(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Midyear update: Returning refugees

Pressure grows in a pivotal year

Photo of a classroom in Uganda for South Sudanese refugees
Michele Sibiloni/UNICEF

Remember those 10 crises and trends to watch in 2019 we presented back in January? We’ve been keeping an eye on them, reporting on how areas from climate change to political transitions in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are impacting humanitarian needs and response. With 2019 just about half over, it’s time for an update.

Here’s what’s changed over the past six months, what we’re paying special attention to, and how it may affect the lives and livelihoods of people on the ground. Look for two updates every day this week, including today with returning refugees and Ethiopia.

Be sure to share your thoughts – and ideas for our continuing coverage – at [email protected] or @thenewhumanitarian

The pressure remains high on millions of vulnerable people to return to dangerous homelands, with 2019 showing itself to be a pivotal year for the four largest refugee crises: Syrians, Afghans, South Sudanese, and Myanmar’s Rohingya account for around half the world’s registered refugees, not to mention millions more internally displaced people.

What’s new:

More and more Syrian refugees are heading home, in some cases under pressure from host governments, but given how widely the figures vary, we can’t be sure exactly how many: While the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was able to verify 21,000 returns from January through early April, Turkey said in late May that 329,000 people had returned to Afrin alone since the country’s forces took control of the Syrian-Kurdish enclave last year.  

Afghans continue to face pressure to return on multiple fronts. The UN recorded more than 220,000 returns this year from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan; UN agencies are planning for at least 680,000 by the end of 2019. The threat of deportation has eased in Pakistan but heightened in Iran, the source of the vast majority of recent returnees. In Europe, Afghan asylum seekers are increasingly seeing their claims rejected, and thousands each year are returned.

The UN’s envoy for South Sudan has said that half a million refugees and displaced people have gone home since last year’s fragile peace deal, and in Bangladesh nearly one million Rohingya refugees are still in limbo. The cramped refugee settlements have the population of a city, but Rohingya can’t attend formal schooling or legally work. Bangladesh has not announced new repatriation plans following two aborted attempts last year, but the government says the Rohingya must one day return home. 

Why we’re watching:

Even as some Syrians come back from internal displacement or exile, more than 330,000 people have just fled a government assault in the rebel-held northwest. Some returning refugees have reportedly met with arrest and interrogation, and others have found their homes destroyed and difficulty making a living. 

Afghans are coming home to a country wracked by war and disaster. Civilian deaths from conflict are at a 10-year high, 132,000 people are newly displaced by fighting this year, and drought and floods have displaced even more.

Not all south Sudanese are interested in going home: some have said that they are concerned about interrupting their children’s education.

In Myanmar, UN investigators say the government has done little to ensure that Rohingya will be safe should they choose to return. At the same time, conflicts new and old continue to trap civilians while humanitarian access shrinks: the UN says 30,000 civilians have been displaced this year in Rakhine State as the military clashes with the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group.

Keep in mind:

Kenya is set to begin closing the Dadaab refugee camp, home to 211,000 mainly Somali refugees, at the end of August. The government flagged its intention to shutter the camp in 2016, claiming – without evidence – that it was a terrorist training ground. It has already stopped the registration of new arrivals, and current residents will be relocated to other camps in Kenya or encouraged to return to war-torn Somalia.

(TOP PHOTO: South Sudanese refugees learn in Uganda.)

 

Read all our midyear updates: Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2019

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