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Bosnia: German States Differ On Pace Of Refugee Repatriation

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Top officials from Germany's 16 states are meeting in Munich today to discuss the pace of repatriation of Bosnian refugees who fled the civil war.

The meeting was convened by the Interior Minister of Bavaria, Guenther Beckstein, who believes the 315,000 refugees still in Germany should be repatriated as rapidly as possible. A similar position is taken by the Interior ministers of Baden-Wurttemburg and Berlin. These states are all governed by parties affiliated with the conservative Federal Government in Bonn.

All three have announced plans to resume repatriation next week. They say the return of refugees will be compulsory, if they do not go voluntarily. The Berlin Interior Ministry says 20 people will be forced to return before Easter, and about the same from Bavaria.

Beckstein has said frequently he believes there is sufficient housing for all refugees living in Germany to return home. In his view, it is the responsibilities of the authorities in Bosnia to find accomodation for Muslim refugees, who cannot return to homes now taken over by serbs.

Some other German states, mostly those governed by the Social Democrats (SPD), argue that the pace of repatriation should be governed by the situation in Bosnia, and the availability of proper housing and jobs. But not all SPD-governed states want to delay repatriation. The SPD Interior Minister in the city-state of Hamburg, Hartmuth Wrocklage, has also said he plans to begin repatriation before the end of March.

Originally accelarated repatriation was to begin last October, but most provinces decided to delay it until April. Only a few refugees were forced to leave during the Winter months. Official reports show that a few thousand have returned voluntarily.

According to a scheme agreed by the Interior Ministers last year, most single people of working age and childless couples are to be returned to Bosnia by mid-Summer. This would cover about 80,000 of the 315,000 refugees. The repatriation of families is to begin in Summer and, according to the plan, should be completed within a year. A Bavarian official tells RFE/RL that today's meeting in Munich will consider proposals offered by some SPD states to change the two-stage system, and simply agree that all refugees should go back home by the middle of next year. However, the hard-line states, Berlin, Bavaria, and Baden-Wurttemburg have said they reject this idea.

Today's meeting will also hear an appeal from the Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, Franjo Komarica, that repatriation decisions should be made on a case-to-case basis. In his appeal, Komarica says: "unfortunately, I cannot yet recommend people to return home." He said that particularly for Croats and Muslims, who were driven from their homes by the Serbs, the necessary conditions did not exist.

Bishop Komarica is known for the hundreds of letters he wrote to international statesmen and church leaders during the Yugoslav war about the massacres of Catholics and Muslims. He has said previously that he received no answer to most of his letters.

This week, he published a 500-page book about the war and his appeals. At its presentation in Bonn, he gave a bitter report of what the war head meant in his own Banja Luka region. He said that about 90 percent of the 180,000 Croats and 350,000 Muslims, who once lived in the area, had been expelled by the Serbs.

Critics have said the individual German states could do more to provide information and assistance to refugees, who might be prepared to return voluntarily. The model is the SPD-governed state of North Rhine-Westfalia, which houses the highest number of refugees: around 70,000.

The government there established an advice centre for those considering a voluntary return to Bosnia. It is manned by experts who help the refugees in filling out documents and applications for special assistance. It provides bus tickets or petrol coupons for those returning home. The government also offers financial help of 500 German marks, which is paid only when the refugees arrive in Bosnia.

State government officials say that the system bears results. From January 1 to March 17 a total of 1,571 Bosnians completed forms for a voluntary return home. There were fewer volunteers in other provinces, which do not provide the same facilities. In Bavaria, which houses almost as many refugeess -- 65,000 -- only 125 people completed forms in the same period for a voluntary return home.

However, the director of a refugee assistance organization in Bonn, Karl Beck, says he believes applications for a voluntary return will grow with the end of Winter. He said most refugees did not want to be compelled to leave because that might damage their chances of obtaining an entry visa or a work permit in the future.