There are still some 57,000 refugees from Croatia in neighbouring countries, Terence Pike, representative of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Croatia, said in Zagreb on Monday.
Speaking at the presentation of a UNHCR-backed study on the return of refugees to Croatia, Pike also announced an international donor conference on refugee returns to be held in April.
At that conference, UNHCR will present a Regional Housing Programme initiative for the returnees. Within the framework of this initiative, about 8,500 refugees from Croatia are expected to return to their homes, Pike said.
"Once the programme is fully implemented, UNHCR intends to apply the Cessation Clause for Croatian Serb refugees", Pike said.
"Cessation clause" is the common provision for the Article 1C of the 1951 Geneva Convention. It means that refugee status no longer applies once the circumstances in the country of origin have changed sufficiently that it is safe for the refugees to return home.
Pike acknowledged considerable progress regarding the return of the refugees to Croatia. "Since the start of the return process in 1996, the authorities have registered over 132,600 returnees of Serbian ethnicity to and within Croatia, which corresponds to approximately half of those who fled their places of origin during the conflict", he said.
The Croatian government has been implementing a Reconstruction Programme since 1996, Pike said, and as a result, "148,453 housing units of different level of damage have been reconstructed and it is estimated that a third of these belong to minority Serbs".
Also, the Croatian Housing Care Program provides housing for former occupancy and tenancy rights holders of all ethnicities, who wish to live in Croatia.
A total of 14,700 Serb returnees to Croatia applied for housing care since it was launched in 2003, and 7,979 housing units were allocated. It is expected that this process should be intensified through the implementation of the regional programme, Pike said.
Still, "social inclusion and access to employment remains a challenge for Croatian Serb returnees", Pike emphasised, adding that the global financial crisis worsened the situation for all segments of Croatian society.
Future efforts should be aimed at wooing younger, educated members of the returnees' families who have not opted yet to return.
"Their possible return will not be a part of any official program but an independently made decision based on freedom of movement and available opportunities in Croatia," Pike concluded.
It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Croatian Serbs left Croatia in August 1995, after the Croatian army retook territories held by Serb forces since autumn 1991.
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