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Largest European Refugee Group Finds Home in Serbia

Four years after the wars of Yugoslav succession ended, the U.S. Committee for Refugees says Serbia continues to host the largest number of refugees in Europe.

Statistics show there are about 600,000 refugees in Serbia. More than half are ethnic Serbs who fled or were forced out of Croatia or Bosnia. The remainder are Serbs forced out of Kosovo in 1999.

Kosovo, officially still a Serbian territory, is administered by the United Nations with a NATO-led force providing security for a population that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees says 235,000 of the refugees in Serbia are from Kosovo. Marianna Obradovic, a refugee specialist at Belgrade's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, says there has been almost no progress toward repatriating the Kosovo Serbs.

"For example, in Kosovo it is the most difficult situation," she said. "You know the security problem is not solved yet. So it is not just property or jobs that is a problem, the biggest issue is security."

Kosovo's Albanians, who themselves were brutally forced out of the territory by Slobodan Milosevic's regime and then returned after NATO's military victory, don't want the Serbs to return. The few Serbs remaining in Kosovo still have to be protected by NATO troops.

Ms. Obradovic said concerning Bosnia, there has been significant progress over the past year. More than 1,000 Serbian refugees, have returned, she says.

"The best situation is in Bosnia because they have, let's say, better conditions for returning," she explained. "Their flats [apartments] are not occupied. Their property is returned. And they have the potential to return. But in Croatia the situation is not so good because other people [Croats] are living in their houses."

Experts say the depressed economy of Bosnia and lack of employment discourages many Serb refugees from returning.

The Serb refugees have generally been able to integrate into Serbian society as they speak the local language and have the same culture. However, Serbia's still-battered economy is not providing adequate job opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Serbian government says it plans to close the remaining resettlement centers over the next year. The government in Belgrade continues to press the United Nations authorities in Kosovo to speed up repatriation and bring an end to the ongoing intimidation of ethnic Serbs.