“Ninety-nine percent of refugees in the world want to go home.” “The one thing that all refugees want is to go back to their own country.” “Most refugees desperately want to go back to where they came from.”
Such statements, drawn from UNHCR publications produced over the past decade, initially appear to make perfect sense. Having been forced to leave their own country in an involuntary manner, it seems logical that refugees would want to return to their homeland once it is safe for them to do so.
But the reality can be quite different.
There are a number of reasons why refugees might not choose to repatriate, even if they are offered transport back to their country of origin and reintegration assistance once they arrive there.
First, refugees are spending increasingly long periods of time in exile—20 years or more in many cases. Even if they are not officially allowed to integrate in their country of asylum and be recognized as citizens of that state, they may nevertheless establish successful livelihoods, develop strong social networks, and give birth to children who have never been to or even speak the language of their putative country of origin. For such refugees, going “home” might be more of a wrench than staying put.
Second, even if conditions at home have stabilized, the violent nature of the events that refugees have endured and which forced them to flee in the first place might have been so traumatic that they simply cannot think of returning to the place where those atrocities took place.
Such scenarios are envisaged in an often neglected clause of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which states that refugees should not be expected to return to their own country if they can demonstrate “compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution.” Many refugees from current conflicts involving intense cruelty and large-scale killings, such as those in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, seem unlikely to repatriate for precisely this reason.
Third, we live in an increasingly mobile world, and refugees are no exception. A growing proportion of the world’s exiled populations do not want to go home, but want to move on—by means of resettlement or migration—to places that offer them greater safety, better opportunities for them and their children, and the chance to be reunited with family members and diaspora communities.
And once they have moved on, such refugees will probably not choose to go home until they have acquired the nationality and passport of an industrialized state, meaning that they will have the option of leaving should their previous country of origin descend into chaos again.
Unfortunately, the international community has failed to take adequate note of these trends, and have grown increasingly attached to the notion that repatriation is the only logical outcome. Thus in 1951, when the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was established, the organization’s statute gave equal billing to two solutions for refugees: “the voluntary repatriation of refugees” and “their assimilation within new national communities.”
In successive decades, however, the states which govern UNHCR through its Executive Committee increasingly prioritized the former of these approaches. In 1983, for example, the Committee stated that repatriation was “the most desirable solution for refugee problems.” And in 1996, it described voluntary repatriation as “the most preferred solution” to refugee situations.
As indicated by the quotes at the beginning of this blog, the international community continues to think about solutions for refugees in this very limited way. And that is unfortunate.
The time has passed when refugees are prepared to live in camps for years or decades on end, in the distant hope that they might be able to return to their own country one day. Increasingly, they are leaving their camps or bypassing them altogether, taking up residence in cities or moving on to other countries and continents where they find a more productive way of life.
That is exactly why refugees from so many countries—Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria, to name but three—are now making their way to Libya and other North African countries, hoping to cross the Mediterranean and begin a new life in Europe. And that is exactly why refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka have been making their way to Australia, rather than remaining in Indonesia.
Given the experiences they have been through in their countries of origin and transit, and in view of the aspirations which they have developed, we should not expect such refugees to be queuing up for what others have erroneously deemed to be the best solution for them.