2.2 million people fled or were expelled from their homes during the war, according to the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees. 1.2 million requested refugee status abroad – in over 100 countries. The remainder, 1 million people, were displaced throughout BiH.
The return of refugees and internally displaced persons has been one of the success stories of the post-war period. The process began in earnest in 1999 when the OHR, in collaboration with donors, opened up Refugee Return Taskforces and organized refugee groups across the country. The new impetus sought to counter obstruction by Bosnia's nationalist parties.
Minority return – the return of citizens to a place where their national group is not in a majority – has been especially difficult to achieve. Until 1999, nationalist leaders were convinced they could make it impossible for former inhabitants to return. In many cases, returnees were intimidated.
The data for displaced people has been flawed, as displaced people have often returned to their homes without registering. In 2005, a re-registration exercise reduced the remaining number of internally displaced persons to 187,000. The numbers are constantly decreasing each year. Return from abroad has by now become increasingly rare.
Refugees in Novi Travnik in 1993. Photo: James Mason
One of the major post-war successes has been the return of property to its rightful pre-war owners. During the first years after Dayton, nationalist authorities obstructed owners from reclaiming their property. As a result, a concerted plan, involving the Office of the High Representative, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the OSCE Mission, was drawn up in October 1999. Its aim was to create a legally driven process to enforce – through direct pressure and incentives – compliance by municipalities and other responsible actors.
One way of doing so has been to hold the municipalities accountable for property. The new Property Law Implementation Plan (PLIP) made the municipality of return responsible for addressing property claims and facilitating the return of property. The number of successfully implemented property returns was publicised throughout Bosnia; the PLIP-list was published monthly on the web.
In many cases, property restitution worked through lease agreements or property sales. Even displaced people who did not want to return came under pressure to resolve their property issues.
In early 2004 the OHR and the missions of the UN and OSCE were able to announce that:
"The property law implementation ratio in the country [has] reached 93 per cent […]. Local housing authorities had finalized 201,417 out of a total of 216,904 property claims registered, and issued 99 per cent of the first-instance decisions. Out of this number almost 93 per cent were positive decisions."
In 2006, the OHR stopped publishing the PLIP-list, as only a small number of cases remained. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) wrote that year:
"Several factors seem to indicate that return in BiH is now a residual process. It concerns areas where return is particularly difficult, and remaining candidates for return are among the most vulnerable (collective centre residents, the elderly, female heads of household, traumatised individuals) for whom the decision is much more difficult to make in view of the current obstacles to sustainable return."
(The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 25 October 2006)