Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in Serbia

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

June 30, 2009

Distinguished Members of this House,

It is an honour and privilege to have been invited to address this House in my capacity as Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. I am glad that Parliament has decided to dedicate today’s hearing not only to the situation of refugees, who of course deserve your utmost attention, but that you are also considering the situation of your fellow citizens who have been internally displaced.

This is the second time that I have the opportunity to come to the historic city of Belgrade in my official capacity. In 2005, I already visited then Serbia and Montenegro and subsequently presented a report with recommendations to the United Nations on how to better protect the rights of persons who were internally displaced from and in Kosovo in 1999 and the years after that. The political landscape has certainly not become easier since my last visit and I would like to assure you that I will carry out this follow-up visit in full respect of Security Council Resolution 1244 and the United Nations position of strict neutrality on the status of Kosovo.


Internally displaced persons have a right to return to their homes or places of habitual residence, if they so choose. Everything has to be done that those who return can participate in society without discrimination on the basis of equality and are protected from violence and harassment. Regardless of whether they want to return or not, internally displaced persons must be able to reclaim their property or receive at least adequate compensation if this is not feasible. I will also insist on respect for these principles, which are enshrined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, when travelling later this week to Pristina.

At the time, we need to have pragmatic models of cooperation between authorities so that human rights principles can become realities on the ground. I think the Foreign Minister of Serbia hit the right note a few days ago, when he told the United Nations Security Council that “we all have our constraints and they should be respected”, while adding that we should “focus on improving the lives of citizens instead of making them the victims of our disagreements.”


Internally displaced persons have a right to return, but as citizens they also have a right to choose to rebuild their shattered lives at the place where they find themselves. Indeed, there may be many among those displaced a decade ago, who might today be unwilling to return. Others may be simply unable to return because they are traumatized or elderly or do not feel strong enough yet to rebuild their lives in their former home. We need to respect their choice and help them rebuild independent lives now. Please bear in mind that those who regain control of their life in displacement will be better able to master a sustainable return, if in the end they choose to return.

It is positive, and a clear step forward since my last visit, that authorities like the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees have started programmes to help IDPs leave collective centres, move to their own houses and regain their livelihoods. Yet, bureaucratic obstacles, in particular cumbersome procedures relating to documents and even problems for some in obtaining birth certificates, continue to make it unnecessarily difficult for many IDPs to access public services. Yesterday, I visited a group of Roma IDPs who for ten years have lived in abject poverty in a muddy informal settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade in shacks without running water, and electricity. Their children cannot go to school, they cannot find regular employment and since a few months they no longer can access free health care – and all of this simply because they have no registered residence.

These people are your citizens and they are human beings like you and I. I saw their miserable situation with my own eyes. Yet, because they do not have a legally recognized address, even though they have lived for a decade in the same city, they are invisible to the institutions. Thousands or even tens of thousands of people, mostly Roma, live in such shocking situations. They are victimized on multiple grounds: First by having been forcibly displaced 10 years ago, second by administrative regulations that may make sense under normal circumstances but disregard the special situation of marginalized communities among the displaced, and third by belonging to a minority that has been living at the margins of society even before becoming displaced.

This Parliament has the power to help the people I met and many other internally displaced persons living in very difficult circumstances. Soon, you will have amendments to the Law on Residence before you that, if properly drafted, would make it much easier for IDPs and others to register a residence. I also understand that the Government is preparing a Bill on Recognition of Persons before the Law / Law on Personal Subjectivity that would also bring tangible progress. I would like to urge you to adopt these and other legislative changes improving the lives of IDPs.


Distinguished members of this house, when we refer to internally displaced persons we should never forget that we speak about citizens and human beings that have lived through a tragic experience. They deserve the full protection and assistance of the state and the compassion and support of their fellow citizens. I thank you for your attention.