UNHCR welcomes regional efforts to end protracted refugee situation in western Balkans

Briefing Notes, 8 November 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 November 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday, in Belgrade, the ministers of foreign affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia signed a joint declaration aimed at speeding solutions for 74,000 remaining refugees from the crisis of 1991-95 in this part of Europe.

UNHCR welcomes this declaration. It has come about through intense efforts by the four countries, and is a firm commitment on the part of their respective governments to cooperate at regional and national level in dealing with an enduring problem for this part of Europe. Displacement in the western Balkans is one of the five priority protracted refugee situations worldwide for UNHCR. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres attended yesterday's ministerial gathering in Belgrade and witnessed the signing of the Declaration along with the representatives of the EU, US, OSCE and the Council of Europe.

Integral to the declaration are a Regional Programme, developed by the concerned governments, and an accompanying Work Plan that sets our concrete steps for removing remaining obstacles. Among these is the accelerated provision of civil documentation allowing refugees and returnees to fully and effectively enjoy their rights and resume normal lives. The Regional Programme will be presented at a donors' conference in early 2012 to seek international support for finding housing solutions for refugees in collective centres and other vulnerable people, including former tenancy-rights holders.

UNHCR believes the fulfillment of these commitments will also support the accession of these countries to the European Union. We will remain engaged and strongly committed to supporting the governments of these four countries in closing this refugee displacement chapter. Since early 2011, Mr. Anne-Willem Bijleveld, a Personal Envoy of the High Commissioner, has been supporting the four governments in the process.

UNHCR is also working with the national authorities to ensure development of asylum systems and practices in line with international and EU standards and the prevention of statelessness. UNHCR led a major relief operation during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia in early '90s. With more than two million people uprooted within and beyond the region, it was the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. A majority of the refugees have returned home over the past 16 years or have integrated locally.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Belgrade: Vesna Petkovic on mobile: +381 63 245 526
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617



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Civil Registration and the Prevention of Statelessness: A Survey of Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians (RAE) in Montenegro

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Serbia: Europe's forgotten refugees

A study of the lives of three Europeans who have been living as refugees in Serbia for more than 15 years.

Serbia is the only European country with a protracted refugee population. More than 90,000 refugees from Croatia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina remain there, victims of wars that erupted after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

These long-term refugees live under appalling conditions in dingy apartments and overcrowded collective centres – the nearest thing to refugee camps in modern Europe.

This set of pictures tells the story of three displaced people, the problems they face and their hopes for the future.

Serbia: Europe's forgotten refugees

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie met with forcibly displaced people on April 5, 2010 during her first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, called for steps to end the continued suffering of these victims of the Bosnian War after hearing their harrowing tales and seeing their grim living conditions.

Jolie was clearly moved by the spirit - and the ordeal - of the people she met and she pledged to highlight their case. Most of the people she talked to have been living in exile since the end of the 1992-1995 conflict. Jolie visited collective centres in the towns of Gorazde and Rogatica, where the inhabitants lack basic services such as running water.

The actress spent some time with a group of women who were raped or tortured during the war. Their tales left a deep impression on her. She also met a family of refugee returnees who were still waiting to move into their village home near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad.

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

Prince Soniyiki, from Nigerian to "Croatian" in three years

Prince Wale Soniyiki, 29, is the poster boy for Croatia's refugee system. When Prince (that's his real name, not a royal title) arrived here from Nigeria three years ago, he felt like a "complete nobody." Today he has a good job, speaks the language fluently and is a well-known advocate for asylum-seekers, whose voices are rarely heard in Croatian society. Prince fled Nigeria in December 2011 after a bloody terrorist attack killed his brothers. A circuitous route through Libya and Italy eventually led him to Croatia.

Croatia, which joined the European Union in 2013, has a well-functioning asylum system. But it's rarely tested because nearly all asylum-seekers and refugees move on to other European countries, partly because integration into society is not easy. Prince, though, is making a life here. Two years ago he founded "Africans Living in Croatia" to help others like him integrate and to help Croatians better understand migrants. His passionate work grabbed the attention of the owner of a tuna farming company, who offered him a job on his boat on the Adriatic coast.

Prince Soniyiki, from Nigerian to "Croatian" in three years

Croatia: Tea and campfires to beat the chillPlay video

Croatia: Tea and campfires to beat the chill

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Croatia: Sunday Train ArrivalsPlay video

Croatia: Sunday Train Arrivals

On Sunday a train of 1800 refugees and migrants made their way north from the town of Tovarnik on Croatia's Serbian border. They disembarked at Cakovec just south of Slovenia. Most of the people are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. Their route to Western Europe has been stalled due to the closing of Hungarian borders. Now the people have changed their path that takes through Slovenia. Croatia granted passage to over 10,000 refugees this weekend. Croatian authorities asked Slovenia to take 5000 refugees and migrants per day. Slovenia agreed to take half that number. More than a thousand of desperate people are being backed up as result, with more expected to arrive later Monday.
Serbia: Overstretched BordersPlay video

Serbia: Overstretched Borders

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