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Bosnia: German Ministers Meet Today To Consider Returning Refugees

Munich, 19 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's federal and provincial interior ministers are meeting in Bonn today to decide whether the compulsory repatriation of Bosnian refugees should begin on October 1.

A government spokesman said there appeared to be wide differences of opinion.

Figures released today indicate approximately 325,300 Bosnian refugees are living in Germany. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the governing Christian Democratic party has declared several times that they should return home as soon as conditions permit. Few refugees have returned voluntarily.

A spokesman said today many provinces ruled by Christian Democrats or their allies believed compulsory repatriation should begin on October 1. But provinces ruled by the Social Democrats wanted to delay repatriation until April next year. Under German law, the 16 provincial governments have a wide degree of autonomy in deciding when the refugees in their province should be returned.

The most Bosnian refugees -- 75,000 -- are found in the province of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is governed by the Social Democrats. The second highest number -- 62,000 -- are in Bavaria, which is governed by the Christian Social party, an ally of Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats. The third largest group -- 52,000 -- is found in Baden-Wurttemburg, which is governed by the Christian Democrats..

The representative in Germany of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Judith Kumin, said last night she did not believe suitable conditions existed for the compulsory return of refugees.

"It is not yet time to impose a general obligation to return," she said on German television. She said one of the main problems was a lack of accommodation.

Kumin acknowledged that the U.N. commission has published a list of 22 districts in Bosnia where it is safe for refugees to return. But she said this fact "should not be misused to argue that it is generally safe for the refugees to return."

The commission has also criticized Germany's plan for a step-by-step return of the refugees. According to this plan, unmarried adults and married couples without children should be returned in the first phase. Families would come later.

The commission said it was wrong to base repatriation on the family situation. Instead it should be based on the ethnic status of the refugee and the location of the home to which the refugee was to be returned. The commission said Germany had not done enough to collect such data.

Among those pressing for an immediate start to compulsory repatriation is the province of Bavaria. Its interior minister, Guenther Beckstein, told reporters he did not believe that tens of thousands of refugees should be returned to Bosnia next month. But he said it was time to make a beginning with compulsory repatriation. Beckstein described the refugees as "guests in Germany for a limited time."

Beckstein dismissed claims that there was not enough accommodation for returning refugees.

"According to my information, many houses which have not suffered so much damage can be made secure for winter with a relatively small outlay of funds," he said.

Beckstein said he understood the population of Bosnia is now about half what it was before the war, which meant housing was available. He acknowledged that many were too badly damaged to be repaired quickly.

Beckstein acknowledged that because of continuing ethnic hostility it was impossible for many refugees to return to their original homes.

"That means, for example, that many Muslims must decide to go to regions where they feel secure as Muslims," he said, "to regions dominated by Muslims."

Beckstein said he regretted the ethnic division, but he had not met anyone who believed ethnic harmony would return to Bosnia in the near future.

The opponents of immediate repatriation include a prominent member of Chancellor Kohl's party in the federal parliament, Christian Schwarz-Schilling. At present he acts as an international negotiator between Muslims and Croats in Bosnia. He told German correspondents it was "irresponsible" to begin immediate compulsory repatriation according to the proposed plan. He said it "ignores the realities on the ground in Bosnia."

The Greens party also opposes immediate start to compulsory repatriation. The party's spokeswoman in the Federal parliament, Kerstin Mueller, said the situation in Bosnia remained unstable and repatriation should be delayed indefinitely until it does stabilize.

"Mass repatriation at this time would only make an unstable situation more unstable," she said.