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Briefing: The increasing squeeze on refugees to go home

‘All the key stakeholders have an interest in pushing for repatriation except the refugees themselves.’

Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
Syrian refugees, Um Abdullah and her daugther Maysaa, 13, pack a suitcase in preparation for their journey to Germany from Lebanon

After being forced into exile, going back home is often an agonising decision for refugees. Can they rebuild their lives? Will it really be safe?

As delegates aim for progress on so-called “burden-sharing” at this week’s inaugural Global Refugee Forum, the reality facing hundreds of thousands of refugees – from Burundians in Tanzania to Syrians in Lebanon – is that they are increasingly feeling the squeeze.

Many refugees are not given much of a choice about when and how they return. As governments around the world try to reduce the number of refugees in their countries, they are often putting pressure on refugees to leave – whether they’re ready or not.

This pressure comes in a variety of forms. In many wealthy Western nations, governments have limited who is eligible for asylum and expanded efforts to return those who do not qualify. The United States, for example, is trying to return more asylum seekers who try to cross its southern border. Meanwhile, Europe is pouring funds into the European border agency, Frontex, to step up deportation of people without legal status.

In developing countries, which shelter the vast majority of the world’s refugees, some governments look at Western policies and smell hypocrisy. Why shouldn’t they send more people home too?

In recent months, Tanzania began the planned repatriation of over 100,000 Burundian refugees and Turkey – the world’s top refugee-hosting country – said it plans to step up the deportation of Syrian refugees, transporting them to what it describes as a “safe zone” under its control in northeastern Syria. Earlier this year, Kenya renewed its repeated threat to close Dadaab refugee camp, currently housing over 200,000 mostly Somali refugees. Meanwhile, more than three million Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran in the past five years.

This briefing explores the trend, the dangers, and the alternatives.

Isn’t returning home the best outcome for refugees?

That depends on who you ask. While repatriation is generally the preferred solution to displacement crises, that’s often the view of governments and the international community, not refugees themselves.

Countries are often reluctant to host refugees long-term, while UN agencies are keen to facilitate returns to demonstrate their effectiveness. War-torn countries that refugees fled sometimes encourage them to return in order to regain international legitimacy. “All the key stakeholders have an interest in pushing for repatriation except the refugees themselves,” said Jeff Crisp, research associate at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre.

It also depends on the situation they’re returning to. Thousands of Syrians in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have returned to parts of Syria over the past year, but many felt they had little choice. At least 600,000 South Sudanese – internally displaced as well as refugees – have gone back to their homes since last year’s shaky peace deal. If the deal collapses, it could bring more displacement.

Is this focus on returning refugees new?

The preference for refugee returns is based on an outdated view of conflict, according to Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute. In the past, large numbers of refugees chose to go home after fundamental changes took place in their countries, like the refugees who went back after peace deals in Cambodia and Mozambique in the early 1990s. Today, conflicts are going on longer and countries remain fragile long after fighting stops.

“The idea of return as the preferred solution was predicated on the idea that refugee flows were a temporary phenomenon,” Newland said. “Those assumptions are not being borne out, so you have these very protracted situations of endless wars, unresolved conflicts, and autocratic governments that are firmly in place.”

As more refugees are displaced for longer periods of time, and with a widening international funding gap for refugee aid, some countries with large refugee populations feel the only answer is to return people as soon as possible. “The situations that cause people to flee are unending; [these countries are] not getting enough support from the international community, and by accident of geography, it falls disproportionately on them,” Newland said.

What forms of pressure do refugees face?

In the worst cases, refugees face a decision between prison or going home. In Libya, for example, thousands of asylum seekers, as well as migrants, are held in squalid, abusive detention centres. The few who can often choose to sign up for voluntary repatriation.

But it’s more common, explained Crisp, for host countries to find other ways to make refugees’ lives difficult, such as withdrawing health and education services, reducing food rations, or cutting off internet services – as has happened in camps from Kenya to Bangladesh to Greece. Some countries, like Sweden and Israel, offer refugees financial incentives to go back. Most returns fall into this “grey area” between forced and voluntary, Crisp said.

When refugees cannot get legal status in the country where they live, they may feel compelled to leave even though it’s not safe to go home, said Newland. “For lack of options, this really can't be called voluntary,” she said. Refugees sometimes return because they lack work and educational opportunities, which can be exacerbated when countries refuse to normalise their legal status, as is the case for many Syrians in Lebanon.

What does international law say?

Under customary international law, refugees cannot be forced back to places where they will be in danger. The UN insists that refugees have to be able to make a free and informed choice about whether to go home, and they must be able to return in a safe and dignified way.

Some governments find ways to get around these prohibitions, for example by not granting people full refugee status, but giving lesser protections that make them easier to deport; others just ignore the law altogether.

Do refugees push back against this pressure?

Protests are unusual. It’s often difficult for refugees to speak out against returns at all and risk the wrath of already hostile local authorities, like Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey who are under mounting pressure to go back to Syria.

However, there are exceptions.

Since the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees in 2017, Bangladesh has tried to organise their return to Myanmar, but the vast majority have refused to go back. In the Bangladeshi camps, refugees have organised protests and petitions against the return programme.

Attempts to close down Kenya’s Dadaab camp and repatriate hundreds of thousands of Somalis have also led to protests.

Are more refugees actually going home?

It’s hard to get comprehensive figures on the number of people going home, but officially, no.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, provides estimates of the number of registered refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) going back each year. Those numbers have risen and fallen over the past decade, slightly declining last year. Just under 600,000 refugees went back in 2018 – mostly to Syria and South Sudan – compared to 667,000 a year earlier. That’s less than three percent of the global refugee population. A much larger number of IDPs – 2.3 million – went back last year.

The UNHCR figures are not comprehensive and don’t include people who weren’t given refugee status and then deported. Statistics show that the deportation of migrants spiked in Europe during 2015-16 and in the United States during Barack Obama’s first presidential term.

What alternatives do refugees have?

Refugees have few other good options. Less than one percent of refugees are resettled in other countries and there are even fewer spaces available since President Donald Trump shrank the US refugee resettlement programme.

Meanwhile, countries are often reluctant to naturalise large numbers of refugees. A rare example is Tanzania’s offer of citizenship to Burundian refugees, but the programme was halted amid political and funding problems.

There is a middle way, in which refugees do not become citizens but become self-sufficient with international support, enabling them to contribute to their host country’s economy rather than drain resources. That is one of the ambitions of the Global Refugee Compact, an international agreement forged in 2018 and intended to modernise refugee response. The World Bank has also taken an interest in this approach.

Some organisations are also exploring alternatives to the UN-led resettlement process, including expanding labour market or education pathways for refugees to move to other countries. But Newland cautioned that these developments are proceeding slowly. “We’re kind of stuck for the moment and maybe for a while yet,” she said.

What happens to returnees?

UNHCR tries to monitor what happens to registered refugees who go back but it can be hampered by lack of humanitarian access, such as in Syria. “There needs to be safeguards, like allowing UNHCR to monitor the safety of people once they’ve returned, and reintegration and rebuilding assistance,” said Newland. “You can’t just drop people in the middle of their country and expect them to be safe.”

When refugees return to unstable situations, they often end up fleeing again.

For instance, the exodus of 2017 was the third mass displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar. Rohingya refugees were compelled to return to Myanmar in the 1970s and 1990s, but their dire situation in the country remained unchanged. “Some of the Rohingya have been refugees three times over,” said Crisp. “So the idea that a speedy [return] is a sustainable solution is highly questionable.”


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