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)