Repatriation as the Most Preferred Durable Solution for Refugees? Its Impact on “Human Security” and Durable Peace

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Peace Studies Association of Japan 2018 Autumn Package Session

Re-examining the Refugee Protection and Repatriation: A Case Study of Rwandan Refugees

Repatriation as the Most Preferred Durable Solution for Refugees? Its Impact on “Human Security” and Durable Peace


Keio University



Key Words: Refugees, Repatriation, Durable Solutions, Reintegration, Security, Irregular Migration



  Among three durable solutions for the refugee problems, repatriation is often regarded as the most preferred or the only feasible solution by refugee hosting countries, major donors, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). 

  However, refugee return is not a simple reversal of displacement and does not necessarily bring the refugee cycle to an end for refugees themselves. While some refugee repatriation efforts have occurred with limited problems and resulted in almost the total return of all refugees and their successful reintegration into their home areas, refugee return has been far more problematic in other cases. Various instances of repatriation returns have strong implications for political disorder or conflict in the refugees’ home countries. In this case, refugee return tends to be unsustainable, and refugees end up fleeing their home country again. Paradoxically, repatriation becomes a main cause of a new influx of refugees to neighbouring countries. 

  Much less is known about when and why repatriation generates enhanced violence or conflicts and undermines efforts to restore sustainable return and peace. If repatriation is a key factor in the spread of conflict or instability, why do some repatriation initiatives become problems for returnees and their countries of origin, whereas other instances do not? By closely examining several cases in Africa, this presentation considers the conditions under which refugee return is likely to result in political instability in the home country and a new influx of refugees. 


1. What is Repatriation?

(1) The Question of Voluntariness

 Refugee repatriation has been equated to the physical return of refugees to their country of origin and traditionally considered by the international community as the ideal solution to displacement. The early post-Cold War period between 1989 and 1997 saw the most emphatic endorsement of repatriation by the UHNCR, refugee hosting countries, and major donor countries. However, the achievement of many repatriation programmes during the 1990s has been questioned because the voluntariness requirement in repatriation was increasingly compromised, and mass repatriation resulted in the unsustainable reintegration of refugee returnees and disturbed peace and stability in the country of origin. Nevertheless, the UNHCR continued to insist that repatriation must be voluntary, and various repatriation programmes were criticized by human rights organisations to be tantamount to forcible repatriation. This controversial feature of repatriation remains problematic both at the principle and practice levels. 


(2) Assessment of Repatriation 

 How the success of refugee repatriation can be measured is a matter of debate. Katy Long and other academics hold that repatriation should be firmly conceptualized as a process involving the remaking of citizenship and the consequent re-accessing of rights and livelihood through refugees availing themselves of national protection in their country of origin. Sustainable reintegration can be understood as a set of processes that establish returnees in their country of origin in a way that provides them with sufficient means of livelihood and conditions of safety in order to hinder their further displacement within or outside the country. 


2. Conditions and Consequences of Repatriation

(1) Factors Influencing the Decision of Refugees to Return to Their Country of Origin

 According to various studies, the following are generally the main factors that influence the decision of refugees to return: (a) conditions of security, (b) possibilities for developing a stable livelihood, and (c) access to education, health, and other services. It must be noted that the decision to stay or return is different, depending on other variables, such as age, gender, economic status in exile, regional attachment, political affiliation, and time of absence from the home country. 


(2) Patterns of Repatriation in Practice 

(a) Return after a fundamental political change 

(b) Return after a political settlement or major political change

(c) Return after a political settlement that does not end the political conflict and that leaves the contending parties with substantial political and military power

(d) Return to an area not controlled by the government that originally caused the flight 

(e) Return caused by the deterioration of political security conditions in the host country

(f) Forced return of refugees to a conflict zone


(3) Problems of Reintegration 

 Problems of readjustment and reintegration are not uncommon in dealing with the issue of refugee return. Among various problems, there are two major ones that are related to the area of return and the process of reintegration of returnees: (a) the general lack of economic development and (b) the ensuing confrontation between different groups of the population. Further studies are required to understand under which conditions and to what degree it is necessary to ensure the participation of refugees in the peace process for the achievement of sustainable peace and reintegration.


3 Case Study: Rwanda

(1) Brief Background of the Rwandan Refugee Situation

 Periodic violence and political instability have plagued much of Rwanda’s post-colonial history, notably between 1959 and 1963 after the death of the Rwandan monarch, after the 1973 coup d’ etat, and during the 1994 genocide. Approximately 177,754 Rwandans remain in exile as refugees, and one third of current Rwandan refugees have been born in exile. Between August 1994 and October 2002, about 3.1 million Rwandan refugees returned home, some voluntarily, some forcibly. For example, Tanzania forcibly repatriated hundreds of thousands Rwandan refugees in 1996, and Brundi forcibly repatriated 6,000 Rwandan refugees in 2006. The UNHCR invoked the cessation of Rwandan refugee status in 2013, but the majority of Rwandan refugees who fled during or after 1994 firmly refuse to return. 


(2) Problems of Repatriation and Reintegration 

 An interview with Rwandan refugees in Uganda and Malawi showed three main problems that undermine the reintegration of Rwandan refugees: the lack of political space for different views, the absence of fairness in the administration and justice system, and land and property issues. The Rwandan case indicates that repatriation under premature conditions for a sustainable return does not result in positive effects on both the refugee returnees themselves and the country of origin. Evidence shows that forced repatriation does not resolve refugee problems; rather, it induces irregular migration. In May 2009, it was reported that Rwandan refugees attempted to leave Uganda for fear of forced repatriation. Therefore, repatriation itself does not automatically resolve refugee issues. 


Concluding Remarks 

 The research findings in Africa illustrate that repatriation is far from being an ideal durable solution for refugees. The return of refugees may have adverse effects on state reconstruction, as the visible incapacity to manage returnees can undermine the authority of government institutions; returnees may cause conflict and/or become internally displaced persons. Even if the government rebuilds its institutions and secures governance, unless the root causes of displacement are resolved, most refugees will be reluctant to return, and forcible repatriation will create a new influx of refugees. The current practice in refugee operations needs a fundamental reconfiguration of the framework of repatriation and new policy guidelines on repatriation and peacebuilding, even though refugee policies are mostly influenced by the interests of governments and donors, not by humanitarian objectives. 


References (partial list)

Allen, T. and H. Morsink (eds.) (1994) When Refugees Go Home, Africa World Press and James Currey. 

Bradley, M. (2013) Refugee Repatriation: Justice, Responsibility and Redress, Cambridge University Press. 

Black, R. and K. Koser (1999) The End of the Refugee Cycle? : Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction, Berghahn Books. 

Chimni, B. S. (2002) “Refugees and Post-Conflict Reconstruction: A Critical Perspective”, International Peacekeeping 9(2):164-180. 

_____________ (2004) “From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards A Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems”, Refugee Studies Quarterly 23(3):55-73. 

Crisp, J. and K. Long (2016) “Safe and Voluntary Refugee Repatriation: From Principle to Practice”, Journal on Migration and Human Security 4(3):141-147.  

Kingston, L.N. (2017) “Bringing Rwandan Refugees ‘Home’: The Cessation Clause, Statelessness, and Forced Repatriation”, International Journal of Refugee Law 29(3): 417-437. 

Long, K. (2013) The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights, and Repatriation, Oxford University Press. 

Milner, J. (2009) “Refugees and the Regional Dynamics of Peace Building” Refugee Studies Quarterly 28(1):13-3.