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Bosnia: UN Advises Germany To Slow Repatriation Of Refugees

Munich, 27 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Germany and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have acknowledged differences over the return home of the 300,000 Bosnian refugees now living in Germany.

After an inspection visit to Bosnia last week, the interior ministers of three German states declared that conditions were adequate for the return of refugees and said repatriation of single men and women and childless couples should begin in the next few weeks. About 100,000 refugees are estimated to fall under these categories.

The German interior ministers acknowledged that not all Moslems could return to their former homes because these were now occupied by Serbs. But they said they had been assured it was possible for such people to build a new existence elsewhere in Bosnia.

In contrast, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has warned that the German side may be pushing forward too quickly. The UNHCR said around 65,000 houses would have to be built or rebuilt this year to house an influx of around 100,000 refugees from Germany and more from other countries. It said this goal could be met only with strong financial support from the international community but this was not coming quickly enough.

The UNHCR also advised Germany that it should wait until conditions improved before returning Moslem refugees whose homes are now occupied by Serbs.

The interior ministers' demand for a speedy repatriation of Bosnian refugees also met a negative reception from a delegation from the German Federal parliament, which also visited Bosnia recently. It said it was skeptical that the conditions were ripe for a massive return of refugees and suggested that the interior ministers should review their proposals.

The date for the return of the refugees has long been a source of dispute in Germany, with some interior ministers pressing for a speedy return of all of them and others insisting that the pace of repatriation should depend on actual conditions in Bosnia. Under German law, it is the interior ministers of the 16 provincial governments who have the last word although the Federal Interior Minister, Manfred Kanther, has a powerful say.

After much argument, the 16 interior ministers agreed late last year that compulsory repatriation could begin last October but several provinces said they would wait until after the winter and would not begin repatriation until April. Repatriation is to be conducted in stages but the present plan is for most single people of working age and childless couples to be returned by June 30 this year. Families would follow over the next year with the intention that, except for special cases, all refugees would be returned by June next year

Originally there were around 320,000 refugees in Germany but some 30,000 are said to have returned home voluntarily in the past few months so that now there are a little under 300,000.

Among the strongest supporters of rapid repatriation is the province of Bavaria, whose conservative government is a partner in the federal coalition led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Bavarian interior minister, Guenther Beckstein, was one of the three interior ministers who toured Bosnia last week and declared conditions were adequate for the return of refugees. Beckstein said this week that Bavaria expects to begin large-scale repatriation in March. He said the program would begin with people aged between 18 and 55 who are receiving social assistance from the state of Bavaria.

Bavaria has the second highest-number of refugees in Germany -- around 62,000. The most are in the province of North-Rhine Westphalia, which has 75,000. It is unclear when other provinces expect to begin the post-winter repatriation.

German newspapers reporting on the situation have emphasized the warnings of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the minister for refugee affairs in the Bosnian-Croat federation. Kadic, that repatriation should be taken slowly and only in accordance with Bosnia's capacity to provide accommodation and jobs for the returnees.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" said the UNHCR believed Bosnia was already overwhelmed with around one million internal refugees and wanted a slower pace of repatriation from Germany. It quoted the UNHCR as saying that around 60 percent of all accommodation in Bosnia had been destroyed or damaged in the war and reconstruction was slow because of a general fear that a new conflict might erupt. The report also said that even now four out of five Bosnians were living from foreign humanitarian assistance and a new influx of refugees from Germany would increase the pressure on the system.

German correspondents in Sarajevo say the refugees minister, Kadic, told the three German interior ministers last week that more attention must be paid to the ethnic background of those being returned. According to his assessment, about 60 percent of those returning from Germany could not go to their previous homes because they were now occupied by the other side. He said these people would in fact be returning to an internal exile.

Kadic was quoted by the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" as saying he believed the Bosnian-Croatian Federation could accept a total of between 30,000-50,000 repatriated refugees this year. However he emphasized that only some of these could come from Germany because there were many more in other countries. Kadic argued that the possibilities just did not exist for accepting more.

In the latest development, the chairman of the German interior ministers Rudi Geil, who is interior minister of the province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, has criticized the European Union for not making more funds available for the rebuilding of Bosnia. In a statement published today he called on the Federal Government to put pressure on Brussels to speed up the release of already-promised funds for housing and commerce in Bosnia. Geil was one of the three interior ministers who visited Bosnia last week.