Youth asset losses in fragile environments

 

Children of Zaatari camp | Photo credit Oxfam International

The iconic images of the Syrian civil war involve children: children fleeing across the border with their family, children being rescued from urban bombings, and children being carried by parents in search of safety and medical care.  These images of children as victims, observers, and bystanders, reflect an understanding of children as needful of nurture and protection.

During conflicts children face many threats to their health and well-being.  They also risk asset losses that can follow them into their adult years.   Notable examples are the stories of Holocaust survivors. Many survivors learned of family assets late in their lives and then struggled to reclaim them.

Where there is forced displacement, assets are often lost.  In some cases, like Syria, this is intentional. There “ Property registries have been deliberately bombed, title deeds are seized at military checkpoints and new laws have been passed to make it easier for the regime to grab land, businesses and homes.”  Syrian families are losing assets.  When it becomes possible to return to Syria, reclaiming assets will be a challenge.  Young people raised in places of refuge may not know what the family assets are.  They might lack documentation or be unaware of the steps they need to take in order to reclaim assets.  This negatively impacts their ability to rebuild their lives if/when they return home.

Asset loss for children is a problem in many fragile environments.  During the HIV/AIDs pandemic years in Sub-Saharan Africa, many children lost their parents and then lost family property to relatives or outsiders.  Their economic opportunities became limited when they lost property assets.

In a recent article, Protecting Future Rights for Future Citizens, I suggest ways to protect children’s access to assets.  My suggestions target both states and humanitarian organizations.  I argue that states that do not currently legally protect children’s assets from expropriation should do so.  South Africa’s Children’s Act provides an excellent example of how to do this. Humanitarian organizations can also take actions to prevent this problem.  They can collect records on family assets of displaced people, include children as owners of those assets, and record them in a way that is both secure and portable.  Blockchain technology allows record storage that is both private and protected.  It is used for property records in Honduras and Estonia.  Recording children’s future assets  provides the means for them to reclaim family property.

The average length of displacement as a result of violence is 17 years – time enough for children to grow up and begin to support themselves.  Creating the possibility for young people to return home and reclaim assets is one way of facilitating community reconstruction after conflict.

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.