20 March 2007

Refugees and repatriation

This week in my human rights & conflict class, we were discussing refugee issues. The conversation didn't quite go where I was hoping it would go, plus I was hopped up on cold pills and thus easily confused. Anyway, I thought I would say here what I had hoped to say there, as this is an issue that is increasingly important to me.

In their chapter in the book Problems of Protection, Erik Roxstrom and Mark Gibney discuss the circumstances surrounding UNHCR's involvement in handling individuals who fled the Bosnian war in the mid-90s. UNHCR encouraged very reluctant Western European states to accept Bosnian refugees on the grounds of so-called "temporary protection," which was a classification assigned en masse to all fleeing Bosnians. This was apparently to ease concerns the would-be host states had over taking in and then keeping a large refugee population indefinitely. Yet it led to a period wherein Bosnians found themselves unable to integrate into new societies and thus unable to do much to fend for themselves. It was obviously unsafe for them back home, what with ethnic cleansing going on and all, but these individuals were seen with contempt by the countries to which they fled. That, to me, is most distressing.

This summer while I was at the Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, I noticed huge UNHCR posters all over that proclaimed "Go home! Liberia is safe!" These struck me on a number of levels. For one, the pictures of children sitting in well-kept schools were obviously false. An accompanying DVD I later got to watch that had been developed particularly for inhabitants at this camp also showed several things that clearly were one-hit wonders, so to speak, including pictures of schools at that very camp which didn't actually exist. Many people at the camp were of the belief that if UNHCR was willing to lie to them about conditions right under their noses, they certainly couldn't be trusted to tell what was really going on back in Liberia. These refugees argued, quite effectively, that they had no business going home when every communication with family and friends revealed one of two things: 1) residual violence was still common, and thus repatriation was unsafe, or 2) the local economy in their home village was so destroyed that there was almost literally nothing to return to.

My problem, then, is with the repatriation issue is handled. Refugees should be able to enjoy the full protections offered under the Refugee Convention and other relevant international instruments. They should also be able to seek and receive permanent asylum if there is a genuine fear of persecution. Temporary protection then doesn't quite reach the same standard. It allows for host states to relegate refugees to poor conditions and second-class (or worse) status by refusing to let them work. I'm not saying that all refugees should be automatically integrated into the country to which they've fled, but that they should be protected under the law, and at least be allowed to find some means of subsistence, especially when international aid is not forthcoming. Indeed, most people who flee their homes as refugees don't want to be integrated into someplace new. They want to go home, but they want to go home when it safe to do so. In the meantime, they want to ensure that their children are fed and sheltered, which is often why they left in the first place.

Repatriation in most instances is still a voluntary choice. But with asylum regulations tightening around the globe, safety outside one's home country is becoming harder to find. Also, UNHCR has been instructed to do more to prevent refugee crises from beginning. This doesn't mean that people are no longer being displaced by conflict, just that they're now mostly staying within their own borders. These people, known as internally displaced persons (IDPs), are especially vulnerable, and there are virtually no international legal protections for them, and no institutionalized mechanisms to deal with them. Thus in pressing situations like Darfur, you find large camps of displaced people that are essentially sitting ducks, waiting to be targeted once again by the very people they fled.

I think the push for repatriation (especially when based on false information) is problematic mostly because it fails to take into account why people left in the first place. While it is obvious that refugees shouldn't have to face refoulement (return to place of origin where there is valid evidence that they will face persecution), not having to face persecution and enjoying security or economic viability are very different things. I think Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf put it well when she said that of course the Liberian government wants all its people to return home, but only when there is sufficient infrastructure to support a large group of people who will obviously need assistance in rebuilding their lives. Should they come home before this point, they just further drain already stretched networks of support.

Yet if we're only going to insist upon repatriation when it refugees can viably subsist at home, then many nations need to seriously reexamine their asylum and relevant immigration laws. Asylum is increasingly difficult to claim as Western nations clamp down on immigration as part of their anti-terror efforts. Fact is, if UNHCR has to beg a wealthy country like Germany to take in some refugees from nearby, then a dirt poor country like Chad has little incentive to take in refugees of its own free will. If people are are fleeing persecution, mass violence, or some other sort of disaster, the decent human being in all of us should kick in and we should protect these individuals and provide for their basic needs. Only after that is done should we even think to start asking about when they'll go home.

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