After 1992, because of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Serbia (Mandić et al., 2006). For many people, and especially for women, stresses of war were followed by the stresses of leaving home and becoming a refugee. The state of their mental well-being remained a hidden but a serious issue.
The report deals with the analysis of data collected during ethnographic research conducted in the period October 20 to November 10, 2015, in three rural households in a village predominantly populated by refugees. The emphasis is placed on the gender roles of refugee women, examining their responses (i.e. resilience) to everyday stressful situations, and the roles of institutions, direct social networks and socio-political circumstances in the lives of these women. The goal is to analyse the extent to which the experience of forced migration caused by the war in the former Yugoslavia has affected their mental well-being, and to what extent their lives have been affected by the new social circumstances upon arriving to Serbia.
The first big ‘wave’ of refugees came in 1991/92, with the start of war in Croatia and soon after in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The second ‘wave’ followed in 1995, after military operations Flash (in May) and Storm (in August), causing massive refugee movements from Croatian regions populated by local ethnic Serbs, being under UN peacekeeping protection since 1992. After NATO forces moved into Kosovo, in June 1999, a third great ‘wave’ of displacement hit Serbia, with more than 200,000 people leaving the disputed territory of Kosovo and Metohija.
All women at the heart of this study have opted for integration in Serbia and thus have lost their refugee status. Yet as we shall see, conversations with people in the village often touched upon refugee status. The Law on Refugees of the Republic of Serbia (Official Gazette of RS, No. 45/2002) treats refugees as persons in social need, who have the same rights as the citizens of Serbia except rights and obligations related to civil status. However, contrary to international standards, the refugee status is linked with the particular period of displacement and specific ethnic background of refugees. The law does not contain specific standards to affirm the position of women in exile (Pavlov, Volarević, Petronijević, 2006). All persons who had residence and ‘citizenship’ in republics of the former Yugoslav federation and who arrived in Serbia before August 1995 were granted the status of refugees (Mandić et al, 2006). People who arrived from Croatia during the large exodus after Operation Storm in August 1995 or after that were granted the status of ‘expelled persons’. Yet this different label had no formal or significant practical repercussions: expellees had the same rights as those labelled as refugees. On the other hand, persons displaced from Kosovo are recognised (by Serbian authorities and UNHCR) as IDPs in Serbia. They are considered citizens of Serbia, who validate their IDP status through a specific process of temporary residence registration. An official process of deregistration does not exist for IDPs while termination of refugee status happens if: 1) a person has acquired citizenship of the Republic of Serbia and initiated the process of registration of permanent residence, 2) in case of voluntarily (and registered) return to the former Yugoslav republic from which he or she fled, 3) if the person moves to a third country (through resettlement scheme). The first situation also occurs if a person applies for a housing programme in the integration process, which was the case of the respondents in this study. Such housing projects have been conducted since the late 1990s but have been especially intense during the last decade. In order to respond to the protracted refugee crisis caused by the break-up of former Yugoslavia, the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia (so-called post-Dayton countries) have developed a Regional Housing Programme (RHP) which should provide durable housing solutions to an estimated 27,000 households or 74,000 individuals. Only within the Serbia’s Country Housing Project, 16,780 extremely vulnerable households (or 45,000 individuals) will be assisted on the basis of the projects submitted by municipalities and towns with the highest concentration of refugees. The RHP’s implementation started in spring of 2013 and should be completed in 2017 (Regional Housing Programme, 2013).
Integration (being recognised as one of the three key ‘durable solutions’ to refugee situation) is a life process that takes place from the moment of arrival in the new country. Refugees may remain connected with the country of origin by kinship, friendships and memories, and with the country they now live in, they may relate through a sense of security, newly acquired social relationships, work, family, housing and education.
The ethnographic approach in this study is aimed at a deeper understanding of the refugee women perspective. This required the full involvement of the researcher in their everyday lives in order to see how they cope with their past experiences and current situations.