The violent armed conflicts of the 1990s in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia made tens of thousands of persons flee for safety to other parts of their country and to other parts of the world. The war is thought to have triggered the displacement of almost 2.2 million people, and led to one of the largest displacement crises in Europe at the time. Many of the internally displaced people (IDP), in Serbia and Montenegro today are ethnic Serbs and Roma who fled Kosovo in 1999 after withdrawal of Yugoslav forces.
Today there are still about 68,000 people from Kosovo who have settled and live in Serbia after the war. For many internally displaced people, return to their place of origin is not a viable option after more than 20 years of displacement, and the prospects for durable solutions are limited. Many still face obstacles in obtaining personal and property documents from their places of origin, and in repossessing their property or getting compensation for it. In addition to basic survival needs of Kosovo IDPs, major problems they face with in displacement include access denial to the public services, serious legal barriers, most of which relate to choosing a place of residence, recognition of citizenship and employment status, health care, freedom of movement and enjoyment of other rights, that is possible only with proper documentation. Widespread discrimination against Serbs and Roma people has made it difficult for them to return to areas where they constitute a minority.
Problems of IDPs in Serbia and Montenegro are slurred over for the most part. Their presence is hidden in statistics concerning refugees, the homeless, the sick and the impoverished. Most of the problems they face daily are documented only in testimonials from themselves given to aid agencies and set out in the field reports of international, regional and local organizations working with them. The picture of obstacles which IDPs often confront is emerged quite clearly from countless occasions of their stories with recurring themes. However, the responses of the authorities do not come through quite clearly, as well as their actions, which are not so transparent.
Moreover, the unresolved issue of Kosovo’s status affects IDPs in a number of ways. It is the cause of tension between Pristina and Belgrade, and it prevents collaboration between the Serbian and Kosovo authorities and the establishment of coordinated mechanisms to support durable solutions. The competing institutional frameworks create different understandings of who is an IDP and when displacement begins and ends. The Serbian authorities have issued cards confirming their status to IDPs, and these are generally not withdrawn from those who return or benefit from social housing projects. The Kosovo authorities, for their part, have never surveyed IDPs, the result being a lack of reliable data and the risk that some displaced people remain unaccounted for and without access to protection and assistance.
The status question also feeds inter-ethnic tensions. There has been relative calm since the declaration of independence and the overall security situation has remained relatively stable. However, the clashes in northern Kosovo and the threats, harassment and violence suffered by minority communities continue to compromise the actual and perceived safety of IDPs and returnees and their freedom of movement.
Incontrovertibly, after more than 20 years since 1999, the situation in Kosovo has changed for the better in issues, considering infrastructure, social services, and so on. But Kosovo remains a place of geopolitical games up to now. Even if someone writes in an official report that this is a safe place to live, in practice it still means nothing. Those IDPs who decide today to leave Serbia and return to Kosovo still face a huge number of problems concerning security and social support. Returnees are trying to relocate to northern areas of Kosovo, which are not controlled by Pristina, or to several southern enclaves that are integrated into the Kosovo system but actually are
Serb-controlled. The reason is that people are still afraid of attacks from their neighbors. There used to be much more of them, but now such a threat also exists, albeit it’s veiled. Those who return are made clear that they are unfavorable in Kosovo and that their appearance is undesirable. Another problem is connected with the repossession of property and access to rental and compensation schemes. The primary among them is the widespread illegal occupation and expropriation of property IDPs left behind. At the same time, it is almost impossible to get a job in Kosovo after IDPs’ return, there is no proper access to social services, including medicine.
Overall, Kosovo’s experience in the return of IDPs shows that sustainable return requires close attention to the application of international principles, reasonable security, coordination and support mechanisms for the host community; it also demonstrates that safe return is possible, but at the same time careful planning and deliberation are necessary. To date, the international community in modern projects has paid more attention to numbers and less to preparing the conditions for return. There was no access to basic services in the places of IDP’ return, no dialogue with the host community, and access to public services was not considered until the arrival of returnees. National and international actors have developed projects to facilitate the return and reintegration of displaced persons both in Kosovo and abroad to help members of minority communities improve their living conditions and to prevent further displacement. However, greater political and financial support for settlement options beyond return (local integration and settlement elsewhere) are needed if IDPs are to achieve durable solutions. Reliable data on IDPs need to be collected and a comprehensive legal or policy framework should be put in place to protect them in order to respond adequately to their needs.