All refugees want to go home. Right?

Wanting to return home and restore one’s country should be a choice, not an obligation placed upon you by those also claiming to offer you protection.

Lena Kainz Rebecca Buxton
18 October 2017

Rohingya Muslims fleeing ongoing military operations in Myanmar,cross the border to Teknaff, Bangladesh on October 08, 2017. NurPhoto//Press Association. All rights reserved.We all know the story. On almost every continent, men, women and children are driven from their homes by persecution, poverty, or the effects of climate change. Regardless of geographic location or individual circumstance, we are told that refugees just want to return home.

In January, the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and Hollywood actor Ben Stiller told TIME that all the refugees he had met professed a profound desire to eventually return home. Two months later, Sir Paul Collier (co-author of the recently-published Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System) informed CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that most refugees are currently in developing regions close to their country of origin and prefer to go home when the conflict is over. Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), stated in May that she “never met a single refugee who does not want to go back”. Diplomats such as the US Ambassador and Australian representatives to the UN have repeated the same sentiment.

This sweeping narrative is false. Not all refugees wish to return home. It is unlikely that all refugees wish for any one thing. Refugees, it really needn’t be said, come from a huge array of backgrounds and experiences. They want different things for themselves, their families and their countries. Many refugees cannot return home and do not want to. Many build their lives in new countries, with or without links to their old home. Many may become more attached to their new state than they were to their old. And many young refugees grow up knowing only their country of resettlement or integration and feel no desire to return at all.

Of course, there are also refugees who do wish to return. To deny this would be equally foolish. Therefore, our argument here is not that refugees do not want go back. Rather, what deserves attention is the way in which this narrative is capitalized upon by key figures – politicians, actors, humanitarian workers and the United Nations itself. Unveiling this matters because the current popularity of the idea of desired return has serious consequences, many of which are harmful to the very individuals these stakeholders purport to or, in UNHCR’s case, are tasked to represent, namely refugees themselves.

Allocating responsibilities elsewhere

There are many reasons why policy makers and academics make such statements. Often anecdotal encounters are used, such as those above, to justify sweeping, general statements about refugees as a whole. These fail to capture any complexity or nuance. A prominent example is the argument put forth by Collier who links the fact that 84% of the world’s refugees currently remain close to their country of origin to their eventual desire for return.

This obscures the ways in which our responses to displacement affect (im)mobility decisions. The stark discrepancy between the high demand for resettlement places and their scant supply, for example, indicates that many refugees would prefer to relocate but are unable to avail themselves of this solution. Similarly, the externalization of border controls and the danger of migrant journeys, often with the involvement of human smugglers, come at high financial costs and personal risks which many may not be willing to take. Therefore, there is a need to better understand individual motivations and the broader ecosystem in which refugees’ decisions are made, rather than inferring a causality between geographic location and the desire for future return.  

When taking context into account, it becomes clear that such statements are often used to justify a broad spectrum of policy goals. These goals range from the promotion of repatriation as the most desired durable solution, to incentivizing greater investment in employment opportunities in regions close to conflict, to increasing national security through the return of displaced populations. Given the idiosyncrasies of the principle of territorial asylum, it is precisely the possibility of allocating responsibilities elsewhere which makes the statement that ‘all refugees want to go home’ so desirable. Against the backdrop of its popularity and widespread use, we must ask: what are the consequences of this narrative and how can we change it?

Refugee protection

Firstly, the use of this narrative creates a hierarchy between refugees who wish to return home and those who do not. Claiming that all refugees want to return is not only factually false, but also ethically questionable. Refugees who fail to comply with this one-dimensional portrayal may be seen as infiltrators or scroungers. They are assumed to have left their countries of origin, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. However, holding a legal claim to protection under the 1951 Convention neither necessitates a common ‘refugee experience’ nor a shared wish for future return. Refugees are owed protection whether or not they eventually seek to return.

The issue of return is often linked to more basic debates relating to the duty of refugees to return and rebuild their country of origin. Such a duty should not be incumbent upon those who have been forced to flee and, often, create a new home for both themselves and their families. Presuming that all refugees must want to return places an undue burden on those who do not wish to. Wanting to return home and restore one’s country should be a choice, not an obligation placed upon you by those also claiming to offer you protection.

Secondly, the dominant narrative of return fails to reflect that durable solutions are themselves political. For example, Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, emphasizes that Syrian refugees do not want their next stop to be the United States but rather hope to return to Syria as soon as possible. Her statement comes at a time when President Trump has repeatedly threatened far-reaching cuts in both resettlement places and US funding for UNHCR. Likewise, Australia’s representative to the UN links refugees’ desire for return to the need for a shift in the humanitarian aid system to better meet development needs. This is supposedly aimed at contributing to the viability of return in the long run and the need to ‘find regional solutions to regional issues’. But the Australian government’s desire to prevent refugees from arriving on its soil by detaining refugees on remote pacific islands or by offering to pay for Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar clearly demonstrates that early return is politically motivated, rather than in refugees’ best interests.

Longing for home?

Indeed, as Jeff Crisp notes in his assessment of the New York Declaration one year after its adoption, refugees’ voluntary return currently enjoys the widest degree of support within the international community. This is nothing new, as UNHCR and other key stakeholders have argued that repatriation is the best solution to displacement for decades.

When both local integration in first countries of asylum and resettlement to safe third countries are politically unpopular, projecting a shared desire of return onto displaced individuals presents repatriation both as the most feasible and the most desired durable solution. However, contrary to statements made by policymakers, institutional representatives and academics, this narrative of preference for return legitimizes a hierarchy of durable solutions based solely on political feasibility.

Thirdly, the narrative of desired return often makes alternative solutions less accessible to refugees and forced migrants. While promoting her book A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea, UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming tells the story of Doaa, a Syrian refugee currently residing in Sweden. Despite finding Doaa’s story particularly remarkable and stating she would ‘love to tell all 65 million stories of all the forced displaced people in the world’, Fleming overrides her concern for individual stories by stressing that it is every refugee’s wish to return – referring to both those in the region surrounding Syria as well as successful asylum seekers elsewhere – after the country’s reconstruction and reconciliation.

Deriving refugees’ supposed desire to return from feelings of longing for a homeland ignores the fact that this desire might instead be grounded in frustration over access to alternative durable solutions. Applications for third-country resettlement reached a 20-year high in 2016. Despite the European Commission’s proposal to resettle 50,000 refugees from neighboring countries such as Turkey and Libya, UNHCR points out that in 2017, the global resettlement landscape is still characterized by fluctuations in state quotas resulting in a global net decrease of available resettlement places coupled with heightened scrutiny of resettlement candidates as a result of national security concerns. Overall, with 22.5 million refugees worldwide and only 125,800 being resettled in 2016, less than 1% of the global refugee population has benefited from resettlement.

Bleak prospects of resettlement are often coupled with a prolonged hesitation or outright rejection by first countries of asylum to make local integration and eventual naturalization a priority. While quantifying local integration is arguably challenging, using naturalization quotas as a proxy indicates that this solution is available to even fewer refugees. UNHCR reported a total of 23,000 refugee naturalizations in 2016. Many refugees may in fact locally integrate despite a lack of endorsement by the host country’s government. However, this often comes at a continuous risk of expulsion or the inaccessibility of formal employment, education or health care which may ultimately contribute to return as a constrained choice.

Continuously stressing refugees’ desire to return home without knowing when it will be possible to do so ultimately undermines the promotion of local integration or resettlement as displacement is viewed through a lens of temporariness. But in many cases, as is evident in the current Rohingya crisis playing out between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the end of conflict cannot be equated with the end of persecution. Even within a group of refugees who fled the same country of origin, return may be considered an option at different points in time due to differing grounds for persecution. Similarly, the individual desire to return may grow more or less pronounced over time in the wake of changing personal circumstances or developments in the country of origin. Given the lack of accessibility and durability of these traditional solutions to displacement, return may eventually become the best choice out of an array of bad options.

Home and, as corollary, return are dynamic concepts and cannot easily be equated with someone’s country of origin. Adopting an overly romanticized idea of home and belonging in refugee narratives is counterproductive as it may undermine efforts of local integration both at the policy and the local level due to increased expectations on individuals to return. Repeatedly claiming that all refugees want to go home not only perpetuates a sedentary bias, but also portrays the act of going home as a purely physical process. However, as Katy Long has argued, repatriation is ultimately about re-establishing the nexus between state, citizen, territory and the nation. In order to adequately capture these dynamics, there is a need to decouple repatriation from physical return and instead conceptualize it as a fundamentally political process.

Ask them

Instead of de-contextualizing and homogenizing refugees’ voices, we need to work towards achieving a wide-ranging inclusion of displaced people’s expertise and perspectives into the design, implementation and evaluation of policies concerning them. Despite the New York Declaration’s pronounced aim to do just that, refugees’ own assessments of policy developments concerning them are rare. Ultimately, fixating on the idea that all refugees want to go home is nothing but a narrative tool to legitimize various stakeholders’ policy goals by artificially creating a congruence between what they want and what refugees want. Properly recognizing refugees’ hopes and motivations would contribute to adjusting a system all too lopsidedly centred on other stakeholders’ priorities.

Instead of projecting the desire of return onto refugees as a means to justify various policy goals, we need to openly address the heart of the matter currently masked behind this narrative. The issue of return is often linked to fundamental debates relating to the duty of refugees to repatriate and rebuild their country of origin, the benefits and challenges of offering indefinite or temporary protection, financial considerations of providing cheaper protection to more people in need outside of western host countries or the shortcomings of the principle of territorial asylum and the current durable solutions framework. These are important debates to have. We should lead them openly instead of indirectly alluding to them under the disguise of speaking on behalf of all refugees.

Achieving this can only be done by refraining from making such generalized statements and opting for more inclusive and nuanced policy. The danger of making sweeping statements about all refugees should be clear, though this danger has apparently been missed by those in a prime position to influence both attitudes and policy; perhaps most worryingly the Chief of Communications at UNHCR. Instead of speaking for ‘all’ refugees, we should endeavor to reflect the huge array of refugee backgrounds and experiences. Otherwise we risk perpetuating a politics based on the desires of powerful states and stakeholders as opposed to the desires of those in need of protection.

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