Briefing: The increasing squeeze on refugees to go home

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

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

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.

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The preference for refugee returns is based on an outdated view of conflict, according to Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute.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.

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.

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.

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.

Are more refugees actually going home?

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

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.

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.”

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