Sending Refugees Back Makes the World More Dangerous

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.

Nzeyimana Consolate arrives carrying her baby at the Nyabitara transit site, among other Burundian refugees, on Oct. 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi. Nearly 600 Burundians who fled political violence in their home country to Tanzania were repatriated voluntarily, the U.N. refugee agency  said.
Nzeyimana Consolate arrives carrying her baby at the Nyabitara transit site, among other Burundian refugees, on Oct. 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi. Nearly 600 Burundians who fled political violence in their home country to Tanzania were repatriated voluntarily, the U.N. refugee agency said. TCHANDROU NITANGA/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Hostility between people who stay home during a civil war and those who leave and later return is common in many post-conflict societies.

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.

When refugees returned en masse, many found their houses had new occupants. Sometimes it was neighbors 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. But these land conflicts did not easily fit into the ethnic-conflict paradigm that Burundi was known for. Violence between so-called rapatriés and résidents cut across ethnic lines, not only pitting Hutu against Hutu, but often family member against family member.

By early 2015, the situation was so dire that many returnees told me that those who stayed behind had warned them that, should war come back to Burundi, the returnees would be the first to be killed.

Indeed, war (in some form) did come back. In April 2015, when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek an unconstitutional third term in office, civilians took to the streets in protest, which was soon followed by a failed coup attempt from within the army. Nkurunziza’s ruling party responded with a terrifying campaign of repression against anyone perceived to be associated with the opposition, which continues today. Once again, Burundians fled en masse.

Among the first to flee were those returnees who had come back to Burundi just a few years prior. Because of the violence they encountered upon their return, many had already been looking to leave. The electoral crisis in the capital provided an opportunity to cross the border and expect U.N. protection on the other side.

These refugees still feared Nkurunziza’s campaign of repression. But many refugees explained that their brother, uncle, or neighbor with whom they had a land conflict also had connections with the ruling party or was a member of the feared government-allied youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Given these connections, the outbreak of the 2015 crisis meant that such a person could use the cover of government repression to finally make good on their threats.

The Burundian case illustrates not only how the process of refugee return after civil war can create new, violent divisions between returnees and nonmigrants in countries of origin, but also how return migration often leads to repeat migration. This is not to say that refugees should not return, or that they do not want to. Many refugees do want to go back—when it is safe to do so. And it is essential that the international community protects refugees’ rights to repatriate voluntarily. Still, understanding how mass refugee return can affect post-conflict communities can help governments and international organizations improve voluntary repatriation processes as well as develop alternative solutions.

In cases where refugees do want to return, governments and international organizations should take steps to prevent conflict between returnees and nonmigrants from getting out of hand.

This is easier said than done. Multiple international and domestic actors in Burundi had identified return migration as a potentially destabilizing process. However, even institutions designed to promote peace can—intentionally or unintentionally—exacerbate conflict between returnees and nonmigrants. To avoid this, it’s essential to anticipate how peace-building efforts might affect returnees and nonmigrants differently, actively seek feedback from local communities to see if such programs are creating unintended consequences, and be willing to change approach based on this information.

Understanding the multiple reasons why refugees flee can also help responders think through when return is likely to lead to repeat displacement. In Burundi, because refugees fled both national and local violence, resolving the national electoral crisis will not make it safe for all refugees to return. In fact, many refugees told me that because of the land conflict they encountered on their previous return, even if Nkurunziza were to step down, they would be safer living illegally in Tanzania than going back to Burundi. If forced to return, they would just flee again. (Despite all this, Tanzania and Burundi are currently trying to force refugees to go back.)

If refugee repatriation is not the solution, then what is? The alternative durable solutions set out in existing international frameworks are resettlement and local integration. Increasing resettlement opportunities for refugees is extremely important. But resettlement helps only a small minority of refugees. In 2018, while there were 25.9 million registered refugees worldwide, only 92,400 (less than 1 percent) were officially resettled in a third country such as the United States, Germany, or Australia. Doubling resettlement quotas will help hundreds of thousands of individuals, but it will not resolve protracted situations of forced displacement.

Local integration in refugees’ first country of asylum, ideally culminating in naturalization, is the most promising remaining solution for the majority of refugees today. Yet it is exceedingly rare. Today, the vast majority of refugees (85 percent) live in host countries near their country of origin, such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Uganda, where they are rarely well integrated into society.

Naturalization is a very hard policy for governments to sell. Citizens balk at the perceived competition for jobs and access to state benefits, and xenophobia is a more popular electoral platform than inclusion. So instead, governments restrict refugees’ movement, impede their access to labor markets and medical care, and excessively police refugee populations in hopes that refugees will go back on their own. But the entire reason these refugees are abroad in the first place is that it is unsafe for them to return. Consequently, the only durable part of the “three durable solutions” is that the vast majority of refugees will continue to live in a perpetual state of limbo.

If the standard solutions for refugees aren’t working, policymakers need to start thinking outside the box of return, resettlement, and local integration. One of the reasons why governments are stuck in this “three durable solutions” framework is that international law makes a razor-sharp distinction between who is a refugee and who is a migrant. While this delineation affords refugees essential legal protections, like the right to non-refoulement, it also precludes them from accessing some of the most common types of visas that allow people to live and work in countries of which they are not a citizen.

But what if, rather than waiting for states to let refugee populations stay permanently, governments and regional organizations embraced mobility? In some regions, such as the Great Lakes in Africa, refugees have been cycling from country to country alongside other migrants for decades. Governments could easily legalize—and manage—these movements in tandem.  One way to do this would be for host states to grant refugees medium-term labor visas.

For example, Tanzania could grant refugees priority access to three-year, renewable labor visas that would allow them to legally work and live in both Tanzania and Burundi. This would be a win-win scenario: Tanzania would benefit from an increased labor force in underdeveloped regions and would have a mechanism for tracking exactly how many refugees were in their territory; Burundian refugees would have a safe place to reside and work.

While this is an unorthodox suggestion, it is not impossible: The International Organization for Migration implemented a pilot of a similar program in Tanzania in 2014. In Colombia, with more than a million Venezuelans fleeing across the border, the government was initially allowing migrants, who would likely also qualify as refugees, to apply for a special work permit called a Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP). With this permit, Venezuelans can stay in Colombia for two years and are eligible to access health care, education, and employment. Unfortunately, the Colombian government has started to make it more difficult for migrants to apply for the PEP.

It doesn’t have to be just labor visas. Regional economic zones could establish reciprocal residency treaties to facilitate refugees’ temporary residence in neighboring countries. This is not an impossible proposition; versions of it already exist to facilitate other types of migration. In South America, the Mercosur Residence Agreement allows nationals of its signatory countries to apply for a two-year temporary residency permit in any of the other signatory states, and even provides the option to apply for permanent residency.

Most important, the treaty dictates that Mercosur migrants enjoy the same civil, social, cultural, and economic rights as nationals of the host country. Similarly, European Union nationals are eligible to work in any EU country. The East African Community, which currently hosts approximately 2.3 million refugees, could establish a regional visa that allows these refugees to legally reside in any East African Community member country for a specified period of time, subject to renewal.

These are not perfect solutions. For one, they are not permanent. And opening the door for refugees to access visas reserved for regular migrants could endanger the special protections currently afforded to refugees. So, for these medium-term measures to work, the international community will need to find ways to ensure that refugees are not kicked out after a short period of time and effectively deprived of their right to non-refoulement. Still, because these measures facilitate cross-border mobility, they might better enable refugees to go back and forth on their own terms.

If world leaders are serious about finding solutions to the rising levels of forced displacement, rather than simply playing to nativist demands and calling for refugees to be sent back, they must consider options that break out of the straitjacket that is the “repatriate, naturalize, or resettle” paradigm.

Allowing refugees to take advantage of pathways normally reserved for labor migrants is difficult—both for the politicians proposing to let more people in and for the maintenance of existing refugee protections. But governments are already getting around those protections, often by co-opting the power of the labor migration regime against asylum-seekers, labeling refugees illegal or calling them economic migrants in order to bar them from entry. It would be far more effective to use that same system to provide refugees with much-needed protection—and it is possible. But to do so, national leaders must first marshal the political will to undertake real—and at times risky—reforms.

Stephanie Schwartz is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and was a 2018-2019 postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. An earlier version of this article won the 2019 Perry World House Emerging Global Scholars Prize. Twitter: @stephrschwartz