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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Refugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany

by Judith Kumin

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia has generated Europe's biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Although statistics always have to be taken with a dose of caution, UNHCR estimates, conservatively, that three million persons, mostly women, children, and the elderly, have been driven from their homes by fighting and ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosni-Herzegovina since 1991.

Many displaced people have stayed within the former Yugoslav region. At the end of 1994, 380 000 refugees and displaced persons were being hosted in parts of Croatia under Croatian control. while a further 122 000 were living in the so-called UN Protected Areas of Croatia, which are under Serbian control. Serbia and Montenegro accommodate an additional 449 000 refugees, with 30,000 more in Slovenia and 15 000 in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The largest numbers are to be found within shattered Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, which has 1 327 000 displaced persons. About half of the population living in Sarajevo, in the besieged towns of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde in Eastern Bosnia, and in the Bihac pocket in the north-west of the country, have been displaced from other villages and towns, often only a stone's throw away.

Even without taking into consideration the 1.3 million, others who have managed to remain in their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina but who are dependent on international assistance, this is a shocking tally of the effect of the conflict on the civilian population.

Just how many refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have made their way to countries of Central and Western Europe cannot be known with certainty, as many stay with friends and relatives and do not register with the authorities. There is no doubt, however, that the overwhelming majority of those who have left the former Yugoslav region have found temporary refuge in the Federal Republic of Germany (see table).

Although no complete registration has been effected in Germany of the 'war refugees' (to use the colloquial German term) from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Federal Ministry of Interior estimated their number at the end of 1994 to be 350 000. Around 200 000 are Bosnians who are staying in Germany on the basis of a 'toleration permit' in line with the country-wide ban on deportations to Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been in effect since May 1992.

In addition. at least 40 000 refugees from Bosnia Herzegovina are staying in Germany thanks to a special arrangement whereby visitors' visas are issued to those who are able to secure a guarantee of support from an individual or group in Germany. By December 1994, a further 14 324 particularly vulnerable Bosnians had been admitted under a special quota for ex-detainees, victims of rape, persons in need of emergency medical treatment and other special cases Finally, nearly 25 000 more Bosnians have applied formally for asylum in Germany, and await decisions on their requests once the current freeze on adjudication of Bosnian asylum cases is lifted.

Moreover. a substantial number of refugees from Croatia, perhaps as many as 70 000, are still staying in Germany, even though a formal decision has been taken by the German authorities to end temporary protection for this group Those who came from territory currently under Croatian control wore required to return home by the end of October 1994: those whose homes are in parts of Croatia currently under Serbian control are expected to leave Germany as of April 1995 They will not be able to return to their homes, but the German government expects Croatia to absorb them in other parts of the country. This will undoubtedly be a difficult task, as most accommodation available for refugees and displaced persons in Croatia is already occupied.

All in all, the estimate of more than 350 000 'war refugees' from the former Yugoslavia in Germany does not seem excessive. The number is all the more astounding when it is realised that it does not include the approximately 200 000 persons from Serbia and Montenegro (mostly ethnic Albanians from Kosovo) who have applied for asylum in Germany over the past three-and-a-half years

The very fact that Germany has taken in such a large number of persons, in a relatively uncomplicated manner. is impressive, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that behind the statistics are the disrupted lives of people who are waiting, offer, in, a kind of legal limbo, to see what will happen in their home country. and what their own fate will be.

From the beginning of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, urged Governments to provide protection on at least a temporary basis to persons forced to flee from the area She asked states to keep their borders open to new arrivals, and presented temporary protection as a practical tool to provide protection in cases of mass influx, while alleviating pressures on the reception capacity of the immediately affected neighbouring areas. Granting temporary protection in a flexible manner rather than requiring individuals formally to apply for asylum and to have their claims considered would also avoid imposing an undue toad on the asylum procedures of receiving states.

Table: Refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the European Union

When the High Commissioner formally called for temporary protection to be extended to persons from the former Yugoslavia in July 1992, there was no way of predicting how long the crisis would last. In the expectation that a negotiated settlement to the conflict would quickly be found, and that a rapid return home would be possible, the High Commissioner urged that they be granted treatment at least as favourable as that of asylum seekers, and recalled the standards outlined in Conclusion No. 22 (XXXII) of her Executive Committee, concerning protection of asylum seekers in situations of large-scale influx.

Two and a half years later, at least 7% of Bosnia-Herzegovina's pre-war population has found temporary refuge in Germany. However, the tenuous status which temporary protection offers is a source of undeniable anxiety among the refugees.

The German authorities have been hesitant to accede to the High Commissioner's recommendation that the standard of treatment of those enjoying temporary protection should gradually be improved, the longer their stay in the country of refuge lasts When arguing in favour of progressively improved treatment, UNHCR has pointed out that the need of this group of persons for international protection has been established, and many are undoubtedly qualified for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention. In reply the authorities argue that the instrument of temporary protection will not be a credible one unless steps are taken to ensure that the stay of the persons concerned does not become permanent Measures which would promote a degree of integration are therefore avoided.

The logic of this position is clear, but it does not offer much scope for coming to terms with the very real problems of the individuals concerned. In Germany, the majority of beneficiaries of temporary protection hold a 'Duldung', or toleration permit, which protects them from deportation for renewable periods of six months As such, they do not enjoy freedom of movement (without special permission) outside their area of assigned residence, cannot collect children's allowances, and are not entitled to, family reunification or government-sponsored training courses. Many have been living for years in collective centres, frequently together with asylum-seekers from other parts of the world. Although tolerable for short periods, it is virtually impossible over time to maintain a semblance of normal family life in the setting of a refugee camp, and this is doubly difficult for persons who have suffered severe trauma, such as those who were driven from their homes at gunpoint, raped or held in detention camps. Some need specialised psycho-social counselling which they cannot afford, or cannot find at their place of residence

While most of the Bosnian refugees in Germany still hope that it will one day be possible to return home, 25 000 have maintained their applications for asylum. an indication that they see little prospect of retracing their steps and are in search of a more durable solution than temporary protection can provide. Even though decision-making on asylum applications from Bosnians has been frozen in Germany since October 1993, new applications are recorded daily, reflecting the despair which many feel about the chances of going home.

The German experience with refugees from the former Yugoslavia has demonstrated the need for a Europe-wide approach to refugees from war situations, one which would both ensure protection for victims of conflict and take account of the legitimate concerns of states. A burden-sharing formula together with a harmonised approach to the content and duration of temporary protection are on the European agenda for the foreseeable future. Already in 1992 the European Community Ministers responsible for Immigration adopted a (non-binding) Conclusion on people displaced by the conflict in former Yugoslavia. During the German European Union Presidency in the second half of 1994. a draft document on burden-sharing was submitted for discussion. Agreement on these issues would be a giant step toward adapting the tools of refugee protection to the needs of today's refugees