The foreign minister of Serbia, along with counterparts from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, issued a joint declaration Monday at a refugee conference in Belgrade in which they pledged to work together to repatriate 74,000 refugees remaining from the Balkan wars.
The four countries promised to jointly address the refugee problem and said they would attempt to raise up to $700 million to aid the cause.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said tough economic times will make it difficult to raise the money but urged the leaders to do what it takes to help the refugees.
"That is our obligation to the victims, and that must be our future route," Jeremic told the Tanjug News Agency.
He said the money needs to be raised from the regional countries before a donors' conference is held next year in Sarajevo to put the program into action.
Jeremic added the declaration outlines a framework to do so and could serve as a catalyst for broader reconciliation, peace and stability in the Balkans, Tanjug reported.
Its provisions include the stepped-up processing of civil documentation allowing refugees and returnees now living in collective centers to resume normal lives. It would also seek to help former apartment tenants who were evicted from their homes during the 1992-95 violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Also attending Monday's conference was U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who said the agency welcomes the declaration.
"This represents enormous courage and wisdom from the four governments," he said. "The solutions always require a political initiative to make them possible and economic and social development measures to make them sustainable."
Guterres and the other foreign ministers agreed the joint effort could help heal the wounds of the conflict.
"Meeting their needs is a key step toward reconciliation between countries in the region," the U.N. agency chief told the Belgrade conference.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj said there is a moral imperative on the region's leaders to care for the refugees, Euronews reported.
"Our common moral, human and political task is to fulfill our remaining obligations towards the refugees and the displaced persons," he said. "This has to be done in a fair manner and based on their choice -- whether they want to return to their previous homes, or integrate fully in the places where they live now, so they can build a future."
Solving the refugee problem could also help the Western Balkan nations' efforts to join the European Union.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told Tanjug before the conference the refugee problem must be overcome.
"The return of refugees is one of the most sensitive and most difficult problems that directly affect the life of a majority of people in the region," Fule said. "Refugees and displaced persons constitute the most vulnerable part of the population, and meeting their needs is a key step toward reconciliation between countries in the region."
A key date is coming next month when the European Council will decide whether to adopt a European Commission recommendation for Serbia to be granted candidate status for EU membership.
The council will also decide if Montenegro and Macedonia should be granted a date for accession talks.
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