The Global Compact on Refugees reaffirms a potentially dangerous commitment to refugee repatriation as the preferred solution to refugee situations. The emphasis on return is nothing new, despite the fact that repatriation is rarely a definitive solution nor endpoint to forced migration crises. The additional risk, however, is that the Compact will further enable states to orchestrate return without simultaneously arming the international community with tools to hold governments accountable if they violate refugees’ rights in the process. The Compact creates this dilemma because it is not a compact for refugees. That is to say, the Compact is not designed to promote refugees’ human rights, needs, and preferences. Rather, the Compact’s goal is to create more ‘equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees’ (GCR Chapter 1, Section A. Para 1). Thus, the Global Compact on Refugees actually supports states that host refugees, rather than refugees themselves. This is an important distinction because the subsequent objectives outlined in the Compact are intended to serve states’ interests, not necessarily refugees’. And while repatriation may be states’ preferred solution to refugee situations, it is not always refugees’ preferred outcome.
Still, the Compact, signed by all 193 United Nations (UN) member states in December 2018, is an important reaffirmation of the international community’s responsibility to protect refugees. The symbolism of this effort and unanimous global commitment should not be discounted, especially given the current global climate of anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment. The Compact is a significant achievement and hopefully will become a useful tool to more effectively facilitate international support of refugees.
One of the four ways the Compact proposes to strengthen international refugee response is to ‘support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.’ The first question we need to ask is: Should this be one of the primary goals of international refugee response? In theory, the answer is: Of course! Why not? If the international community could improve conditions in countries-of-origin such that refugees feel safe returning, that would be great. But the vast majority of forced displacement stems from civil war, persecution, or generalized violence. A non-binding compact will not resolve these complex political situations, nor will it convince states and non-state actors to stop violating human rights. The Compact even acknowledges this, noting that: ‘In the first instance, addressing root causes is the responsibility of countries at the origin of refugee movement’ (Chapter I, Section D, p. 8), and more specifically that: ‘enabling voluntary repatriation is first and foremost the responsibility of the country of origin towards its own people’ (Chapter III, Section B, p. 87). The Compact then defers to other international efforts in peace, security, and development as the appropriate channels to address underlying issues that force refugees to flee such that conditions might improve enough for them to return (Chapter I, Section D, p. 89).
By (quite reasonably) noting that resolving the root causes of forced migration is outside their purview, the Compact acknowledges that its stated goal of “supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity,” is not something it expects to achieve. Instead, we argue that the Compact’s actual priority vis-à-vis return is to help states facilitate voluntary repatriation in a safe and dignified process (Chapter III, Section B, p. 86). The difference is important because it signals to states that return itself is the priority, not improving conditions in countries-of-origin.
You might ask: ‘Why is promoting return problematic? Many forced migrants want to return home.’ This is true, and in some cases repatriation is the preferred solution for both states and refugees. But in many cases, governments’ interests in returning refugees are antithetical to those of refugees, who may be afraid of returning and wish to remain in their countries-of-asylum until they feel it is safe to go back. Yet, mass non-voluntary return has become increasingly common. One of the reasons for this is that return benefits both refugee-sending and hosting states. Governments that forced people to flee have incentives to repatriate refugees to improve their public image and avoid international sanction. Refugee-hosting states want to repatriate refugees so that they no longer have to bear the monetary and political costs of ensuring refugees’ safety, health, and well-being.
For example, Bangladesh has been angling to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Burma as soon as possible. Syria has been in talks with Russia to orchestrate the return of refugees, while host countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have increased Syrian deportation. And Tanzanian officials have been ‘encouraging’ refugees to ‘voluntarily’ return to Burundi through intimidation and reduction of services. In fact, the majority of refugees today come from Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan—places where most experts have little optimism about the likelihood of peace in the near future, but where the prospect of refugee return is already being discussed.
In these situations, when both sending and host states have incentives to repatriate refugees, the role of the international community should be to stand up for the refugees and ensure that forced migrants are not repatriated unless the choice to return is truly voluntary and the conditions are safe. Protecting refugees from undue return is the fundamental principle underlying international refugee law. This prohibition, known as non-refoulement, makes it illegal for states to send individuals back to a country where they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group.In accordance with this norm, official UNHCR policy is that the UN will only support refugee repatriation in ‘conditions of safety and dignity’.
But, by placing so much emphasis on repatriation as the preferred solution, the Compact undercuts the international community’s ability to uphold the right to non-refoulement. States looking to repatriate refugees in bad faith can point to the Compact and say that the international community agrees that repatriation is the preferred approach. Yes, the caveats of safety and dignity are all there, but there is no method for punishing states that do not abide by these prerequisites. In the absence of a robust accountability mechanism, the Compact’s repeated emphasis on repatriation as the preferred solution may do more to (unintentionally) enable refoulement than prevent it. To boot, the Compact states that ‘voluntary repatriation is not necessarily conditioned on the accomplishment of political solutions in the country of origin, in order not to impede the exercise of the right of refugees to return to their own country.’ This language may be intended to guarantee that refugees can return home if and when they want to, but it could further support states’ efforts to prematurely repatriate refugees if taken out of context.
As with all of the ‘solution’ options outlined in the GCR, the Compact states that the international community should make resources and expertise available to countries-of-origin as they receive returnees. This is certainly needed, as funding for return migration often focuses on the immediate logistics of moving people from point A to point B and other support for development and integration is often cut off prematurely. However, given that the Compact might allow return before conditions are truly safe, situations may arise where the very regimes that forced their citizens to flee receive funding to encourage these same people to return to still-dangerous conditions.
In other cases, the issue is not enabling repatriation to unsafe conditions, but that the Compact’s language emphasizes repatriation as the preferred solution above all other options. Yet, it is not clear that repatriation actually is the most durable and best solution for all parties. Return migration can create new sources of conflict in countries-of-origin between returnees and those who stayed behind. This can spur repeat migration and prolong refugee crises rather than resolving them. The decision to repatriate refugees, then, should take into account not just the current volatility on the ground in countries-of-origin, but also the likelihood that return itself could create new conflict, and take measures to avoid exacerbating this risk.
However, the Compact missed an opportunity to strengthen the UNHCR’s ability to hold states to account when governments’ interests do not align with refugees’. While states often pressure the UNHCR to ‘resolve’ displacement crises through repatriation, the Compact could have provided a framework for the UN and its partners to counter this. For example, defining what constitutes voluntary return, safe conditions, and a dignified repatriation process would strengthen the UN’s ability to defend refugees’ right to non-refoulement. Alternatively, the Compact could have outlined what constitutes a violation of these terms, such that when violations occur, the international community can refer to the Compact to defend its decision not to support repatriation. The Compact also could have recommended that the UN invest in risk analysis and planning prior to return, to try to anticipate and avoid some of the problems that might endanger returnees and fuel repeat migration.
Still, there are some bright lights in the Compact regarding durable solutions. First, the Compact takes some of the first formalized steps towards breaking out of the restrictive box of the three traditional durable solutions (repatriation, resettlement, and local integration). In the sections on resettlement and local integration, the Compact states that the international community will support alternative pathways or new legal and institutional frameworks for including refugees in society. The inclusion of these alternatives in the broader discussion of solutions to refugee situations is a huge step forward in finding sustainable solutions for refugees in precarious, protracted situations. We hope this step will catalyse more research and further innovation on creating an inclusive space for refugees in the international community.
The Compact also encourages the international community to dedicate resources and expertise in several key areas, namely: (1) resolving housing and property issues; (2) analysing risk; and (3) promoting development, livelihood, and economic opportunities in communities receiving returnees. The inability to recuperate land for housing, discrimination or violent targeting from either the state or those who stayed in country, and failure to sustain economic livelihoods in their home-country are among the primary reasons that return migration so frequently leads to repeat migration. Ensuring the support to anticipate these problems and ease the transition could go a long way towards breaking the return-repeat migration cycle.
The Compact also notes that internally displaced and non-displaced populations are key constituents in durable solutions. IDPs face many of the same issues around return as refugees, and return migration can upend social, political, and economic structures in the communities of non-displaced populations receiving returnees. Including these points in the Compact draws attention to the fact that successfully supporting return migration is not just about the needs of returnees, and creates an international commitment for governments and NGOs to invoke when requesting funds for programs that include support for these often overlooked people.
So here’s the long and short of how well the Global Compact on Refugees sets itself up to achieve its goal of ‘Supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity’:
- The Compact does not attempt to remedy the root causes of displacement to engender safe conditions in countries-of-origins for refugees to return. It (reasonably) transfers responsibility for that to UN bodies responsible for peacebuilding and international security.
- Instead, the Compact reaffirms that voluntary repatriation is the international community’s preferred solution to refugee situations. While repatriation serves states’ interests, it is not always refugees’ preferred solution. As such, the Compact’s provisions on return support both refugee-sending and host states, but do not necessarily support refugees themselves.
- This emphasis on supporting return without simultaneously bolstering the international community’s ability to ensure that repatriation is truly safe and voluntary could further enable governments to orchestrate refugee repatriation in bad faith.
- On the bright side, the Compact recognizes complementary resettlement pathways and new legal frameworks as part of the set of potential solutions to refugee situations. Their inclusion in the Compact can help promote much-needed research and innovation on solutions outside of the ‘resettlement-repatriation-local integration’ status quo.
- Finally, the Compact will be a useful tool for states as they seek international support to resolve land and property restitution conflict, analyse risks related to return, support IDPs and non-migrant populations, and invest in local economic development—all of which are essential for creating genuinely safe and dignified conditions for return.
 Jocelyn Perry is Global Shifts Program Manager at the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. Stephanie Schwartz is a postdoctoral fellow and the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania and Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California.
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