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.

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.