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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
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View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Challenging the assumptions of repatriation

by Danielle C Sepulveda

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees designated 1992 as the beginning of the 'decade of voluntary repatriation.' From Afghanistan and Angola to Cambodia and South Africa, almost seven million forced migrants have returned home during this 'decade'. Sadako Ogata describes such mass repatriations, and the prospect of further large-scale returns in the near future. as 'immensely satisfying.' Since the end of the Cold War. UNHCR has been optimistic that conditions which caused exodus would improve, paving the way for thousands to return home in safety, honour and dignity Indeed, it is a basic aim of the organisation to promote and facilitate repatriation whenever possible Today, Ogata is concerned primarily with the problems which 'continue to plague countries of origin and that, if not contained, could undermine the impetus to return.' Although conceding that the foundations of voluntary repatriation are often fragile, UNHCR nonetheless hails repatriation as the most desirable of its three durable solutions.

Despite UNHCR's enthusiasm for repatriation, their position is not supported by research which would confirm or question the organisation's increasingly assertive role in the repatriation of refugees. Conceptualisation of return and reintegration have only begun recently to attract the attention of the academic community. Of the three durable solutions, repatriation is clearly the least researched area, reflected in the dearth of substantive research papers and reports devoted to it. Rogge speculates that 'one likely reason for this relates to the widespread assumption that, because repatriation is the most desirable outcome of a refugee problem, it is also the least problematic and hence one not generating high research priorities.' As Crisp showed in his bibliographical survey of voluntary repatriation in developing countries, most studies to date have been concerned mainly with the international legal principles, the political motivations, and the logistics of repatriation.

Frustrated by the paucity of research into other significant dimensions, several scholars have attempted to remedy this conspicuous gap in knowledge. Allen and Morsink's recently published book When Refugees Go Home, for example, investigates the long term socio-economic consequences of repatriation movements in Africa. Another recent study, conducted by Cuny and Stein, explores situations in which refugees return to countries of origin which are plagued by unresolved security or political problems.

Questionable assumptions

Such studies undoubtedly elucidate dimensions of repatriation which have been persistently overlooked. But evaluating the conditions under which refugees return and investigating the consequences of repatriation movements does not advance our understanding of the concept of return itself. In large part, this is because the prevailing framework of repatriation is based upon certain questionable assumptions, such as all refugees want to go home' and 'the best place for refugees is home'. If these claims are accepted uncritically and taken as starting points for research and policy, then the problems posed by repatriation become ones of attempting to identify the most effective means of establishing conditions conducive to return, of ensuring that refugees are informed of these conditions, of securing tripartite agreements, of protecting returning populations, and of providing material assistance upon return; in short, of strengthening the international practice of repatriation Within this established paradigm, the question, 'Is repatriation the most desirable solution?' is not-indeed cannot-be asked. Until scholars challenge fundamental assumptions which underlie both the concept of repatriation itself and its generally accepted status as the preferred durable solution, studies of repatriation will fail to offer valid explanations of a highly complex phenomenon

Discussions of repatriation necessarily occur within the wider context of forced migration. While typologies have been developed which discern and classify types of displacement, there has been no corresponding effort to delineate the varied contours of repatriation as a process falling within this wider context. I he relevance of an elaborated theoretical understanding of the process of repatriation may contribute to the development of more effective social policies

The idea that repatriation is an undifferentiated movement designating the return of forced migrants to their countries of origin requires critical examination. Repatriation denotes a varied and complex phenomenon whose permutations need to be circumscribed The category 'returnee' may include different types of displaced person, e.g. refugees per se, returning internally displaced persons, labour migrants, and so-called 'ricochet' refugees/returnees. Similarly, the means by which people tend to return, and the meaning of return itself needs conceptual clarification. Repatriation in policy, practice, and research tends to be treated as a unified, monolithic experience. As such, it is unable to accommodate the complexities of actors, means, and ends - central components of any contemporary repatriation movement.

A comprehensive and balanced perspective of repatriation must take into account all relevant aspects of the problem, perhaps best achieved through a multi-disciplinary approach drawing on diverse bodies of literature. One such body of literature is that which examines migration as a 'security' issue. Within this context, large numbers of asylum-seekers are often perceived as endangering public order and national security, and international peace and security.

Yet ironically, if one perceives mass entry into a country as a potential threat to security, while also recognising repatriation as a particular kind of population influx, then the reverse argument- that mass repatriation or 'remigration' of nationals constitutes a security risk to the country of origin-may also prove valid.

'Politics of exile'

A second body of literature which deserves review is that which explores the 'politics of exile.' As refugee situations become less of temporary emergencies and more of long-term, protracted crises which span years, even decades, nationals abroad may have a significant impact on politics at home. What happens, for instance, when the political intentions and expectations conceived and shaped abroad go unfulfilled or are challenged upon return? Clearly, such 'long distance nationalism' as Anderson calls it, has implications for the success of return movements and the mechanisms for reintegration.

Cases in which countries of asylum implement policies of mass naturalisation of refugees, such as the thousands of Rwandese who have been naturalised as Tanzanian nationals, suggest a different interpretation of return. Gasarasi argues that this policy, although implemented inadequately, was striking because of Tanzania's 'benevolent response' which resulted in the majority of those naturalised 'enjoying their new citizenship' and being 'reasonably well adjusted.' Although Gasarasi states that 'the prospects for their post-naturalisation integration look bright.' he qualifies his optimism, recognising that 'the re-emerging international quest for the repatriation of Rwandese from their countries of asylum around the world' could undermine the success of post-naturalisation integration.' In such a context, repatriation may be rendered as national defection.

Those who argue that repatriation is today the most desirable durable solution tend to overlook the long term psycho-social consequences of 'going home.' Repatriation is portrayed as the culmination of a crisis, and thus the ideal solution. Evidence suggests, however, that return may be more traumatic than the experience of flight and exile itself. The imperative to survive has been shown to transform a refugee's social values and norms-what Harrell-Bond refers to as 'the oversocialised concept of man'. In the process of becoming refugees, many have developed coping mechanisms which have compelled them to assume new roles and identities; others, according to Rogge, 'have undergone major cultural and social transformations, such as becoming urbanised [or] joining insurgency movements' With the passage of time, the conditions within the country of origin similarly change To suggest that a change in status from that of 'refugee' to 'rational citizen' will be smooth and unproblematic is to equate 'returning to one's country or origin' with 'going home,' two distinct ideas which are not necessarily coextensive.

A preliminary review of this diverse literature illustrates several ways in which various disciplines and perspectives might inform the complex phenomenon of repatriation. Accordingly. one possible hypothesis to be investigated empirically through field research is that repatriation -in both principle and in practice-may be politically destabilising to the country of origin.

In exploring this hypothesis, a valuable starting point may be to consider the policy of repatriation in relation to broader trends in refugee policy. This requires developing a historical framework, reviewing and classifying major phases of repatriation, and tracing the motives behind the international community's growing interest in it as the preferred durable solution. Given the prevailing climate of restrictionism, affluent states are increasingly unwilling to share the burdens of providing asylum. Host governments have an interest in reducing the number of refugees within their borders, while donors have an interest in reducing the costs of assistance. One must therefore ask, as Harrell Bond has done, whose interests are being served by repatriation?

Challenging the concept of 'nation'

Of all the bodies of relevant literature. perhaps the one which has the greatest potential to illuminate current discourse on repatriation is that which attempts to understand the concepts of 'nation' and 'homeland.'

Challenging the nation as a natural and enduring unit of human organisation, modernist theorists of nationalism, most notably Gellner, have sought to demonstrate the historical contingency of nations and nationalism,

For them, the nation is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Moreover, as Anderson states, it is an 'imagined community,' an image constructed and anchored in the mind Today, the modernist view in one form or another is accepted by scholars of nationalism, who generally consider it as possessing greater explanatory value than earlier interpretations.

It is. therefore. particularly perplexing that advances within this field have not informed our understanding of flight, exile, and return. Clearly, the conceptual foundations of repatriation have not been sufficiently scrutinised.

The very notion of repatriation is predicated on the assumption that a singular and immutable bond exists between a 'people' end particular 'space.'

As such, it reinstates the one-toone correspondence between the two which the principle of nationalism proscribes, thus affirming the idea that people possess sedentary and static identities.

The underlying idea is that the experience of flight and exile constitutes a rupture in the symbolic representation of this bond which links a 'people' with a particular stretch of land, and repatriation is the sole means by which to heal this severed bond.

In this way, according to Ranger, 'refugees are seen as the product of crisis; their situation is abnormal; [and] repatriation will resolve the crisis and restore normality'. By acknowledging the inextricable connection between nationalism as a phenomenon, and repatriation as a solution, we may recognise that the way in which we understand nationalism largely shapes the way we perceive repatriation.

Challenging the conventional wisdom that repatriation is the preferred durable solution will require a commitment to grasp the intellectually recalcitrant concepts of 'nation,' 'homeland' and 'return.'

Moreover, it will require a theoretical sophistication which has thus far not been demonstrated in the literature concerning repatriation. Subjecting the notion of repatriation to careful and critical analysis can no longer be viewed as optional.

In designating this the 'decade of voluntary repatriation,' UNHCR has determined return to be the necessary eventual solution to a number of major refugee problems still awaiting resolution. More than ever, a firm commitment to independent and impartial research which produces empirical and substantive data is needed. Questioning the assumptions which are uncritically relied upon may be seen as a valuable starting point in illuminating the complexities of contemporary repatriation and advancing a deeper, more instructive understanding of its varied contours.