UNHCR’s Complicity in Unjust Refugee Repatriation

Refugee_shelters_in_the_Dadaab_camp,_northern_Kenya,_July_2011_(5961213058) (2)
(Shelters in Dadaab camp, DFID – UK Department for International Development)

In May 2016 the Kenyan government announced its plans to close Dadaab refugee camp by November and to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. Constructed in eastern Kenya over twenty-five years ago as a temporary solution for Somalis fleeing their country’s civil war, Dadaab has become a sprawling slum-like city that hosts first, second, and third-generation refugees. Over the years, the government of Kenya has imposed measures that restrict refugees’ movements and make it difficult for refugees to travel outside of the camps in search of work. Somali refugees hold a tenuous place within Kenyan society; they are often the scapegoats for the country’s economic and security problems.

In 2013 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reached a tripartite agreement with the governments of Kenya and Somalia, which provides a legal framework for the repatriation of Somali refugees living in Kenya. The agreement does not establish a timeline for repatriation, but stresses the need for all returns to be voluntary. Pursuant to the agreement, UNHCR began repatriation operations in 2014, but very few Somali refugees have elected to participate.

Pressure to repatriate, however, has been mounting. In the aftermath of several terrorist attacks in Kenya in 2014, the government forcibly deported around 350 refugees. After the April 2015 terrorist attack in Garissa, during which gunman from the militant group Al-Shabaab killed nearly 150 people, the government amplified its anti-refugee rhetoric and committed to the closure of Dadaab. The government claims that Dadaab and other refugee camps have become havens for Islamist terrorists, although numerous sources dispute these claims.

UNHCR warns that immediate repatriation would have extreme humanitarian and practical consequences and has vowed not to support any measure that violates international law. Although the government of Kenya has yet to act on its stern commitments to close the camp, many Somalis fear that they will be forcibly repatriated. The lack of infrastructure, social services, and stability within many areas of Somalia renders any repatriation program in the near future insecure and, potentially, unlawful.

UNHCR’s role in the current push to repatriate Somali refugees is still developing. Will the refugee agency condemn forced repatriations, should they happen? Or will the refugee agency facilitate and assist repatriations, even if non-voluntary? Over the past three decades, UNHCR has become a vocal proponent of repatriation as the preferred solution for the world’s refugees, almost completely ignoring other possible solutions such as integration into the society of a host state or resettlement abroad to a different country.

At times, UNHCR has participated in highly dubious repatriation schemes, including the repatriation of Rohingyan Muslim refugees to Burma in the early 1990s. The refugee agency has provided quiet support to coercive measures that induce repatriation, such as the withdrawal of food rations and essential services or the introduction of travel and employment restrictions. Under these conditions, the voluntariness of a refugee’s decision to repatriate is suspect.

UNHCR is often reluctant to criticize government policies that pressure refugees to repatriate. The agency remained silent when the government of Bangladesh severely reduced food rations and other assistance to Rohingyan refugees. At other times, UNHCR has itself applied coercive measures to encourage repatriation. In the 1990s the UNHCR office in Afghanistan authorized the reduction of food rations to pressure Tajik refugees to repatriate.

The refugee agency has also promoted repatriation to unstable and unsafe countries of origin. Sudanese refugees in Chad recently expressed their concerns about the repatriation scheme that UNHCR is discussing with the governments of Chad and Sudan. The refugees claim that the situation in Darfur is more dangerous than when they left. Similarly, Rwandan refugees in Uganda have criticized the High Commissioner’s recommendation that countries hosting Rwandan refugees begin repatriation programs. The refugees argue that they remain at risk of persecution by the autocratic Rwandan government that cracks down on all forms of political dissent.

Why would UNHCR—an international organization mandated with protecting refugees—vigorously promote repatriation as the preferred solution for refugees, even when the conditions in a refugee’s country of origin are such that repatriation is untenable? In short, UNHCR is dependent on host and donor countries for both funding and access to refugees. As countries seek to limit the costs of refugee flows and exert more control over borders and migration management, UNHCR has become complicit in an international refugee law regime that provides limited and unstable legal protection, and prioritizes refugee return over long-term support.

(A version of this piece appears in the June issue of ‘New People: Pittsburgh’s Peace & Justice Newspaper)


Repatriation and ‘Home’ for Refugees

Repatriation is often portrayed as the end of the refugee journey—the natural outcome for those who have longed to return home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, describes voluntary repatriation as the ‘strongest hope’ for refugees searching for ‘an end to exile’ and as the ‘durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees’. We assume that refugees want to return to their pre-flight homes, communities, and lives. Yet a refugee’s conception of home and belonging may change with time, and is influenced by her experiences in new physical, social, and political settings.[1] Individual and collective identities often evolve as refugees learn skills in other countries and build new communities.[2]

The language we use to describe refugee return obscures our understanding of what happens after return. Terms like ‘exile’, ‘homecoming’ and ‘restoring roots’ suggest that refugees have natural or organic ties to their birthplace—bonds that are restored upon repatriation when the refugee reenters her community of origin.[3] Our emphasis on ‘home’ also assumes that life post-repatriation in a person’s country of origin is preferable to a life abroad.

Returning refugees often face a host of problems when reintegrating into their countries and communities of origin. The traumatizing events that led to a refugee’s flight may have changed her relationship with her country or community of origin, especially in conflicts where psychological warfare and terror are used to demoralize populations.[4] The alienation from a previous community or country often begins even before the refugee ever took flight. In fact, alienation is often the cause of flight.[5]

Returning refugees may struggle to negotiate reentry into a community that has undergone major political, economic, or other transformations. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the ethnic makeup of entire territories was completely transformed by the war, many returning refugees found that their properties had been destroyed, meaning ‘home’ no longer existed.[6]

For others, return may lead to a loss of social and political capital gained while abroad. While living in refugee camps in southern Mexico through the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous Guatemalan refugee women founded a feminist organization, Mamá Maquín, which ran internationally funded programs on women’s health, literacy, and women’s rights.   Women participated in decision making around camp governance, but they were ultimately excluded from the commissions that negotiated with the Guatemalan government on the terms of refugee repatriation. Many men assumed that women would return to their traditional roles within communities and retreat from the political sphere upon repatriation. For many Guatemalan women, repatriation led to a loss of the political and social gains they made while in Mexico.[7]

On numerous occasions refugees have protested against or expressed concern about so-called voluntary repatriation schemes. In the Buduburam Camp in Ghana, a group of refugee women initiated a five-month protest in 2008 to demand that UNHCR reopen its resettlement program and offer greater assistance to those refugees repatriating to Liberia. The protests ended when Ghanaian police arrested over 600 women and children and placed them in a detention camp. The Liberian Foreign Minister intervened only to negotiate an even more unfavorable repatriation agreement between Ghana, Liberia, and UNHCR.[8]

Sudanese refugees in Chad recently expressed their concerns about the repatriation scheme that UNHCR is discussing with the governments of Chad and Sudan. The refugees claim that the situation in Darfur is more dangerous than when they left.[9] Similarly, Rwandan refugees in Uganda criticized the High Commissioner’s 2012 recommendation that countries hosting Rwandan refugees begin repatriation programs. Refugees argued that they remain at risk of persecution by the autocratic Rwandan government.[10]

Yet the international community and UNHCR continue to place almost singular focus on refugee repatriation as the solution for the world’s refugees. Why? Put plainly, local integration and resettlement to a third country are not viable options for most of the world’s refugees due the restrictive immigration policies of many countries. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees resettle abroad. UNHCR cannot meet refugees’ demands to resettle.

Idealized conceptions of life after repatriation help to justify repatriation as the preferred solution for refugees. Repatriation becomes the way for fulfilling refugees’ desires to return ‘home’. Fully admitting that reintegration is not a natural outcome of repatriation and that many refugees want the option to resettle would also require the admission that repatriation is not always the best option for refugees.


[1] Tania Ghanem, ‘When Forced Migrants Return “Home”: The Psychosocial Difficulties Returnees Encounter in the Reintegration Process’ (2003) Working Paper No. 16, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University.

[2] Laura Hammond, ‘Examining the Discourse of Repatriation: Towards a More Proactive Theory of Return Migration’ in Khalid Koser and Richard Black (eds) The End of the Refugee Cycle?: Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction (Berghahn Books 1999) 228-229.

[3] ibid.

[4] Ghanem (n 1) 22-23.

[5] ibid.

[6] Huma Haider, ‘The Politicisation of Humanitarian Assistance: Refugee and IDP Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (6 April 2010) J of Humanitarian Assistance < http://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/700&gt;.

[7] Patricia Pessar, ‘Women’s Political Consciousness and Empowerment in Local, National, and Transnational Contexts: Guatemalan Refugees and Returnees’ (2001) 7(4) Identities 461.

[8] Elizabeth Holzer, ‘What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp’ (2013) Law & Society Review 837.

[9] AllAfrica, ‘Sudan Refugees in Chad Refuse Voluntary Return’ (22 May 2015) <http://allafrica.com/stories/201505250349.html&gt;.

[10] IRIN, ‘Uganda: Rwandan Refugees Still Reluctant to Repatriate’ (14 March 2012) <http://www.irinnews.org/report/95072/uganda-rwandan-refugees-still-reluctant-to- repatriate>