UNITED Nations officials have begun laying the groundwork for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees - the largest undertaking of its kind in Europe since World War II.
``We are already looking at the problems and the challenges,'' says Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. ``The process is just beginning, and a lot will depend on a resolution of the political problems.''
The UNHCR on July 7 for the first time raised the question of mass voluntary returns with major donor governments, presenting them at a meeting in Geneva with proposed guidelines and a preliminary assessment of returnees' potential needs.
The agency stressed that conditions for mass repatriations do not exist because of political uncertainty, fighting, ethnic persecution, and the mass destruction of housing and infrastructure. (Talks on dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina, Page 6.)
UN officials privately frowned on the repatriation by Libya last week of about 700 Muslim children to the city of Zenica, which is within Bosnian Serb artillery range.
UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata also told the Geneva meeting that she is ``rather pessimistic'' that many refugees will ever be able to return to areas in which they would now be minorities, especially territories ``ethnically cleansed'' by the Bosnian Serbs.
``But we also talk about planning for a future repatriation,'' Mr. Redmond says.
UN officials say repatriation planning began after the Muslims and Croats in April formed their new federation under the US accord that ended their battles in central and southern Bosnia.
The issue has taken on greater significance as the United States, Russia, and the European Union (EU) press the federation and the Bosnian Serbs to accept the new peace plan for a 51-49 percent partition of Bosnia.
Although refugee data remains incomplete, available numbers illustrate the enormous scope of repatriation. About 629,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, the vast majority Bosnians, are sheltering in 35 countries. About 297,000 others are in Croatia and Macedonia, and an unknown number is in the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.
A large, but unknown, percentage of the 2.7 million UN aid recipients within Bosnia itself are displaced persons.
UN officials say work on the actual mechanics and costs of repatriation operations will be addressed at a meeting of donor government technical experts in Geneva in August.
But with Muslim-Croat reconciliation proceeding at a surprising pace, UN officials say pressures are growing for the return of Croat and Muslim refugees to central and southern Bosnia. ``We felt it was time that we put this agenda on the table,'' says a UNHCR official in Zagreb.
The greatest concern is for the safety and protection of people who return to areas from which they fled attacks by members of the other ethnic group.
The UNHCR, the UN Protection Force, and the UN Center for Human Rights are drawing up plans for a new international mission to monitor and protect the human rights of returnees.
The UNHCR has also presented the Sarajevo government with a draft agreement on the protection and rights of returnees to federation territory. Among other things, the accord would grant an amnesty to draft-evaders and deserters. Sarajevo has yet to respond to the draft.
UN officials have also begun negotiating the return of Croat and Muslim refugees to the region of the war-ravaged southern city of Mostar, which is to be administered by the EU.
Extremists continue to persecute Muslims in Croat-controlled western Mostar, and how long it takes to create conditions for repatriations hinges on local authorities' cooperation with the EU administration, UN officials say.
The UNHCR said mass repatriations should be voluntary and should not be used by rival Bosnian factions for political purposes or to obtain new military draftees. It said that refugees unable or unwilling to return home, especially those from Bosnian Serb-held territories, should be accommodated elsewhere.
The agency called on refugee-hosting countries to await determination on when conditions are suitable for repatriations.
The UNHCR said that in addition to the political and military situation, mass repatriations should be linked to rehabilitation and reconstruction programs.
``Many Bosnians have now spent two years in exile; let us not add avoidable problems on return to their tremendous suffering,'' Mrs. Ogata told the meeting. Her comments appeared to reflect concerns that some countries are anxious to return refugees because of the economic cost for their care and the political costs in antiforeigner sentiments.
But UNHCR officials say that the governments attending the Geneva meeting readily concurred with the UNHCR position.