Clock Ticks on Return Of Bosnia's Refugees

HUMAN rights advocates are increasingly concerned that Bosnia is not ready for the return of 320,000 refugees now in Germany, as interior ministers in German states near a decision to send them back.

They note that indicted war criminals are still at large, and civilian freedom of movement is not yet established in Serb-controlled areas. "This has aroused fears of the worst kind," says Tilman Zlch, chairman of the Society for Threatened Peoples (GFBV) in Gttingen, which is trying to stop the repatriations, now set to begin July 1.

The interior ministers contend that since the Dayton accord was signed in December, there is no more war in Bosnia, and therefore Bosnians in Germany no longer qualify as refugees. At a May 2 meeting, the ministers will be briefed by the Foreign Ministry on situations on the ground in Bosnia and will decide whether to modify their repatriation timetable.

"For the time being, the repatriation timetable stands, until the May meeting. Then the ministers will analyze the situation in the country ... and will decide whether to hold to the timetable. They are duty-bound to consider the actual situation on the ground in Bosnia," says Dieter Krause, an official in the Brandenburg state government in Potsdam and managing director of the conference.

Time is running out for Bosnian refugees in Switzerland, too. Those who are single, or married and childless, will lose their "temporary protected status" on April 30. They will then have four months to leave the country. Families with children and unaccompanied minors will lose their protected status April 30, 1997.

Waiting for justice

"Only when my neighbors and all those who lived there before the war can go back do I want to go back to Prijedor," said a garbage collector of Prijedor - one of the first areas in northern Bosnia to fall to Serb control - at a press conference in Bonn last week held by GFBV.

This slight, soft-spoken man in jeans, sneakers, and duck-billed cap, recounted the two years he spent on call around the clock, never knowing when he would be called out to make another pickup of human corpses. Finally he fled to Germany, and is now a potential witness for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

A recent poll of Bosnian refugees in Germany, commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), showed nearly 45 percent opposed to repatriation now, and about 25 percent ready to return. The rest remain undecided. For two-thirds of those surveyed, the security of the peace is the most important question; the poll showed refugees far less concerned about the economic situation and the pace of reconstruction.

Germany has no small experience with refugees. An estimated 10 million to 14 million refugees, largely ethnic Germans, flooded into what is today Germany at the end of World War II, as the map was redrawn and territories that had been German were turned over to Poland and other countries.

Idealism wearing thin?

"Lodging had to be found for all these people," said Herbert Leuninger, the European representative for the human rights group Pro Asyl in Frankfurt, who was a small boy at that time. He and his parents were internal refugees themselves, having fled Allied air raids. "They spoke German all right, but there were ... cultural differences. But somehow we managed."

But today it is Bosnia that has an acute shortage of housing, with an estimated 60 percent of all dwellings in the country destroyed or damaged by the war. Mr. Leuninger disputes the widely held view that Germany's interior ministers are motivated mainly by financial concerns, and that Germany's postwar idealism in taking in needy refugees is wearing thin. He says the real concern is over "indirect immigration" - the longer the Bosnians stay in Germany, the less likely they are to return.

He also expresses concern that the Austrians may follow the Swiss down Germany's tough line on repatriation. UNHCR has expressed regret over the Swiss decision, which it notes was taken "unilaterally and without consultation."

German aid to Bosnians here has run about $10 billion. Germany has also provided a haven for 120,000 refugees from Serbia (now known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), largely ethnic Albanians. Germany was a familiar destination for many of these people because of the long history of Yugoslavs as "guest workers" here.

Although Germany has taken in more Bosnians than has any other country in absolute numbers, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland have taken in more Bosnians relative to their population.

The Netherlands and Denmark also rank high, having taken in 45,000 and 17,500 Bosnians, respectively. In these two countries, and in Sweden, the refugees have been granted long-term stay permits so that their immigration status is much less precarious than that of their compatriots in Germany.

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