Thursday, December 9, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

Though voluntary repatriation is the most appealing of the durable solutions available for refugees, those who return home face many obstacles. The news this week is full of stories of the hardships confronted by returning IDPs and refugees: of the impact of floods in northern Sri Lanka on those who have just returned home, of the difficult readjustment from urban to rural living for southern Sudanese, and of the landmines facing those who fled the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Despite these challenging realities, the repatriation process as currently designed assumes that once refugees return home, they're safe and they're there to stay.
Dr. Lucy Hovil (prior IntLawGrrls post), Senior Researcher for the International Refugee Rights Initiative, (pictured below right) published last month a UNHCR Research Paper challenging this disconnect between the policy and reality of repatriation. The article, entitled Hoping for peace, afraid of war: the dilemmas of repatriation and belonging on the borders of Uganda and South Sudan, notes that while the official process of repatriation is a unidirectional single course of action, the realities on the ground are significantly more multi-faceted. Hovil argues that repatriation should be reconceived as restoration of citizenship bonds or empatriation rather than just the crossing of a border.
What exactly does she mean by this? Using the case study of southern Sudanese refugees living in northern Uganda, Hovil notes that while Sudan has reached an officially acceptable level of stability according to UNHCR, individuals and families who return still face threats to their safety and chronic uncertainty. As a result, those who return informally tend to do so in several steps, carefully ensuring the safety of their family. One interviewee described how he returned to Sudan to see his land and build a house, then returned a year later to farm his land, and then a year later brought back his family members. Even at that point he did not consider himself fully repatriated; he was still monitoring the situation and was ready to return to northern Uganda if necessary.
In other words, restoration of the bonds of citizenship is a process that takes time; abrupt return fosters dependence and insecurity. In contrast to those who are allowed to return at their own pace, those repatriated by UNHCR have only the food they come with and have forgone the opportunity for protection from future threats by officially relinquishing their refugee status.
Hovil also notes that the reconstruction of community is a slow and organic process. Returnees generally repatriate out of a desire to restore the roots lost through exile. They are in search of community, which will in turn provide them with a sense of local belonging and also of national legitimacy.
Hovil argues that successful community reconstruction requires freedom of movement within and between states so that former refugees can access social, economic, and cultural resources outside of their state of origin. Without such reconstruction, the profound political change needed to stabilize a shattered state is unlikely.

(credit for photo above left)

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