Sending refugees back makes the world more dangerous | Daily News


Sending refugees back makes the world more dangerous

Nzeyimana Consolate (C) arrives carrying her baby at the Nyabitara Transit site, among other Burundian refugees on October 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi. - AFP
Nzeyimana Consolate (C) arrives carrying her baby at the Nyabitara Transit site, among other Burundian refugees on October 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi. - AFP

Repatriating refugees to dangerous countries violates international law and breeds conflict, instability, and future crises. Regional work visas and long-term integration into host countries are more promising solutions.

The oft-repeated refrain that the world is witnessing an unprecedented refugee crisis is both misleading and dangerous. While the number of refugees worldwide has nearly doubled in the past decade, if there is a crisis today, it is one of refugee return. Despite the fact that non-refoulement—the prohibition against sending asylum-seekers back to a country where their life or liberty is endangered—is considered one of the strongest norms in international law, governments across the world are going to great lengths to send refugees back. Some, such as the United States, are blatantly flouting non-refoulement with plans to send Central American asylum-seekers directly back into the violence they are fleeing.

One of the primary goals of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invasion of Syria in October was to capture territory where he could then send the millions of Syrians currently seeking refuge on Turkish soil. Other countries, such as Germany and Lebanon, have taken more subtle approaches, offering payments to refugees who opt to go back to Syria, or simply making life for refugees so miserable that many feel they have no alternative but to return.

Given how far countries are going to coerce refugees to return, one could easily be mistaken that sending refugees back to their countries of origin is the key to solving the problem of mass displacement. Indeed, voluntary repatriation is one of the United Nations-endorsed “three durable solutions” to refugee situations, and protecting that right to voluntary return is essential. Refugee repatriation today, however, is seldom voluntary or durable.

Civil war

In sending refugees back to Syria, for example, not only would Erdogan be putting refugees back in harm’s way, but the process of refugee repatriation itself could also create new sources of conflict. In fact, hostility between people who stay home during a civil war and those who leave and later return is common in many post-conflict societies. It has occurred in Iraq, El Salvador, and other countries.

Take the case of Iraq. Between 2008 and 2009, the Iraqi government actively encouraged internally displaced people and refugees to return home. But many of these returnees faced a violent backlash in their home communities and were forced to flee again. And the deportation of Salvadorans living in the United States back to El Salvador in the 1990s led to the creation of the transnational gangs from whom thousands of people are fleeing today. Understanding why this happens is crucial for policymakers who want to find real solutions for refugees.

My research on migration between Burundi and Tanzania after Burundi’s 1993-2005 civil war demonstrates how refugee repatriation can incite violence in countries of origin and lead to repeat migration.

Over the past 50 years, Burundi has seen multiple episodes of forced migration and return. In 1972, a selective genocide by the ethnically Tutsi-dominated government against Hutu civilians sent hundreds of thousands of Burundians to Tanzania.

Some of these refugees returned to Burundi only to flee again in the 1990s when civil war broke out between the Tutsi-led army and Hutu-nationalist rebel groups. Again, hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled to Tanzania.

In the early 2000s, as the civil war was drawing to a close, refugees began to return to Burundi. While Tanzania allowed a select population of Burundians who fled in 1972 to apply for naturalization, the majority of Burundian refugees either went back voluntarily or were forced to return when Tanzania revoked their refugee status and closed down the refugee camps. In total, some 500,000 refugees returned to Burundi between 2000 and 2011.

Just by showing up, the returnees presented a threat to those who had stayed behind. The vast majority of Burundians depend on agriculture for a living, mostly as smallholder farmers who pass the family’s land from father to son. Farming one’s own land is also central to many Burundians’ connection to their ancestral homeland.

International community

When refugees returned en masse, many found their houses had new occupants. Sometimes it was neighbours or family members who had stayed behind during the war and taken over the land. In other cases, the government had expropriated property that the refugees had left behind. Because land is such a sought-after commodity, both symbolically and economically, competition over land between those who came back and those who stayed generated widespread local violence, from crop and property destruction to assault and murder.

Both the international community and the Burundian government had expected that refugee return might be a problem, assuming it could reignite ethnic rivalries between the primarily Hutu returnees and Tutsi civilians who had stayed in the country.

- Foreign Policy

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