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.

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.