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Balkans Refugee Problem Remains Issue

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BALKAN REFUGEE PROBLEM
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BELGRADE, Serbia — Balkan countries are seeking over euro500 million ($688 million) to resolve the problems of tens of thousands of refugees still remaining from the wars of the 1990s, officials said on Monday.

Officials from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro announced plans for a donors' conference to be held next year and raise the money needed to implement a five-year plan designed to close down all migrant centers and provide housing for some 74,000 people.

"We are fully aware that in the current global economic crisis this is going to be an overwhelming task indeed," Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said.

Jeremic warned, however, that the effort would fail without these funds.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during a series of ethnic conflicts that erupted after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and attempts to help them return to their homes or secure them a new life remains one of the most sensitive postwar issues.

Many of the refugees still live in so-called collective centers, which are most often former workers barracks or motels, housing dozens of families in overcrowded rooms. Hardly any of them have jobs or regular income and almost all of them depend on aid.

The U.N., EU and U.S. officials who were present at Monday's gathering in the Serbian capital, all pledged support for the joint refugee plan.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, urged the international community to "come forward," while the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Robinson also said "it is time to bring the reality of the displacement in the western Balkans to an end."

He added that "you are not alone. The U.S. will support you and not only with words."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule predicted that the 27 EU nations could provide half of the money at the donors' conference.

Fule said the refugee initiative sets an example of regional cooperation and presents an "important signal" for the EU member states that decide on whether to allow the troubled Balkan countries to move closer toward joining the bloc.

The former Yugoslav nations have sought to move closer to the EU following the wars. Croatia is the next in line to join in 2013, while the other countries are legging behind.