Return Migration of Serbs to Kosovo

Serb Returnees and Population Distribution (Joireman 2017)

There are a few things we know about return migration after violent conflict, and quite a bit we have yet to learn.  Many people who are forcibly displaced by violence have no desire to go back home, particularly if they were part of a minority group.  Indeed, Adelman and Barkman (2011) have noted that while minority return is an expectation it is rarely a reality.  Instead when we see large populations returns after violent conflict it is usually the majority population returning or in those very few circumstances where both the government and returnees are happy with the outcome of the conflict.  Even then, they do not necessarily return to their communities of origin, but often to urban areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were forcibly displaced by the Kosovo War in 1998-1999.  Efforts to promote their return to Kosovo have not met with much success.  My recent article in International Migration investigates minority Serb returns to Kosovo, examining the question of where they return.  The analysis identifies a pattern of preference for return to traditionally Serb rural areas in Kosovo.  This is somewhat unusual.  Based on what has happened in other countries, we would expect returnees to come back to cities, particularly since large numbers of Serbs were displaced from urban areas.  But this is not what is happening.

Serb Returns

When we exclude the four northern Serb municipalities which do not function as part of the state of Kosovo, the municipalities with the highest numbers of Serb returnees are rural.  Surprisingly, of the three municipalities with the highest number of returnees (Klinë/Klina, Novobërdë/Novo Brde, and Istog/Istok) only Novobërdë/Novo Brde is a Serb-majority municipality created under the Ahtisaari Plan.  This is a little puzzling.  One might expect that Serbs would return to areas where they had political control and protection.  Also strange is the fact that people are returning to areas with some of the highest rates of retaliatory violence during the war.  So what could be happening, why might people be returning to these rural municipalities?

Some of the recent work on civil wars suggests that the violence is often localized, enacted within a larger narrative of conflict, but often with personal and local motivations.  Return migration might have somewhat similar characteristics in which the local community is more important than the wider political environment.  In rural ethnic enclaves Serbs can enjoy the society of their co-ethnics in relative security and isolated from the national political context.   In some of the interviews I conducted for this project people talked about the importance of Serbian schools, churches, and ‘girls for the boys to marry’.

While this may not seem desirable in terms of longer term reconciliation between ethnic groups, in the short term it enables people to feel secure in their daily environment.  Like in Bosnia, ethnic enclaves in Kosovo isolate people from the ethnic other, providing a safe option for return after ethnic conflict.  The decision to return to an enclave community meets the public policy goal of return, but is far from a restoration of communities to what they were before the conflict.

Dying fast or dying slowly: food aid and migration

Before taking his family on the passage from Jordan to Europe, Mounib Zakiya told the BBC “Its better to die fast on the journey, than die slowly, watching your kids starve.” He lived in Jordan for three years after fleeing the Syrian civil war.  His family was among many Syrian refugees affected by significantly reduced food rations in 2015.  The World Food Program (WFP) was underfunded  that year by 63 percent and calls to governments around the world for assistance were not met with the needed support.  2015 was the second year in a row in which the WFP did not receive its needed funding, in spite of a  worldwide increase in humanitarian assistance .

The cuts to Syrian refugees were significant.  In Lebanon, food vouchers were cut in half  to US$13.50 per person per month.  In Jordan, 230,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps lost their food aid entirely.  As a result, families were forced to make impossible decisions in order to survive -taking children out of school, skipping meals, going into debt, or fleeing to Europe.

The WFP’s reduced aid drastically influenced a wave of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to Europe in 2015.  By foot and by boat, they flooded into Greece and the Balkans countries in search of refuge, risking dangerous travel and an uncertain future rather than remain and starve.


Lessons not learned

The take-away from the experience of mass Syrian migration – that maintaining food rations is important in keeping refugees and migrants in the place of refuge closest to their country – appears to have been forgotten.  The World Food Program recently announced another shortfall in funding that would require it to reduce rations across a number of African countries hosting refugees.  In Uganda, which hosts 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Congo, those who arrived before 2015 had their rations cut by 50%.

Assisting refugees to remain within their region makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Those who are physically proximate to their place of origin can more easily return when peace is restored
  • It prevents refugees from making dangerous journeys across oceans or deserts without adequate preparation or protection.
  • There will be less need for human traffickers who financially benefit from their movement.
  • It reduces the number of people trying to migrate to Europe or other northern countries to try their luck with the international asylum system.

Massive forced migration is not good for anyone. The further away from home people need to go for safety the farther they are from their houses, farms, businesses and the local information that they need to make an informed decision to return.  In 2015 alone, 65 million people were displaced as a result of violence, enough to form a country the size of France.  Enabling people to remain in areas closer to home is a pragmatic international response that is in the best interests of all.  However, it comes at a price, which is the assistance that people need to live in places of refuge.


Dr. Sandra Joireman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond and Chair of the Board of Directors of Bread for the World.  You can follow her on twitter @joireman or

The European Migration Crisis Up Close

I am conducting research in Serbia for a few weeks on post-conflict return migration.  While I interview people impacted by a war nearly twenty years ago, another migration crisis is playing out in front of me.

Serbia is part of the ‘Balkans Route’ of migration to Europe.  It was a real hotspot in 2015 when tens of thousands of Syrian refugees surged into Europe through Serbia and into Hungary, the first EU country where they could declare asylum.  That changed with the agreement between Turkey and the EU in March of 2016 that stemmed the flow of refugees out of Turkey.


However, Syrian refugees were not the only ones who were trying to get into the EU.  Migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are also on the move and have made it to Serbia. Some are fleeing war and others looking for better economic opportunity in the EU.

In the wake of an anti-immigration vote in Hungary last week, those migrants in Serbia hoping for passage to an EU country are likely to be disappointed.   They seem to be aware of this fact.  Earlier this week after the Hungarian referendum hundreds of migrants left Belgrade to walk to the Hungarian border,.  They demanded that the border be opened for people fleeing war and poverty.  The peaceful demonstration ended after a day and the protesters were bussed back to Belgrade.

In Serbia several thousand migrants wait in camps and reception centers.  Around 700 are staying in two parks in the center of Belgrade, the capital city.


Migrants in Belgrade Park

The presence of migrants in the parks is both glaringly obvious and completely normalized.  Most of the migrants are young, brown-skinned men in a city filled with Slavs.  The parks – indecisively cordoned off with orange plastic fencing – are open and residents pass through normally, as do students attending classes at the adjacent Economics Faculty building (visible in the background of the photo below).


Economics Faculty Building

The migrants are not interested in staying in Serbia.  Only a small percentage has filled out asylum applications.  They aspire to make it to the better economic environment of the European Union countries.

To date the Serbian community has been remarkably hospitable.  Humanitarian organizations distribute blankets and food and provide mobile clinics for healthcare.   This would look much different in America, where no illegal migrant could be so public about their status and the migrants would most likely be treated as a threat.  Perhaps the suffering of Serbs during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s has made them compassionate regarding the situations of others touched by war.  Or they are simply not a threat because they have no desire to stay in Serbia.  Recent statements from the Serb president call the continuation of this hospitality into question.  Meanwhile, life carries on around the migrants – students attend their classes and Serbs come and go to the bus and train stations across the street.

These young men will not have an easy time.  Those that can qualify as refugees have some hope, but those who came in search of better economic opportunities are unlikely to find willing host countries in the EU.  EU countries balk at the demands on them to take in Syrian refugees.  Compassion will be in short supply for economic migrants.

Religious Symbols, War, and Peace-building

This is Christ the Savior Cathedral, which stands on the campus of the University of Pristina in Kosovo. It is odd for a church to be on this campus – the university is secular and 95% of the people of Kosovo are Muslim.

How it Came to be There

Kosovo fought a war with Serbia in 1998-1999 later declaring independence in 2008. Tensions were high during the decade before the war, Kosovans wanted greater autonomy and the Serbian controlled government resisted their demands.  In the midst of that turbulent era, the Serbian Orthodox Church started construction on a new cathedral, Christ the Savior, in the middle of the campus of the University of Pristina.  Construction began in 1995 and was never completed because of the war.  Building the church there was an affront to the Muslim, Albanian population.  Yet, it was legal.  The title to the land belongs to the Orthodox Church (indeed, they controversially own most of the land on which the University of Pristina sits).

The timing and location of this particular religious building make it presence less than irenic. Serbs, and everyone else in Kosovo, should have the right to freely express their faith and meet together for worship. Yet, as is clear from other countries, the peaceful practice of multiple religions demands sensitivity to image and intent.

And now….

The church has remained unfinished, deserted, and boarded up – an icon of the conflict and ongoing religious cleavages in Kosovo. Then this month, some Orthodox Serbs started to clean the church. Students reacted immediately, staging sit-ins and protesting the presence of the church on campus.

Religion and Reconciliation

One of the characteristics of the Serbian Orthodox faith is the way in which church spaces – interiors and architecture – educate those present about the relationship between God and human beings. The mosaics and paintings recount biblical stories and historic events; the temporal links to the spiritual through the aesthetics of space and beauty.  Worshippers have a full sensory experience in services through the paintings and icons, music and incense.  For a tradition that places such value on place in its worship, it is a pity that this space of worship has become so politicized.

As others have noted before me, there is an ambivalence to religion’s role in conflict. Religion can resolve and ameliorate conflicts or make them worse. In this case, the latter is the accurate description. The church reminds people of the dominance of Serbia over Kosovo and the dark days leading up to the war. There are few Serbs left in the city after the war who could use the cathedral as a place of worship even if it were to be completed.

Orthodox religious leaders could model the reconciling nature of Christ should they use the occasion of the recent demonstrations to build peace, rather than reinforce the existing divisions. It would be healing if Orthodox Church leaders would initiate an open and public discussion about what should be done with the unfinished cathedral, acknowledging the manner and context in which the church was built and considering alternative purposes for the building, such as museum, lecture hall, or campus gathering space.

Serbian Orthodox churches are designed to connect the temporal and spiritual. This cathedral could serve as a symbol of healing and reconciliation in a divided and politicized society, rather than a symbol of the conflict.

Flags, Anthems and the Rio Olympics

As Kosovo competes in its first Olympics at Rio its athletes marched in under a flag no one uses and its medal winners will listen to an anthem with no words.  The flag and anthem arouse little emotion from the 92% of the population of Kosovo who are ethnic Albanians.  Far more evocative is the banner with the Albanian, black, double-headed eagle on a red background and the battle anthem of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or in Albanian, UCK) which led the fight for independence in the 1999 war.  But neither the most popular flag nor the most resonant song represent this small state.  Why not?  Because the Albanian population shares the tiny state of Kosovo with other ethnic groups, most notably Serbs, but also Roma, Gorani, Ashkali, Egyptian and Bosniaks.

The Triumph of Civic over Ethnic Nationalism?

The ethnic nationalism which led to the fight for the independence of Kosovo in 1998-1999 and the solidarity of the Albanian people of Kosovo during a long and pacifist protest through the early 1990s took a more sinister turn after victory.  When the Serbian armed forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO bombing, they left a vulnerable Serb population in Kosovo and an armed KLA.  Serb civilians were targets of retaliatory violence in 1999 and then again in 2004 during a period of ethnic riots.  As a result 220,000 Serbs left Kosovo and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo did all it could to turn the state to a more positive, encompassing, civic nationalism.  Civic nationalism is the attachment to the state, as opposed to ethnic nationalism which is the attachment to the ethnic group.  The Assembly of Kosovo, to demonstrate its inclusivity when it declared independence in 2008, adopted a flag with the image of the in yellow on a blue background (with the colors similar to the EU flag) and oversaw the choice of a national anthem entitled ‘Europa’ for which there are no words, chosen by the Assembly because it did not reference any ethnic group.

Ensuring that the symbols of the state are not considered the property of a single ethnic group is important everywhere.  But it does not lead to an embrace of multiethnic, or even civic, values.  While I was teaching in Kosovo in 2013, my students expressed the wish that the symbols of the state had a more distinctly Albanian character.  Yet, Kosovo struggles with ongoing low-level violence and harassment against its minority populations and the economy is characterized by what political scientist Edward Banfield referred to as ‘amoral familialism’ in which the material advantage of the family is privileged over the well-being of the community.  This, in a country which already has significant barriers to economic growth and opportunity.

Nothing makes people feel nationalism like the Olympics.  It is a chance to cheer on the best young athletes in our country and watch them challenge, hopefully triumph, over the greatest athletes in the world.  If Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi wins an anticipated medal in judo, expect to see red and black Albanian flags waving in the stands.

White House Summit on Global Development

It was a privilege to be able to attend the White House Summit on Global Development on July 20.  The Summit was a celebratory event, highlighting the development achievements in the Obama administration with an eye to influencing the agenda of the next administration.  President Obama spoke at the end of the day, which was a highlight.  There were a number of other interesting issues that came up at the Summit.

Global Food Security Act

Part of the reason for the Summit was to announce the signing of the Global Food Security Act, which was a major achievement for the development community.  The Global Food Security Act received substantial bipartisan support to turn the Feed the Future initiative of USAID, which increased investments in smallholder agriculture around the world, into law.  I worked with Bread for the World to get this passed.  Bread was only one of a number of anti-hunger groups pushing to get this through.

Health as Bipartisan Achievement

One of the panels at the Summit was on global health and there was a nice bipartisan nod to the achievements of the Bush Administration on HIV/AIDS, as well as the more expected congratulation to the Obama administration on its response to Ebola.  Global health issues made it into Obama’s speech as well as a call out to the Congress to pass funding to combat the Zika Virus.

Civil Society and Open Government

Samantha Power led a great panel on transparency and open government.  While some of the conversation a focused on the importance of government accountability, the issue of the use of law to restrict civil society was also addressed.  Douglas Rutzen from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law talked about the ‘rule by law’ rather than the ‘rule of law’.  He was indicating the trend of authoritarian governments using laws to restrict the activities of civil society rather than using law to protect those activities.  I have heard this same thing in field research in Ethiopia in the past and then more recently in Uganda, so it was good to hear it emphasized by those in the government.  Morgan Lee in Christianity Today recently wrote a piece about how laws that are intended to restrict pro-democracy organizations effect Christian groups and presumably other religious groups as well.

Strong institutions as the basis of sustainable development 

“Turns out functioning governments are really important”   This is my favorite quote from Obama’s speech.  As a political scientist it makes me happy to hear this said. Functioning governments are critical to development but, as the Samantha Power panel noted, law can also be used to restrict the voice of civil society.  The best governments use law to promote the flourishing of their population, the worst use it to restrict them.

Pinheiro Principles and the Voluntary Guidelines

The 2005 Pinheiro Principles were the first summative statement regarding property rights in post-conflict settings.  They were the result of a UN Sub-Commission tasked with applying human rights law to post-conflict housing, land, and property issues for refugees and internally displaced people.   In arriving at the Pinheiro Principles the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights consulted with legal experts, civil society organizations and states.  They were helpful, but imperfect, as these things often are.  They have been challenged in terms of their legal foundations and I have reservations about their applicability in situations with customary law.

The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, actually have a longer title yet, but are most often just referred to as ‘The Voluntary Guidelines”.   They were adopted in 2012 after a remarkable consultative process lead by the FAO Committee on World Food Security.  Negotiations over the guidelines occurred in 2011 and 2012, as the world was still reeling from the 2008 Food Price Crisis.  The Voluntary Guidelines are notable for bringing together food sovereignty advocates in over 30 civil society organizations and the 96 UN member states that negotiated the agreement.    They are broader than the Pinheiro Principles as they address land governance in all contexts, not just post-conflict.  They also address the concerns of people such as myself, interested in seeing customary law directly addressed.

The Voluntary What?

However, there is a major problem with the Voluntary Guidelines.  Apart from those directly involved in the consultations, and perhaps also some of my students, no one seems to know they exist.  Of course I exaggerate, but not too much.  In the past month I have reviewed two academic papers by very smart people writing on land restitution issues, who seemingly have never heard of the Voluntary Guidelines.  Why?  How could it be that people are not aware of the Voluntary Guidelines in spite of the remarkable effort and extensive consultation that went into developing them?

Here are my three ideas about the causes of this ignorance.

  • Voluntary is interpreted as irrelevant. This isn’t true.  The Voluntary Guidelines are no more or less enforceable than the Pinheiro Principles.  It is all ‘soft’ international law and therefore has no specific enforcement mechanism, but is meant to guide organizations and governments in making decisions.


  • Post-conflict issues are buried in Section 25 after multiple preceding sections addressing riveting issues such as valuation, taxation and spatial planning. Personally, I do find spatial planning compelling, but I realize that not everyone agrees with me.


  • The focus in the Voluntary Guidelines on respecting marginalized people and ensuring food security for all, means that they are more complex than the Pinheiro Principles, which are very straightforward and easy to understand. By way of example, here is the way that property restitution is discussed in each.


Pinheiro Principle 2 The right to housing and property restitution

2.1 All refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived, or to be compensated for any housing, land and/ or property that is factually impossible to restore as determined by an independent, impartial tribunal.


And the equivalent passage in the Voluntary Guidelines

VG 25.5 In situations of conflicts, whenever possible or when conflicts cease, States and other parties should ensure that tenure problems are addressed in ways that contribute to gender equality and support durable solutions for those affected. Where restitution is possible and, as appropriate, with the assistance of UNHCR and other relevant agencies, refugees and displaced persons should be assisted in voluntarily, safely and with dignity returning to their place of origin, in line with applicable international standards. Procedures for restitution, rehabilitation and reparation should be nondiscriminatory, gender sensitive and widely publicized, and claims for restitution should be processed promptly. Procedures for restitution of tenure rights of indigenous peoples and other communities with customary tenure systems should provide for the use of traditional sources of information.

25.6 Where restitution is not possible, the provision of secure access to alternative land, fisheries and forests and livelihoods for refugees and displaced persons should be negotiated with host communities and other relevant parties to ensure that the resettlement does not jeopardize the livelihoods of others. Special procedures should, where possible, provide the vulnerable, including widows and orphans, with secure access to land, fisheries and forests

You get the picture.

This is all unfortunate.  The Voluntary Guidelines is an important document that is sophisticated in its understanding of tenure systems around the world and prioritizes people and food production.  This is good and necessary, albeit complex.

Property and Return Migration

My most recent research has been on post-conflict return migration, specifically the question of who comes back to their homes and community after violence forces them to leave.  When I started the project  I was solely focused on land issues.  I wanted to know whether property restitution mattered in people’s decisions to return home.  The deeper I got into research on the topic (in Liberia, Uganda and Kosovo) the more I realized that property restitution was only one piece of a very complicated decision –making process that has as much to do with household needs and characteristics, length of displacement and opportunities elsewhere, as with property restitution.

Customary Law

Many places around the world allocate land on the basis of customary law –  a system of rules in which people typically have a claim to land rights because they are members of a group.  For example, because I am Acholi and my family is from northern Uganda, I am a member of a particular lineage with a right to the land that lineage ‘owns’ in northern Uganda.  The specific land I can claim will be determined by lineage or community leaders.  My property right comes from my identity rather than from a deed or title.  In most cases customary law is not written and property rights are not formalized (although that is increasingly changing).

Customary Land Tenure after Conflict

The average length of time people are displaced as a result of violent conflict is 17 years (a depressing statistic!).  Lots of things change in 17 years including the composition of households as family members are born, die, emigrate, etc.   Community leaders also change and new leaders do not necessarily know or remember who lived where or had claim to what land.

Laura Meitzner Yoder and I address some of the challenges of return migration to areas with customary land in the most recent issue of Development and Change.    While I have research experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, Laura has worked and studied land in Timor-Leste.  We combined our expertise to address the role of customary land in post-conflict migration.  We address the different ways in which post-conflict return can happen (synchronized or punctuated) and also the disconnect between the rights one can claim under customary law (a right to some part of the lineage land) and the rights guaranteed in international public policy on return migration (a right to a specific piece of land or home from which one was displaced).

Customary law creates a different context for property restitution in post-conflict settings.  It can be more flexible than formalized land holding, but it is highly dependent on the leaders who interpret and enforce it.

World Humanitarian Summit

I had the pleasure of attending the World Humanitarian Summit in May on behalf of Bread for the World.  While I attend a lot of academic meetings, this certainly was a lot different from the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.  First, there was art – visual and performing art woven into the conference.  That was an unexpected pleasure and very well done.  Second, I walked past both Angela Merkel and Sean Penn in the hallway, enough said.  Third, there were all sorts of small ways in which the experiences of individuals in need of humanitarian assistance were incorporated into the conference from the lunches that were based on the rations given to refugees in different countries to the emphasis on the terrible choices that people have to make in humanitarian emergencies.  Sometimes this became a little extreme; at the innovation fair I had some people talking to me in detail (which I will not share because it is gross) about why the body bags they had just started to make were better than the standard UN body bags.


Hunger and Faith-based Organizations

There were several high points for me.  One was hearing a rousing speech by Irish president Michael Higgens on ending hunger by 2030.  He emphasized the fact that food security – three nutritious meals a day – underpins efforts to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Another high point was participation in the faith-based organizations meetings which were very focused on getting the UN to take faith based organizations seriously as humanitarian actors.  This is particularly important since local faith-based organizations are usually on the ground before a crisis, endure through it, and stay afterwards.   The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities has compiled five research briefs documenting the evidence related to the positive role that faith-based organizations play in humanitarian emergencies.  You can find them here.  The outcome document – Charter for Faith-Based Humanitarian Action is also available and very interesting reading.

Advocating for Justice


Some friends of mine recently published a wonderful book entitled Advocating for Justice.  I was an outside reviewer for the text and got to speak at the book launch last week.



I thought I would post here my three favorite things about the book.

  • We not me

There are quite a lot of books on Christian advocacy which follow the narrative arc of individual transformation in which the author was ignorant of a particular subject (religious freedom, AIDS, trafficking), has an experience which reveals the subject matter, and is then transformed and becomes an activist on the particular subject.  This is not that book.  This book focuses on advocacy as appropriately embedded in Christian communities – something that we all do together – in  local churches, para church organization and denominations so that advocacy can become a form of discipleship.  By embedding it in community we can get to the place where the church is a witness to the state and to society.


  • Theological grounding of advocacy

I loved the focus in the book on the trinity as a model for us in our advocacy for others.    This is not just a call for us to act on behalf of the suffering; this is an advocacy in which we try and conform to the image of God.  Advocacy not as a technique but as a theology -something Christians do to faithfully image Christ in the world.    At one point the authors argue that God is the subject of our advocacy.  I read that as saying that advocacy is a form of worship not of charity, though charity is not discounted.  Those with a theological bent are going to love the way this argument is made in the text.


  • Politics as multilayered

The reader is compelled to look beyond the suffering of particular individuals and the problems that exist in localities to think about the structures that enable suffering to occur.   I am a political scientist and I appreciate the fact that local and national political structures are not neutral, but form and enable behaviors which can cause harm.  These structures need to be challenged and the church can do that if we think differently about the church.

This is a book which motivates us to give voice to the concerns of others, but also reveals a different imagination as to why we should do so, and why we should do so together as Christians in community.