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Life in limbo for Serbian refugees

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Inside a Serbian refugee centre

The United Nations says more than six million people have been living as refugees for more than five years.

More than 90,000 of those are Serbs, who fled Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Some still live in the same squalid camps they were originally placed in.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes says these refugees are in limbo - unable either to return home or begin a new life.

A woman at the Petrovac centre
Conditions are cramped and basic at Petrovac

The Petrovac collective centre, 115km (75 miles) south-east of Belgrade, is a disused army barracks.

It once housed 600 refugees; the number is now down to around 50, but the camp remains a bleak, cramped and uncomfortable place.

"This was a solution that was always supposed to be temporary," explains Andre Mahecic of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

"But people are still here because they simply have no alternative," he says.

I don't think about our future anymore, anything I planned in life seems impossible
Miljo Miljic, refugee

Vinka and Stevo Kolundja are among those who have been unable to move on. They have been living in the centre since they fled Croatia in 1995.

Stevo is now approaching retirement age, has had two heart attacks, and cannot work.

Vinka, 58, is working as a nurse, but her wages are low.

"There is no way I can earn enough to pay the rent on a private apartment," she explains. "So we seem to be stuck here."

'Making ends meet'

Vinka's dream is to find a little place to live close to her daughter and grandchildren. But they now live in Belgrade, where rents are especially high.

Vinka and Stevo Kolundja
Vinka and Stevo are reluctant to take Serbian passports

For Vinka, even getting the bus fare to travel the two hours to visit them is a struggle, and she weeps as she looks at their pictures.

"I hardly ever see them," she says. "And I long to."

In fact, Vinka and Stevo could take Serbian nationality, a solution the UNHCR normally views as a step towards starting a new life.

But they are reluctant to do so because refugee status entitles them to basic accommodation in the centre, and to basic medical care, which Stevo needs. With Serbian passports they would have to pay for much of that themselves.

In theory they could also return to Croatia, but their house there was destroyed in the war.

"Many refugees appear to be hanging on to their refugee status as something they feel is the source of some assistance," says Mr Mahecic.

"They feel this is a kind of lifeline that keeps them alive and allows them to make ends meet."

'Dependency syndrome'

The UN knows the dangers of allowing people to become aid dependant, but does not want to abandon people like Vinka and Stevo.

Miljo Miljic
Miljo Miljic says he cannot see a way out

"We are always concerned about creating a dependency syndrome with refugees," says Mr Mahecic.

"And yes, there is a dependency syndrome among them, but what's the alternative? They depend on this aid."

Many refugees in Serbia have, however, taken the step of moving out of the collective centres, in the hope of improving their situation.

Unfortunately, as the Miljic family have discovered, these hopes are not always realised.

Miljo and Milica Miljic now pay 300 euros (260) a month for two very small, very basic rooms, which they share with their teenage son and daughter.

But the Miljics are both aged 55 and in ill health - and finding work in Serbia nowadays is hard even for the young and strong.

Neither Miljo nor Milica have got regular jobs, and each week is a struggle to make ends meet.

"My son has got a school trip to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia," says Miljo. "But the cost is 250 euros, so I have had to tell him he cannot go."

Hopes

Miljo has tried hard to change things for the better. He has been back to check the family's original home in Tuzla, Bosnia, in the hope that they might be able to return.

"We were happy there," he says. "And it is safe to go back, but our house has been looted. Everything is gone, even the sinks, the toilet, all the fittings. And I have no money to replace all that."

So once again, the Miljics are reluctant to give up their refugee status.

Basic medical care is important, and then there is the faint hope that at some point they might get some compensation for their losses.

"A lot of refugees tell me they hope for that," says social worker Biljana Kosanic. "They think if they stay as refugees someone somewhere will finally pay them for their suffering."

"But it's never going to happen, never."

'Trapped'

The UNHCR has invited donors and governments to Geneva this week because it wants them to come up with better solutions for long-term refugees.

But finding solutions is likely to be complicated, controversial, and costly.

It involves restitution of land and property rights by the countries of origin, or more social support, especially for elderly refugees, in host countries.

So for the time being, families like the Miljics are stuck; refugees from a war long over, who cannot go back and cannot go forward.

"I feel trapped," says Miljo.

"I don't know, maybe I've been in this situation so long I can't think clearly anymore, but I just don't see a way out. I don't think about our future anymore. Anything I planned in life seems impossible."

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