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Bosnia: Germany Sets Flexible Timetable For Refugee Repatriation

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 20 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Germany has agreed that the compulsory repatriation of Bosnian refugees can begin next month, but has left it to the individual provinces to decide when to start. A government spokesman said today it appeared that relatively few refugees would actually leave this year.

Agreement to begin repatriation on October 1 was reached at a meeting in Bonn yesterday of the interior ministers of the 16 German provinces with Federal Interior Minister Manfred Kanther. The spokesman said several ministers accepted the date only after Kanther and others agreed that the individual provinces could decide for themselves when to implement repatriation.

The spokesman said that regardless of the provinces' different timetables, it was hoped that the first phase would be ended by June 30 next year. This envisages the departure of most unmarried people and childless couples. They will be followed by families. The spokesman said it could be two years before all refugees are repatriated.

The latest figures show 325,300 Bosnian refugees live in Germany. The majority are Muslims, many of whom say they are afraid to return to their homes for fear of renewed fighting or persecution. The German government says they should return home because they were admitted only as guests and not as permanent immigrants.

Spokesmen for the Bosnian refugees have already said they will appeal to the courts where possible to delay repatriation. This could also delay repatriation for months because German courts are notoriously slow-moving.

In practice, it appears that the provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemburg and the city of Berlin will order the repatriation of some Bosnians next month. Many other provinces will delay repatriation until after the winter. Some have already said they will not begin until April.

Officials in Bavaria (62,000 refugees) and Baden-Wurttemburg (52,000) today declined to say how many people will be sent departure orders. In Berlin, a city official said departure orders might be sent to about 1,500 of the 29,000 refugees living there but added that the numbers were still under consideration.

To some extent, the division is political. The provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemburg and the city of Berlin are controlled by allies of the Christian democratic government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Many of the provinces which will delay repatriation are controlled by the Social Democrats. They include North Rhine-Westphalia, where the highest number of Bosnian refugees are located. .

The decision has aroused considerable discussion in Germany about whether Bosnia is sufficiently stable for the refugees to return. The federal Interior Minister Kanther said last night that, in general, it is safe to do so. But Germany's Defense Minister Volker Ruehe has expressed doubts. Ruehe said on television last night that he did not wish to interfere in the business of the interior ministers, however he believed that repatriation "must be treated extremely carefully and according to individual circumstances." Ruehe's comments came after one of his frequent visits to the German peacekeeping unit in the former Yugoslavia.

A senior official in the international body co-ordinating the reconstruction of Bosnia, Michael Steiner, who is German, also called for care.

"Repatriation should be conducted with moderation," he said. "A large percentage of them cannot yet return to their homes."

The German ministers agreed that Muslim refugees could not be compelled to return to homes in areas dominated by hostile Serbs and would have to be resettled elsewhere. Several of the interior ministers said attention must be paid to the report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which lists 22 areas where safe repatriation is possible. The UN High Commission has also expressed doubts about the wisdom of mass repatriation at this time.

The Interior Minister Kanther said it was the policy of the government to persuade the refugees to return voluntarily once they receive their departure orders. He acknowledged in an interview that pressure would be put on them to do so. Kanther said compulsory repatriation would be enforced only if the refugees declined to return voluntarily.

Distribution of Bosnian Refugees in Germany

North Rhine Westphalia - 75,000

Bavaria - 62,000

Baden Wurttemburg - 52,000

Hessen - 35,000

Berlin - 29,000

Lower Saxony - 23,000

Rhineland-Palatinate - 18,000

Hamburg - 12,500

Schleswig-Holstein - 4,100

Saarland - 4,000

Bremen - 3,200

Sachsen-Anhalt - 2,000

Saxony - 1,900

Brandenburg - 1,600

Mecklenburg - 1,000

Thuringen - 1,000