Sep 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition
On paper, people who flee war and persecution have an unconditional entitlement to go back to their homeland. In reality, lots of other factors come into play
THE scenes look encouraging. Since the beginning of August, hundreds of Iraqi refugees living in Egypt have gone back to their homeland on flights sponsored by the Baghdad authorities. The Iraqi government hails these returns as a sign that things are getting back to normal in a country where more than 2m people have fled abroad, and even more were internally displaced, as a result of the chaos that followed the American-led invasion of 2003.
But away from the fanfare, the feelings of the Iraqis involved in these homecomings are mixed. A few expressed mild optimism that the situation has improved in their home areas. Many more said they were returning because they had little choice: they were unable to work in Egypt and were running out of money.
Nor were they the first of Iraq’s refugees to come home. Some 50,000 people re-entered the country in the nine months up to last March, the UN believes. Among these were 365 families who came back from Syria in late 2007, wooed by a resettlement offer of $800 per household. But most of that group later told the UN they could not “go home” in the literal sense; their houses had either been ruined or seized by others.
Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also say quietly that the returns from Egypt, insofar as they were prompted by near-destitution, risk violating one of the key principles of refugee law: the idea that people should not be sent back to their home country against their will. But for the UNHCR and other agencies that care for the displaced, this was only the latest of many cases where the high ideals of international law run up against the realities of power politics.
The UNHCR’s founding charter is the 1951 Convention on Refugees, which spells out the entitlements of those who flee their country for fear of being killed or persecuted. The agency is also guided by the UN declaration on human rights, whose 13th article says that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
In addition to those principles, many pragmatic considerations guide the actions of governments that take in huge numbers of involuntary migrants. Even if the outside world helps, such arrivals place a huge burden on the receiving country. Refugee camps can be breeding-grounds for extremism; refugees can become political actors in their host country, and their role is often destructive.
All this can be an incentive for receiving countries to “resolve” the fate of refugees on their soil—by sending them home, by resettling them in another country or by finding the right way of integrating them. But that, of course, assumes that the receiving governments want stability. If they want to keep a conflict alive, then keeping an angry population in tents—neither able to go home, nor to settle down anywhere else—can also serve a political purpose.
Compared with Iraq, the return of refugees to another war-torn land where the West is deeply involved—Afghanistan—has been a relative success story. Over 5m Afghans have returned to their homeland since 2002, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. But 3m Afghans remain in the two neighbouring states; and when Antonio Guterres, the UNHCR chief, met the government of Pakistan (which still hosts 1.8m Afghans) last month, it was agreed that many refugees are likely to remain on Pakistani soil for years to come.
As the Afghan conflict has shown, the job of the UNHCR does not end when refugees re-enter their homeland. In the early 1990s, the agency’s approach to resettling people in their native land was little more than a “cooking-pot and a handshake”, says Jeff Crisp, a UNHCR official. Thinking (and the UNHCR’s job) broadened under Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, who managed in his time (2001-2005) as head of the agency to breathe new life into some old buzzwords: repatriation, reintegration and rehabilitation. Simply put, people who had fled a country because their village had been flattened would now get more help to go back and take up life where they had left off.
In Iraq and Afghanistan a mass exodus was a by-product of war, and not the conscious or main intention of the country’s leaders. Both the outside world and the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan agree that those countries, in contrast with some other conflict zones, should continue to exist within their present borders, and that a mixture of sects and ethnicities should live in them.
Things are harder when war is triggered by an openly nationalistic project that seeks to redraw borders and change demographic balances; the most obvious, but not the sole, case of this in recent European history was the effort by Slobodan Milosevic to forge a greater Serbia.
With more consistency than has been applied in other places, the settlements imposed on Balkan war zones reflected the very opposite idea: the idea that “ethnic cleansing will not stand”, so that anybody who was forced to abandon home and property must be allowed, and helped, to go back. That looked optimistic at the time of the Dayton accords which settled the Bosnian war in 1995. Nearly half the country’s pre-war population had been uprooted; about 1m had taken refuge abroad, and as many again were internally displaced. A decade later, statistics at least suggested a great achievement. Just over 1m Bosnians had reclaimed their homes, and of these nearly half were so-called minority returns, going back to places where a rival group was dominant.
On closer inspection, however, the Bosnian record isn’t quite so spectacular. A report published last month noted that in many cases, claimed “returns” meant simply that a displaced proprietor reasserted his title and then rented out or sold his old home. And the dream of remaking mixed communities was only a partial success, says Andy Bearpark, a Briton who oversaw the Bosnian effort.
In Kosovo, too, much energy was devoted to helping the return of people displaced by war, even if they had to take the risk of coexisting with old foes. That effort got under way in August 2001, when 54 Serbs were driven at night, under heavy international guard, to an area in western Kosovo where they had once lived. But the security surrounding that operation underlined the hard truth that in Kosovo’s embittered atmosphere, recreating an ethnic mix depends on a huge policing operation; once the field is left to local players, the cycle of cleansing may restart. In all, only 18,000 “minority returns” (out of a possible total of over 100,000) are claimed for Kosovo, and many did not stay long.
As part of the price of Western recognition for their independence, Kosovo’s leaders agreed that their land should have room for non-Albanian minorities. But in reality nationalist Kosovars—like every other ethnic faction in the region—hardly hide their feeling that the fewer minorities they have to live with, the better.
That leads on to the hardest question of all for anyone concerned with refugees: is the right of return a principle on which no negotiation is possible, or is it simply one of several considerations, on which there can be political trade-offs? To put it another way, can governments limit a right that is ascribed unconditionally to individuals—the right of displaced people to decide whether or not to return home?
Israeli officials cite the more pragmatic view to make a case against any automatic right of return for the 4.2m Palestinians—refugees from the 1948 war, and their descendants—who may in theory reclaim homes or land on the territory of Israel. UN resolution 194, voted by the General Assembly in 1948, is often quoted in support of the Palestinian right of return: it says that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” Israelis insist that, far from proclaiming a non-negotiable principle, this language subordinates return to other considerations, such as feasibility and the intentions of the refugees.
In any case, the “right of return” has snarled all efforts to seal a final Israeli-Palestinian peace. On the Israeli side, it is claimed that anybody who asserts this right is demanding the end of the Jewish state and cannot really want peace. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, says Israel need take no refugees back because it was not responsible for the 1948 war; Palestinians retort that many expulsions took place before that war. Conscious that a “right of return” can neither be accepted by Israelis nor ignored by Palestinians, the Bush administration has suggested that the right be exercised in a modified form: Palestinians could return to a new Palestinian state emerging out of a two-state solution, but not to Israel.
If a desire for peace really existed on all sides, that approach might possibly work—but only if it were accepted that the right of return is something to be negotiated, not simply asserted.