Rites of Return: Is Refugee Repatriation a Solution or a Problem?


Mikhail Evstafiev: A refugee girl holds her doll as she arrives with her family in Travnik, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993 (CC)

by Elazar Barkan

The Dayton Peace agreement following the Bosnian war emphatically declared that the ethnic cleansing would be reversed and that the refugees repatriated. A decade later, as millions of refugees were repatriated, the international community declared success. Especially critical was the claim that the minority refugees – those who were an ethnic minority in a particular city or region – were also largely repatriated. This, however, was false. Today, Bosnia is ethnically separated, and the refugees who were repatriated, resettled in communities where their ethnicity was the majority.  From displaced refugees they became resettled internally displaced persons (IDPs). Ethnic cleansing was not reversed. This was despite the largest sustained effort by the international community to facilitate repatriation and reversed ethnic cleansing.  What does this failed effort tell us? And why is there a general international denial of the failure?

There is a widespread international popular belief that displaced refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) have the right to be repatriated to their homes, and indeed they would be best served by repatriation. In practice, while many refugees are repatriated, most are unable to return to their previous homes, not even to the region from which they were displaced. Furthermore, although displacement is a diverse and heterogeneous situation, the marked characterization between those who are potentially free to return and those who are unable is that the latter group constitutes refugees who were displaced as a result of a national or ethnic conflict. The single most important variable for the feasibility of repatriation in a post conflict situation is the role ethnic and national identity play in the conflict.

To put this in starker terms, the following general observation is empirically true, if morally troubling:  refugees displaced as a result of an identity conflict have never been repatriated and if we are to rely on experience, they are unlikely to be repatriated; refugees who are uprooted as a result of political upheaval are more likely to have the option of returning, but even here the options are limited, mostly by political (in)stability in the country. When refugees belong to the ethnic (national, religious,) majority, they are likely to be repatriated once the political circumstances shift, note the millions of Afghans who returned after the Taliban were defeated. However, minority refugees, i.e., those who were uprooted because of their identity—ethnic, national, and religious – almost never return, unless by force. The common characteristic of these groups is their status as a minority in the country or region to which they desire to repatriate. This is an empirical observation verified by examining historical cases, not a moral, normative, legal one, or a question of political agenda. It is a critical distinction, because the observation contradicts the conventional international human rights claim that refugees have the right to be repatriated to their homes. Whether one supports minority repatriation in one or all cases, for ethical, political, or national reasons, it is important to be aware of this historical reality.

Empirically, repatriation is a viable option to only one type of refugee but not to others.  Majority refugees often repatriate as a matter of politics, not rights, usually following a political change. In contrast, most minority refugees never return except on rare occasions as a result of power politics or winning a war.  In these few occasions, the return is not a result of having their rights restored, regardless of whether this outcome is viewed as right or just by the international community.  When force is used to facilitate repatriation, it is likely to lead to new displacements: note Rwanda and Kosovo as two celebrated returns in which Hutu, Serbs and Roma were uprooted by the new returnees.  This empirical historical reality – which is in stark contradiction to international beliefs — is ignored in the discussion over political solutions to displacement.  Instead, the international focus has shifted over the last generation to privileging repatriation as a matter of refugee rights.  The consequence of this rhetorical insistence on repatriation rights – rights that have never been implemented – is detrimental to refugees and locks them into a predicament: they cannot be resettled because restoring their rights mean they are supposed to be repatriated; they cannot repatriate because they are a minority.

Displaced refugees have three principal options to resolve their uprootedness: return; stay in the country of refuge; or relocate. Relocation is constrained by the reluctance of potential host countries. The larger the crisis and the bigger the number of refugees, the less likely relocation becomes. Repatriation as an idea is often attractive to refugees. The aspiration to return home is particularly strong, even in cases where the physical conditions as well as the political situation make such a return impossible. This naturally engenders great sympathy. The third option, remaining and settling in the country of refuge often becomes the default provisional solution, which for millions of refugees turns into a protracted condition, lasting for decades. Because the host country is viewed as a temporary haven, it receives only inadequate global assistance and the refugees are confined to camps, misery and destitution. As the latest mass refugee crisis in Somalia shows, in which many of the refugees streaming into Kenya find that even temporary refuge in camps is an unattainable luxury.

Privileging repatriation is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began in the late 1980s, when the international community faced the prospect of never ending refugee crises and donor fatigue, moved to prioritize repatriation over relocation or resettlement. Faced with the predicament of a lack of capacity for absorption of refugees, and within the context of a growing human rights culture in international politics and discourse, the official international refugee regime, primarily under the UNHCR, has embraced the position that among these three options, repatriation should be privileged. Twenty years ago, the UNHCR declared 1992 as the “Year of Voluntary Repatriation,” and announced a new policy in 1993 (in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action: UN doc. A/CONF157/23), where Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “reaffirmed her determination to pursue every opportunity in 1992 for voluntary repatriation as the preferred solution to refugee problems.”[1]  The rationale is that repatriation will restore the refugee rights and resolve the political crisis. Where minority refugees are the victims, it never does.

It is significant to understand the connection between the privileging of repatriation and the extraordinary expansion of human rights since the 1970s, and in particular after the end of the Cold War. It is the growing appeal of human rights that led to the focus on repatriation as a right, rather than on resettlement as a humanitarian solution. Repatriation is presented as a human right, which is a matter of politics, law, and morality. The prevalent view sees repatriation as morally correct, because people have a legitimate claim and right to their homes from which they have been displaced. It is legally right, for a host of international instruments outlaws displacement and uprooting, and a few even demand repatriation. It is seemingly a politically viable approach because the alternatives are not: relocation is impossible, and resettlement in the country of refuge both legitimates the displacement and imposes undue burden on the local society.

Yet, despite this seeming congruence of rights and politics, the reality is that although millions of majority refugees have been repatriated to their country of origin most refugees have never been repatriated, in particular no minority refugees. Overall, in the last two decades since the UNHCR privileged repatriation as solution, neither has global displacement diminished, nor has voluntary minority repatriation become more viable. What are the reasons for this failure, and what are the consequences? Is it a matter of politics, or perhaps of misplaced priorities? In order to answer this, we have both to understand the rationale for privileging repatriation, and place it in its historical political context.

Before the 1950s, what came to be known in the 1990s as ethnic cleansing was a widespread practice that was most evident as part of the disintegration of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian empires early in the twentieth century during which the established norm of population transfers/exchanges was not only legitimate and prudent, but also presumed to have represented the perspective of the refugees. Refugees were better off, it was reasoned, since they would not be subject to future clashes and violence. Viewed as a bitter pill, population transfers caused many deaths and suffering, but the long-term outcome, it was argued, favored the refugees. This view clearly cannot be acceptable in the twenty-first century, but it should not blind us from recognizing that this was the prevailing view in the first half of the twentieth century. The situation, however, was further aggravated by the failure of minorities protection and the savagery of World War II.

The practice of ethnic cleansing, though not the language, took place with vengeance after World War II at the same time as rights were emerging as foundational norms.  This was when the conflict among competing political, civil, and social rights, between individual and group rights, and between justice based on rights versus peace, faced their first serious tests. The results were not pretty. In both Europe and India, millions were expelled in the name of group rights: national sovereignty and homogeneity. Expulsions were supported by the international community, by democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. This displayed the predicament of the leaders who could simultaneously support both cleansing and rights.

During the Cold War, it was the relationship between the superpowers which determined whether refugees were ignored, warehoused in camps, or resettled in third countries. The latter were a minority, most notably were the refugees from South East Asia who were resettled in the 1980s. The relatively extensive resettlement exhausted donors’ sentiments and public support. Faced with a new wave of refugees in the late 1980s, the international community shifted its attention from resettlement to repatriation, and wrapped the new policy with the rhetoric of rights. Supporting refugees’ rights to return to their homes sounded much more noble and uplifting than neglecting refugees by erecting legal and physical barriers to deny them shelter. The critical shift built on long demands for repatriation, which became the official policy.

Two constituencies advocate rights of return. The first includes international advocates on behalf of refugees who believe that return is the only just solution to the plight of the displaced. The second is composed of refugees who demand repatriation as a right when a certain combination of the following four conditions are in place: (1) no alternative to return seems readily available; (2) the powers in place in the area from which they fled are opposed to return; (3) the refugees and their leaders are determined to return using force to displace those in power preventing return; (4) the refugee leadership recognizes that calls for universal justice can be a critical ally of the use of force to bring about return. This alignment of demands for refugee rights based on self-determination and group rights in a particular geographical space, with declarations of universal individual rights for repatriation, is powerful political and ethical coalition. However, it faces an even stronger opposition that instigated it in the first place: the ethnic national violence that led to the displacement, and the resistance of third countries to accept refugees.

Are refugees best served by advocacy of repatriation? Faced with the overwhelming failure of implementing repatriation, it is time to reconsider priorities. Demands for repatriation have not served as an impediment to displacement, and instead the political pressure should refocus on preventing displacement. But once uprooting took place, regardless of the guilty party, the refugees are the victims, and their well-being should be at the heart of the solution. Instead of prioritizing national self-determination, of which the refugees are placed as a core demand, and in place of unrealistic ethical demands that are not translated into political solutions, it seems that many refugees would be better served by focusing on their humanitarian needs. These could be two of the three described above: integration in the country of refuge, or resettlement to a third country. In either case, the financial burden should be shared globally, and the country of refuge cannot be expected to shoulder a major part of the burden. Refugee advocates should also divide their advocacy to the enable rehabilitation of the refugees’ lives separately from the self-determination advocacy. As legitimate as the national cause is, the refugees as the weakest group of the nation should not be the ones to have to embody it.

As to the international community, even if one resist the temptation to attribute the emphasis on repatriation to detached self-interest exclusively, it is high time to recognize the futility of the policy, and to open a discussion on alternatives. The UNHCR could do worse than to produce a report that will examine the “success” of its policy on minority repatriation. Perhaps this would provide a starting point to place the long term rehabilitation of refugees at the center of its policies.


[1] See also UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Discussion Note on Protection Aspects of Voluntary Repatriation, 1 April 1992, EC/1992/SCP/CRP.3, available here.

About the Author:

Elazar Barkan is a Professor of International and Public Affairs and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, and the Human Rights Concentration at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. This article is based on his work with Howard Adelman, which was recently published as No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia University Press 2011). Barkans’ research interests focus on human rights and on the role of history in contemporary society and politics and the response to gross historical crimes and injustices. A recent pertinent article: “Historians and Historical Reconciliation,” (AHR Forum ) American Historical Review, (October 2009). Barkan’s other recent books include The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (2000); Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethnic Identity, (an edited volume with Ronald Bush, Getty, 2003); and Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (an edited volume with Alexander Karn, Stanford University Press, 2006).