Croatia wants Serb refugees to return, the Croatian president Ivo Josipovic said on Friday.
Speaking at a session of the Presidential Council for Social Justice, Josipovic said that Croatia has to solve all its refugee problems before it could “enter the EU as a country which offered equal chances to all its citizens“.
The Council for Social Justice is one of the advisory councils Josipovic established after he became president in 2010.
Josipovic admitted that refugees face a wide range of problems.
“But our common aim is to welcome back to Croatia all those who want to return, to restore their property to them, and to help refugees to realize all the rights they have here,“ Josipovic said.
He reminded the council that more than 500,000 people were expelled from their homes in Croatia during the war, and that about 250,000 Serbs left the country in 1995.
To date, the government has renovated about 150 thousand housing units destroyed during the war, at the cost of about 17 billion kuna [2,3 billion euros], the president said, emphasising that Croatia was willing to cooperate with its neighbours across the region to solve the refugee problem.
According to Zoran Pusic, the president of the NGO Citizen Committee for Human Rights, GOLJP, approximately 132,000 Serbs have returned to Croatia since the end of the war.
“This government's program for enabling the return of refugees is excellent, the question is whether it will be carried out, “ Pusic said.
He warned that the willingness of refugees to return home is weakening with the passage of time.
“In 2000, 15,000 Serbs returned, while this year only 38 came back,“ Pusic said.
Representatives from several Serb organisations in Croatia explained the problems that refugees are faced with, claiming that discrimination still exists in many walks of life.
“The courts still judge Serbs and Croats differently. Different criteria exist within the court system,“ said Sasa Milosevic from the Serbian National Council, SNV, of Croatia.
Nemanja Relic from the NGO Serbian democratic forum, SDF, claimed that the “return is not over“, adding that about 60 thousand Serbs from Croatia still live in Serbia and Bosnia and Hercegovina.
“Those people would have better life chances in Croatia, but discrimination and a lack of political will are still strong obstacles to their return,“ Relic said.
The Croatian sociologist Milan Mesic, author of a study on returning refugees, sponsored by UN high commissioner for refugees, UNHCR, said that all deadlines for returning should be cancelled.
“The imposition of any kind of deadline or conditions prevents people from deciding their own destiny,“ Mesic said.
He said that certain kind of “transnationalism“ could emerge from the current position of Serb refugees from Croatia.
“If a house or land in Croatia remains in the possession of the owner, and he doesn't return, maybe his grandchildren can still come to live in Croatia one day,” Mesic said.