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Bosnia: German Defense Minister Criticizes Repatriation Policy

Munich, 9 April 1997 (RFE/RL)-- The internal criticism of Germany's policy regarding the repatriation of Bosnian refugees has taken on a new dimension following the recent statements by Minister of Defense Volker Ruhe.

After a two-day visit to Mostar and Sarajevo this week, Ruhe told correspondents that the policy needed to be corrected. Instead of being based on the family situation of the refugees, it should focus on whether the refugees can return to their old homes. Many Muslim refugees cannot do so because their homes are in areas now controlled by Serbs.

"It only stirs up the problems when the repatriation is carried out too quickly and in too great numbers and -- above all -- when the refugees are supposed to return to the wrong area," he said.

Ruhe's comments have been welcomed by human rights activists in Germany who have criticized the repatriation, particularly from Bavaria and Berlin where the authorities have taken a hard line attitude to repatriation.

Ruhe's criticism appears to be aimed at the interior ministers of the 16 German provinces, who are responsible for deciding the pace of repatriation and the criteria for returning the estimated 315,000 refugees in Germany. At present the provinces are pressing single men and women and unmarried couples to return to Bosnia. The return of families is scheduled to begin next month.

The defense minister is the most senior member of Helmut Kohl's Federal government to express his views on the repatriation program. But Foreign minister Klaus Kinkel has also called for humanitarian concerns to be given priority. In a statement earlier this month Kinkel said those in charge of repatriation should never forget they were dealing with human beings.

The system has also been frequently criticized by Judith Kumin, the representative in Germany for the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

The provincial interior minister of Bavaria, Guenther Beckstein, who is one of the most determined to continue rapid repatriation, has said on a number of occasions that it is not Germany's business to worry about where the refugees go once they arrive in Sarajevo. In his view, Germany's responsibility ends with the repatriation. Whether Muslim refugees can return to their homes in Serb-controlled areas or not is the responsibility of the authorities in Sarajevo.

Beckstein and the Interior minister in Berlin, Joerg Schoenbohm, have defended the deportation of some refugees by saying it encourages others to leave voluntarily. Those deported suffer restrictions on the right to enter Germany in the future.

The repatriation policy has also been criticized by Michael Steiner, the German diplomat who is deputy leader of the European Union in Bosnia. In an interview carried by the Berlin newspaper "Tagesspiegel," Steiner said: "a too rapid return of too many refugees" leads to a situation in which Muslims are being gathered in one part of the country while the Serbs controlled another.

The refugee minister of the Moslem-Croat federation, Rasim Kadic, has also appealed to the German authorities not to cause problems by returning too many refugees. In an interview in the "Sachsischen Zeitung" newspaper he said there was already a strong flow of refugees returning voluntarily. He estimated the figure in the first three months of the year at 10,000.

In another development, German human rights activists have welcomed the recent decision by the Swedish government to do more to help refugees who wish to return. Sweden has given a home to about 92,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, of whom about 55,000 come from Bosnia. Most of them have been given an unlimited residence permit and cannot be forced to return against their will.

In the latest move, Sweden has offered to pay the equivalent of 5,000 German marks to adults who decide to return home voluntarily and up to 2,500 German marks to those under the age of 18. The previous figure was a maximum of DM 450 per person. Sweden also pays the travel costs of those returning home voluntarily.

The Swedish minister for development help, Pierre Schori, told correspondents Sweden was not trying to push out the refugees but wanted to give them a better chance of restarting life in their own country. At the same time he acknowledged that the departure of refugees would help local Governments in Sweden who pay the living costs of the refugees, most of whom are without work. Last year only about 600 Bosnians returned home voluntarily.

German human rights activists say that few German provinces offer serious financial help to persuade refugees to return. The most generous is North Rhine-Westfalia, which offers DM 475 to those who return home to help them start a new life. The provincial government has also created an advice center to help refugees planning to return, and pays for bus tickets or provides petrol vouchers.