refugees from Bosnia. While the majority in both countries are still 'spontaneously settled' (i.e. living with local families), the others are variously housed in available empty buildings.

In Croatia, refugees are not barred from working and, even when they are living under camp-like conditions, there are no restrictions on their freedom of movement. In Slovenia, however, refugees are not permitted access to gainful employment and freedom of movement from some of the collective centres is restricted.

The relief model

As documented in so many other host countries, imposing an internationally funded relief model results in practices which disadvantage both refugees and their hosts. Donor states rarely grant bilateral aid directly to host governments; it is normally channeled through multilateral, intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) and/or through nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) based and staffed in the donor state. Donors, in exchange for aid, expect certain concessions: for example, the right to determine what is purchased, and where.

Since the mid-1980s, donor governments have demonstrated greater confidence in the work of NGOs over IGOs, leading to increased competition for funding and complicating efforts to achieve cooperation at the field level. Donors expect their agencies to take major responsibility for designing policy, shifting the direction of accountability from the host government to the donors. Accountability is defined in terms of financial probity rather than the effectiveness of programmes in meeting the needs of the beneficiaries for whom the funding is intended. Very few relief programmes are subject to independent evaluation.

The degree of media attention and the strategic interests of the donors are major factors which determine the amount of aid and the length of time that it will be available. In addition to government sources, NGOs raise money from the public, depending on images of helplessness and dependence. These appeals influence the design of programmes which fail to account for refugees' own energies, skills and determination to reconstruct their lives. Perhaps it is the general assumption in the world of the donors that victims are without resources which contributes to the sense that ultimate responsibility lies with the foreign agencies.

The fact that Croatia and Slovenia, having decided to accept international aid, find themselves following the norms of the relief model has occurred as a consequence of the presumption that the crisis is temporary. Neither government has been able to persuade donors to invest funds in developmental projects which would go towards expanding social services and employment.

Both countries have established special refugee offices. In Croatia, this office is directly responsible to the Vice-President; in Slovenia, to the Prime Minister. In theory, responsibility at such high level centres of governmental decision-making is important. In practice, it has led to the isolation of these offices from government ministries. For a successful refugee policy to be developed, there is need for greater cooperation and coordination with line ministries.

As a number of studies have demonstrated, and as is becoming evident in Slovenia and Croatia, the relief approach is not only wasteful but has its own dehumanising dynamic. Relief programmes foster bureaucratic interests in maintaining a dependent constituency. In the interests of 'efficient' distribution, relief programmes encourage the confinement of refugees in one place; they also encourage authoritarian styles of management. One of the most effective methods of 'control' (though inefficient in ensuring an adequate diet) is to keep refugees dependent on communally cooked food; a general practice in Croatian and Slovenian collective centres.

The relief model also conditions the content of requests. The Slovenian Office of Immigration and Refugees requested funds for sewage system installation and other infrastructure in villages housing refugees. The request was not met. As a result, a strategy of requesting long-term development needs that also served the immediate demands of refugee influxes has been weakened. So the Office requests fax machines, typewriters, computers and vehicles-the paraphernalia for running a refugee relief programme. By doing so, Slovenia runs a doubly perverse risk: investing in an office whose future bureaucratic interest may be to maintain refugees on relief to justify jobs and all the associated structures.

The following are some other characteristics of the relief model:

-By presuming that needs are uniform, it fails the most needy, creates greater social differentiation and wastes resources, thereby needlessly driving up costs.

-By presuming that the agencies which represent the international donor have superior knowledge, it ignores resources and institutional strengths of the host society, thus weakening them.

-By failing to recognise the resources which refugees themselves bring to the situation, it inhibits the mobilisation of these resources and networks for the benefit of both the refugees and the local economy.

-Relief programmes inhibit the institutionalising of efficient systems of accountability. They thus create opportunities for corruption of refugees and their hosts, both individually and institutionally.

Earmarking aid

The pernicious impact of earmarking relief only for 'refugees' has been widely documented. In Croatia, such earmarking has led to tension between refugees, internally displaced persons and local residents. Some local people already resent the fact that refugees are fed without working. Although still very isolated events, there have been attacks on centres in which displaced Croatians and refugees live.

Displaced Croatians complain that they have become second-class citizens in their own country. One cited his experience of standing in a queue in which the Bosnians were all asked to step to the front because the aid in question had been earmarked for the refugees but not for displaced Croatians.

The relief model is so often wasteful of resources that this seems to be an essential characteristic. One refugee centre, in which two doctors and four nurses were taking care of a population of about 500), is located only a few minutes' walk from a medical centre. Yet funds are being used to install a small clinic with hospital beds in the refugee centre, rather than investing in the local hospital.

Such an approach can create feelings of resentment towards the refugees among the local population. Moreover, when the centre, which was previously an army barracks, is closed, there is no guarantee that the facilities will be used again. By contrast, investment in the local medical infrastructure would benefit the whole population of the town.

Inappropriate aid

Another problem endemic to the relief model is the donation of inappropriate materials. This includes food with which people are unfamiliar (such as bamboo shoots) and which they do not know how to prepare. Inappropriate or outdated medicines are also a frequent problem. More to the point, many, if not most of the needs concerned could met by purchases within the country.

Transfers of cash for purchase would stimulate the local economy. It is said that if the funds were provided, local factories would be capable of producing all of the drugs needed. In Slovenia, some donated drugs were found to be out of date, entailing additional costs for the hard-strapped government just to destroy them safely.

These governments have been faced with another problem generally associated with relief programmes: what to do with donated items which come in too small quantities to distribute equitably. If the government took the logical step of selling such items on the open market, using the funds for its refugee budget, it would risk accusations of 'corruption'.

Agencies such as OXFAM UK manage to avoid discouraging such spontaneous responses to human need by establishing methods for dealing with inappropriate contributions, either by selling them in their shops or by disposing of them. The cash raised by sales in

OXFAM shops is available for appropriate assistance which makes use of refugees' own abilities and maintains their self-worth and dignity.

Do Slovenia and Croatia need foreign agencies?

Normally, line ministries have responsibilities for sectors such as health and education, but in Croatia and Slovenia a mushrooming number of agencies, both inter- and non-governmental, have arrived to assume 'responsibility' for managing the humanitarian crises. It is difficult for the governments to assess the professionalism of agencies or to reject them-they represent access to donor funds.

The relative accessibility of these two countries has also led to a myriad of wellmeaning individuals and groups collecting material assistance (most of which could have better been purchased locally), driving across Europe, and on arrival, demanding the right to distribute to particular individuals in particular centres. One agency looked at children's teeth. Instead of coordinating with the medical services, it gave children money to pay for dental treatment. In some cases, agencies have insisted on using the distribution of items for publicity (i.e. fund-raising) purposes.

Perhaps the most bizarre example was the behaviour of an agency which links 300 schoolchildren from one EC country with 300 refugee children. The Slovenian Office for Immigration and Refugees was unable to stop reptesentatives from going to three centres to distribute chocolates to 100 'linked' children per centre. Not surprisingly, since the centres housed more than 100 youngsters, a riot ensued in one, providing a unique 'photo opportunity' and wide press coverage.

As usual in such situations, there are numbers of trained, highly motivated professionals, both refugees and hosts, who are fully capable of responding to the variety of needs presented by the humanitarian crisis, often within the framework of normal service delivery. From the beginning of the emergency, many of them undertook voluntary work, and locally-based NGOs (including religious ones) have been established to assist the uprooted.

Despite some efforts by foreign agencies to fund these local initiatives and to work in partnership with nationals and refugees, partnerships are invariably unequal. They have weakened the capacity of national institutions and have introduced competition for external sources of funding, undermining the basis for cooperative relationships among local people who are committed to the building of their own institutions of civil society.

Humanitarian crises: an opportunity for building civil society

The humanitarian crisis can be a catalyst for the development of those mechanisms and institutions of civil society that are needed in much of central and eastern Europe. The response to the initial crisis on the part of local nongovernmental groups, including church based organisations, has already been mentioned. The question of the nature of the post-socialist state itself is challenged by a crisis which focuses attention on humanitarian and wider human rights issues. Such issues-representing as they do a challenge to the basic morality of a society-can be used by the government and the concerned public as a major 'entry point' for addressing the wider issues of human rights, economic and political development and the need to strengthen further the institutions of civil society.

Encouraging the development of the non-government sector, which is not controlled by but works in cooperation with and advises the government, can help to militate against the concentration of political power solely in the hands of the state, thus safeguarding a pluralist, democratic society.


The fate of refugees in Slovenia and Croatia is a long-term issue. They will not be able to be repatriated in the foreseeable future and the policy of returning refugees to 'safe zones' in Bosnia, although still advised by some, is widely believed to be unworkable.

If these countries were to adopt a developmental approach, one immediate action might be to phase out the relief programme and use budgets to fund the expansion of the current welfare system to include the refugees. Relief programmes tend to benefit only the few institutions providing the services, and it may well be more economical to give direct funding to the refugees, who would spend it locally.

The social and economic costs of maintaining the present approach to refugees will-if they are not already- ultimately be higher than the coat of adopting developmental strategies which use both external and internal sources of funding to strengthen the institutions of government and civil society. In Slovenia, moreover, given the relatively small number of refugees and the end of the emergency phase, international aid is now tailing off. The government is already being reminded that, 'as a European country, it must take responsibility for the costs of assisting refugees'. This is ironic given that the relief model, which cannot be sustained without outside assistance, was initially imposed on the country by the donors.

There is, however, considerable fear of potential social disruption caused by absorbing refugees into the existing welfare system and promoting economic self-sufficiency by allowing refugees the right to work. It will require a great deal of sensitivity, courage and political will for either of these governments to break out of the present dependency/relief model. There is a general belief that if refugees can support themselves they will not return to their home country. In fact, experience suggests that the first people able to return home are those who have succeeded in securing themselves and in saving up for rebuilding their lives on their return. The repatriation of those who have been impoverished by a relief system only creates another relief crisis in their country of origin.