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Durable solutions in a new political era.

One can scarcely exaggerate the Cold War's impact on the international refugee regime. Similarly, it will be difficult to exaggerate the effects of the Cold War's passing. The following essay on "durable solutions" analyzes the meaning of this concept, its application during the Cold War era and its relevance to a new period in world politics.


According to the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the term "refugee" shall apply to any person who, "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.(1) Stated less delicately, refugees are people who cannot go home for fear that they will be persecuted by their governments, or because their governments are unwilling or unable to prevent their persecution by groups not officially part of the government. The interational community is made up of sovereign states that expect all people to enjoy a permanent relationship with at least one of them. Individuals with no such permanent relationship are of concern to the interational community.

The concept of durable solutions needs to be seen in the light of restoring or maintaining permanent relationships between individuals and states. Each of the durable solutions -- voluntary repatriation, local integration into the country of asylum and resettlement in a third country -- restores individuals' permanent relationship with a sovereign nation state.

The 1951 U.N. Convention and its 1967 Protocol established safeguards against forced repatriation. A key provision in the document specifies refugees' right to non-refoulement -- not to be forced to return to a country where they fear persecution. In recent years, a hierarchy has emerged among durable solutions, with preference given to voluntary repatriation, followed by local integration, and third-country resettlement as a last resort. While some claim that this hierarchy reflects the preferences of refugees, in reality it more often reflects governments' preferences and expectations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a statutory responsibility to assist "[g]overnments and ... private organizations in facilitating the voluntary repatriation of such refugees or their assimilation within new national communities."(2) Signatories to the U.N. Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, in turn, have an obligation to act in solidarity with the UNHCR to achieve these durable solutions. On the basis of international burden sharing, the interational community is also obliged to support host countries that assist and protect refugees while durable solutions are sought.


The reasons states prefer voluntary repatriation to other durable solutions are obvious. Most states are not eager to absorb new members, except in cases when they choose to increase immigration. Countries hosting refugees, many of which are underdeveloped, typically make it clear both to their own citizens and to the international community that their commitments are temporary, and request international aid to help them support refugee populations. Often voluntary repatriation emerges as the only practical durable solution, given host states' reluctance to make a more permanent commitment and the limited opportunities for resettlement in third countries.


When states review claims for refugee status on an individual basis, those individuals whose claims are judged valid receive political asylum and often are assimilated. Indeed, in several countries, approval of an asylum claim is tantamount to an offer of permanent residence and even citizenship. But the vast majority of refugees under the protection and care of the international community do not have their claims reviewed individually. Rather, masses of people fleeing into adjacent countries receive care and protection as groups.

The larger the number of refugees, the less likely it is that their status will be determined on an individual basis. Time and resources may not permit examining individual refugee claims at a time when all energies must be devoted to people's emergency needs. Further, many such large-scale movements have occurred in Africa, where the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has agreed to an expanded definition of who should be protected and assisted as a refugee.(3) These states' agreement to treat such exoduses as refugee movements does not include any agreement on their part to assimilate these populations. Often, however, they extend "temporary asylum" for years because the circumstances that caused the flight have not been resolved.

It is usually comparatively easy for the interational community to raise funds to address new refugee emergencies. However, when these emergencies are prolonged, it becomes harder to support long-term care and maintenance programs.

Initiatives to reduce the dependency of refugees -- such as the establishment of refugee settlements -- have rarely succeeded.(4) In any case, it is questionable whether increased economic self-sufficiency constitutes a durable solution. Because refugee status is based on political, not economic, considerations, a durable solution requires that refugees' permanent legal status be normalized as well.


Western governments often refer to third-country resettlement as the "last," or least desirable, durable solution. This, again, reflects these governments' preferences more than those of refugees themselves; many refugees actually might prefer third-country resettlement. UNHCR and governments, however, insist that refugees are not free to choose among durable solutions.

Third-country resettlement is nevertheless a viable and often-used solution. In many instances, securing temporary safe haven for refugees depends on a third country's willingness to accept them for resettlement. Resettlement in third countries has been used as a safety valve when an area's "absorptive capacity" has been exceeded or when refugees' ethnic or cultural backgrounds could create tension in host countries.

The United States, Canada and Australia have been the principal countries accepting refugees for resettlement. Because large distances separate them from refugee-producing countries, they have shared in providing durable solutions through third-country resettlement programs. As immigration countries they have tended to treat refugee resettlement as an emergency extension of immigration programs. Their resettlement priorities (particularly those of the United States) have been strongly biased by foreign policy and ideological considerations.


During the Cold War, protracted conflicts that made it unsafe for refugees to return home, host countries' unwillingness to integrate refugees permanently and resettlement countries' strong political biases made durable solutions hard to achieve. Between 1960 and 1970, in Africa and other parts of the third world, many refugees fled countries embroiled in independence struggles. With a few important exceptions, when these struggles ended, displaced populations either returned home or were assimilated in the areas to which they had fled. When displacements were not connected to Cold War politics, durable solutions could often be achieved. But, as third world refugee movements became intertwined with Cold War politics in Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam and elsewhere, the conflicts underlying them grew harder to resolve.

As civil conflicts dragged on, voluntary repatriation seemed less and less feasible in the short-term. At the same time, countries of asylum or resettlement became less willing to contribute durable solutions for refugees because they feared that there would be no end to such commitments. Furthermore, in many instances, they had an interest in keeping refugees close to their countries of origin, as many refugees were linked to political struggles underway there.

For example, Western powers wished to prolong the debilitating effects of the communist-led Eritrean and Tigrean liberation struggles on the Ethiopian government, although they did not care whether these movements ultimately succeeded. Donor governments supported refugee programs in neighboring Sudan that provided safe havens for large numbers of Eritreans and Tigreans. Governments, on a clandestine basis, also secretly provided the humanitarian arms of these liberation movements with relief aid, which was transported from Sudan into the Eritrean- and Tigrean-controlled areas of Ethiopia. Similarly, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Western governments, determined to thwart the USSR's efforts, supported Afghan refugees in exile. At the very least, they were interested in making the USSR pay as much as possible -- militarily, politically and financially -- for the occupation.

Despite the flight of refugees and spiraling costs for refugee relief, Western states did not want many liberation struggles to end. Instead, they raised their payments to UNHCR -- a response that soon proved too costly. Between 1979 and 1992, the number of refugees multiplied from 5.7 million to 18.2 million. In the same period, UNHCR's expenditures rose from approximately $300 million to $1 billion(5) -- a trend that troubled donor states. Host countries, too, were concerned that interational assistance did not even begin to match the economic and political burdens posed by the growing numbers.

In the 1980s, two conferences on international assistance to refugees in Africa (ICARA I and II) highlighted the opposing attitudes of donor and host countries. The African host governments, on one hand, sought resources beyond the aid they were getting for refugee relief to help offset the refugees' impact on their societies. Donor countries, on the other hand, demanded commitments by the African host governments to durable solutions -- that is, to integrate refugees into their societies -- as a condition for such support. The host governments rejected this stipulation and the donors offered little support(6)

The short-term alternative to legal integration of refugees was to give them more opportunities to earn money in host countries. Some argued that this would lighten the burden refugees imposed on host societies and the interational community. Many refugee advocates pointed out the debilitating effects of long-term care and maintenance programs on refugee communities.(7) But large-scale refugee movements during the Cold War period involved migration from one very poor country to another, limiting the refugees' opportunities for productive activity even under the best of circumstances. The restrictions many host countries placed on refugees' participation in commercial and economic activities, fearing that this could encourage them to remain, complicated matters further.

Unable to promote durable solutions or activities which would allow refugees to become self-sufficient, UNHCR found itself increasingly short of funds by the late 1980s.(8) While UNHCR could raise money to support key donor states' specific interests, they lacked general funds for long-term care and maintenance programs -- projects which required a growing percentage of UNHCR's already-limited resources.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the flight of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" to countries throughout Southeast Asia, and this influx of Cambodian and Laotian refugees to Thailand presented the interational community with an urgent need to find durable solutions. Whereas most host countries were prepared to offer at least temporary asylum until a durable solution could be found, Southeast Asian countries were unwilling to provide safe haven unless third countries -- the United States, Canada, Australia and various European states -- were ready to resettle the refugees expeditiously. At a July 1979 conference in Geneva on Indochinese refugee resettlement, the necessary compromises took shape. Following assurances from Western governments that they would accept large numbers of Vietnamese refugees for resettlement, the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) admitted the refugees and permitted UNHCR to establish and run camps providing temporary accommodations. Since 1979, over one million Indochinese refugees have been resettled.(9)

By the mid-1980s, however, the key resettlement countries' commitment faltered as the influx of refugees continued. Several European states stopped their resettlement programs altogether. Indeed, countries receiving asylum-seekers in the region expressed increasing concern that the resettlement program was drawing people out of Vietnam and that "boat people" would continue arriving as long as they all were treated as refugees. In response, the United States and other countries expanded an Orderly Departure Program (ODP), which enabled Vietnamese to apply for resettlement without having to leave their country. Designed to resettle former political prisoners and certain other groups, such as Amerasians, these procedures allowed Vietnamese to immigrate to the United States, especially because an increasing number of Vietnamese had now resided in the United States long enough to acquire citizenship and petition to bring their close relatives into the country. ODP procedures also provided U.S. officials with one of their direct channels of communication with the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese ODP program was the precursor of other similar in-country processing arrangements in the Soviet Union and Haiti.

In 1989 a second International Conference on Indochinese Refugees produced the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). According to this plan, screening for refugee status was implemented in each country of temporary asylum by national authorities with monitoring by UNHCR. Resettlement countries would agree to accept persons who qualified. Those refugees who did not qualify would be returned to their home countries.

The Thai government did not require the same third-country commitments to resettlement before it accepted Cambodians. The buffer Cambodian factions created between Thailand and Vietnamese-dominated Cambodia was one of several reasons. Only a minority of Cambodian refugees were permitted to apply for resettlement; most lived along the Thai-Cambodian border in camps allied with one of the Cambodian factions. For these people, the only possible durable solution was voluntary repatriation, which depended upon Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and a political agreement among the various Cambodian parties, including the Hun Sen government based in Phnom Penh. Once these conditions were met there was no doubt that refugees would go back to Cambodia, as the Thai government would no longer tolerate their presence.

During the Cold War, prohibitions on exit from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union prevented large refugee flows into Western Europe. Western governments could denounce abuses against these populations without worrying about a flood of Eastern bloc asylum-seekers. People who managed to leave were accepted either by Western European countries or the key countries of resettlement (the United States, Canada and Australia). One often underestimated aspect of trans-Atlantic cooperation is the extent to which Western European governments and resettlement countries cooperated to ensure that refugee movements would not overstrain fragile postwar European economies and social structures.(10)

When thousands of refugees were allowed to leave Czechoslovakia in 1948, Western governments welcomed them, and many resettled in third countries. When Hungarians surged into Austria in 1956, resettlement countries again accepted tens of thousands of refugees. During periods when the Soviet Union granted some of its Jewish citizens visas to Israel, resettlement countries cooperated with the "transit" countries (Italy and Austria) to offer them other immigration options. Polish refugees found durable solutions in various Western European countries as well as in the principal countries of resettlement. During Poland's Solidarity period, however, resettlement countries tightened quotas to encourage Polish dissidents to remain rather than leave the country at a crucial time.

In the late 1950s and 1960s the United States accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba. Like the abortive coup in Hungary, the failure of U.S.-led action against Castro instilled a deep sense of obligation to people fleeing the communist regime. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 committed the United States to accept for permanent residence any Cuban who reached its shores.

Asylum-seekers from other countries in the region have not been so lucky; very few have been allowed to remain in the United States. Furthermore, until the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, Washington defined as refugees only those fleeing from communist countries. Similarly, during the Carter, Reagan and Bush years, biases persisted against people seeking resettlement or asylum from non-communist states such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti. As a result, few people from non-communist countries resettled in the United States and the claims of those who did arrive from non-communist countries and applied for political asylum were routinely denied.


Unlike in Africa and other third world locations where asylum does not connote any permanent right to remain, in Europe and North America granting asylum was equivalent to accepting refugees permanently. These countries granted political asylum mainly to individuals fleeing communist states, and they did not expect the conditions that caused their flight to change soon. In such cases there was no reason to treat asylum as temporary. Furthermore, when richer countries offered asylum to refugees from the third world, they assumed these individuals -- because of the economic disparities between their country of origin and their country of asylum -- would never go back voluntarily. They therefore expected that asylum would be permanent in these cases as well.

The current "asylum crisis" reflects wealthier states' fear of being overwhelmed by people who try to gain entry through lengthy and costly procedures for determining who will receive political asylum. Even during the Cold War, this issue was gathering momentum as Western states worried about their capacity to absorb new migrants. Behind the issue is the question of how prepared states are to accommodate people of different races, cultures and religions.

When the number of people from poor states seeking asylum started to rise in the 1980s, industrialized countries began reviewing their asylum laws. This trend began a bit sooner in Europe, which historically had seen itself more as an area of asylum than of resettlement. States created designations short of full refugee status to limit their obligations to people allowed to remain in their territories due to extraordinary conditions like civil conflicts and disturbances.

The United States, on the other hand, saw itself as a country of resettlement, rather than of political asylum. Indeed, political asylum was so infrequently an issue in the United States that the Refugee Act of 1980 contained only a cursory reference to it. However, this began to change with the Cuban-Haitian boat lifts of 1980 and the arrival of Central Americans fleeing civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Immigration Act of 1990 introduced the concept of temporary safe haven into U.S. law by giving the Attorney General authority to extend "temporary protected status" to nationals of countries undergoing emergencies.

Many industrialized countries seek to limit access to their territory for individuals claiming political asylum. Airlines, for example, are required to screen out people without proper travel documents, even though it is obvious that many genuine refugees cannot acquire such documents from authorities. Governments may turn away people at ports of entry, claiming that they could have applied for political asylum elsewhere. Since 1981, the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted Haitian boats at sea on the grounds that they intended to enter the U.S. illegally. Cursory reviews of these Haitians' cases for asylum were conducted on board Coast Guard vessels before repatriating them. Since 1992, they have lost even this limited opportunity to make a case for political asylum.

In sum, the Cold War significantly curtailed the range of possible solutions to refugee problems. Voluntary repatriation was impossible because the conditions that caused refugees to flee could not be changed. At the same time, both host and donor countries had an interest in the "temporary" presence of refugees, as these populations were often closely allied to movements struggling to overthrow oppressive regimes.

While third world countries were willing to provide temporary asylum, they were not willing to assimilate refugees into their societies. Indeed, host countries usually resisted efforts by refugees, or agencies helping them, to become more economically self-sufficient for fear that this would discourage refugees from going home.

A few refugee groups -- from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Indochina -- were allowed to immigrate to third countries in large numbers. Refugees from other areas of the world, however, did not ordinarily enjoy this oportunity. Refugee resettlement was used to make temporary safe haven possible for Vietnamese boat people as well as for Laotian and Cambodian refugees.

In the wealthier countries, political asylum was tantamount to a durable solution, as those who received it gained full economic rights and the opportunity to seek full legal rights. Richer states ultimately backed away from this posture, fearing that political asylum procedures were being overused and abused.

A crisis in durable solutions emerged in the mid-1980s, as many conflicts producing refugees remained unresolved and their numbers multiplied. Furthermore, rising costs threatened the viability of UNHCR.


Refugee policy and practice, deeply embedded in the framework of the Cold War, shifted dramatically in the post-Cold War period. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the escape of the Eastern European states from the Soviet Union's grip shook the international refugee regime to its foundations. The West's assumption that internal policies would prevent disgruntled populations from leaving their countries was no longer valid. Indeed, between 1989 and 1991, people flooded from the East into Western Europe, and Western countries feared that, as the Soviet Union's power crumbled, their numbers could rise still higher.

When the Soviet Union itself came apart, it triggered another set of anxieties. Borders became porous, eroding assumptions held throughout the Cold War period. Ethnic, religious and national rivalries, long suppressed, were let loose in the process. The prospect of massive population relocations alarmed a Western Europe that was preoccupied with the closer integration of the European Community.(11)

The 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated that the United States, as the only remaining superpower, could now, in concert with its allies, engage its enemies directly without risking a nuclear war. At the end of this conflict, however, Saddam Hussein's regime remained in place. Thousands of Kurds opposed to the regime fled into Turkey and Iran, and Turkey refused to grant them asylum. Stranded in mountains on the Iraqi-Turkish border, the Kurds presented the international community with a dilemma. The U.N. Security Council decided, in Resolution 688, that their plight represented a threat to international peace and security. The Kurds were escorted by the international community into a U.N.-protected zone in Iraq.

The Kurdish case was a clear example of refugees fleeing danger and being rejected at the frontier. Rather than affirming refugees' right to seek asylum, the international community affirmed its own right to establish conditions allowing repatriation by citing a threat to international peace and security.

These developments in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Iraq gave rise to discussions about just what sovereignty means. Do national governments violate their sovereign responsibilities when they fail to extend minimum rights and protections to their citizens? Do such transgressions provide a basis for intervention by the international community? These deliberations became joined with debates over whether humanitarian organizations were obliged to gain access to nations in order to provide emergency humanitarian aid. It was increasingly clear that the problem of displaced populations involved more than just refugees. Over 20 million people were living in their home countries under refugee-like circumstances. The international community devoted increasing attention to assisting and protecting these internally displaced persons.

Somalia, where anarchy reigned and tens of thousands of people were dying of starvation, epitomized this dilemma. Did the international community not have a responsibility to restore conditions under which the conflict victims could receive relief that would save their lives? As the adverse security situation was the main barrier to life-saving humanitarian relief, the international community decided to stabilize the situation through military force.

Similarly, ethnic conflicts flared up in Yugoslavia, fragmenting the country and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. In the midst of the chaos, the international community, led by UNHCR, mounted humanitarian operations to prevent ethnic cleansing and the mass flight of refugees. The migration issue gathered momentum as one with important, if ill-defined, implications for international security, and of particular domestic sensitivity in many Western states.

At the same time, the end of the Cold War holds out the promise that long-standing regional conflicts can be resolved and that, under the terms of the negotiated peace plans, millions of refugees can return home. The prospect of the return of masses of Namibian, Cambodian, Laotian, Afghan, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Angolan, Mozambican, Ethiopian, Eritrean and other refugees looms as one of the larger challenges. Can these returns take place without disrupting fragile peace agreements and on a totally voluntary basis? Can funds be raised to support repatriation programs that address the rehabilitation and development concerns of the societies to which refugees are returning? Can aid to those returning be coordinated with aid to internally displaced persons and others who have been affected by these longstanding conflicts? How will these events influence the development of durable solutions? Surely in very fundamental ways.


In recent speeches, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, has articulated the concept of "preventive protection" as the right to remain in one's home in safety and dignity, regardless of one's ethnic, national or religious origins. This implies that prevention is the best durable solution. The international community must work harder to remedy the root causes of displacement. Failing this, it must assist and protect people within their own countries. To these points, Ogata adds the following important qualifier: "The notion of prevention ... can only be effective if backed by political action for a peaceful settlement."(12)

Donor states favor "preventive protection" for several reasons. Such an approach strengthens what appears to be a developing international consensus that sovereignty is not unconditional, but it also implies governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens' basic human rights.(13) In this interpretation, the international community can take action when the breakdown of sovereignty leads to the mass exodus of populations and threatens international peace and security. Similarly, when sovereign governments fail to cope with emergencies that threaten the lives of large numbers of people, the international community should have access to deliver emergency relief. The international community has a collective interest in restoring responsible sovereignty.

Donor states also support the concept of preventive protection because such an approach limits the number of people who leave their countries as refugees or asylum-seekers. Furthermore, the possibility that people can be assisted in place appears to be persuading the richer states that they can restrict commitments to political asylum and to third-country resettlement. Haiti is a prime example. Despite campaign declarations that, if elected, he would lift the policy of interdiction and immediate return of Haitian refugees, President Clinton failed to do so. He has, however, mounted a political initiative, directly and through the United Nations, to try to restore constitutional rule in Haiti. Clinton also supported the continuation of in-country screening procedures for Haitians who believed they had a claim to political asylum, as a substitute for allowing them to exercise their right to seek asylum.(14)

Seen optimistically, the concept of preventive protection reflects the international community's desire to address the root causes of involuntary, mass movements of people and to find durable solutions quickly. Viewed more cynically, states' interest in preventive protection may not necessarily show increased commitment to "effective political action," to which Ogata referred. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, humanitarian intervention has been used to help prevent ethnic cleansing and the mass exodus of refugees, but political action to achieve a peace settlement has not been forthcoming. Furthermore, this commitment to addressing humanitarian problems in the countries of origin may simply reflect many states' increased anxiety about rampant international migration.

In the post-Cold War period, many states. have collapsed or are unstable; war and human rights abuses are common. Some of these states are nearer to Western states than was previously the case. There is growing awareness of how small the world has become and how easily people can learn of and avail themselves of policies -- such as those governing political asylum -- that permit them to start life anew in a country that is democratic, respects human rights and provides basic economic opportunities. Today, many countries are concerned not only with the burden that new arrivals will place on their economies, but also with growing ethnic, racial and religious diversity within their borders. Having no profound ideological reason to overlook these concerns, their commitment to uphold and enforce the refugee Convention is eroding.


Third-country resettlement is likely to decline in the post-Cold War era. The United States, the principal country of resettlement, has given preference to refugees of "special humanitarian concern." Proposals to interpret this as people who have especially compelling needs have fallen on deaf ears.(15) Indeed, increasing proportions of those resettled have weak claims to refugee status and have never left their countries; they are not, by definition, refugees. Instead, these individuals are being processed through "orderly departure" or in-country procedures. Even though the number of refugees worldwide has grown to over 18 million, the U.S. resettlement program will probably shrink over the next few years on the grounds that fewer refugees are of special concern to the United States. It is unlikely that any reduction in U.S. refugee resettlement will be compensated by increases in the resettlement programs of other governments, such as Canada and Australia.


How much host countries will use local integration as a durable solution is uncertain. Western European countries, as well as the United States, have already begun to curtail their obligations to migrants seeking asylum or temporary safe haven. There is no reason to believe that developing countries will be any more inclined than they have been in the past to integrate refugees whom they have allowed to enter and remain in their countries on a temporary basis.

There are a few exceptions to this general rule. For example, at the end of a 15-year effort to resettle refugees from Southeast Asia, the countries in the region may integrate the relatively small residual refugee populations that neither can go home nor be resettled in another country. Similarly, as countries resolve longstanding disputes and establish large-scale voluntary repatriation programs, some refugees may be allowed to remain in their countries of asylum or move back and forth between them and their countries of origin. Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, for example, have lived in Sudan for years. Despite constraints, many refugees did manage to find jobs and participate in the Sudanese economy. Now that the causes of flight from Ethiopia and Eritrea have been resolved and some of the political tensions between countries in the region have abated, a more formal regional approach to economic development, including common labor markets, should be considered. The United States government has extended "temporary protected status" to several hundred thousand refugees who came during the civil war in El Salvador; this status is due to expire soon. The United States can extend the temporary status again, repatriate the people or integrate them. Alternatively, it might allow their status to expire but neither legalize the population nor undertake repatriation. In Pakistan, it is unlikely that all Afghan refugees will go back home, and soon international assistance will be terminated. Over time, either by legal action or simply on a de facto basis, some Afghan refugees will be integrated permanently into Pakistani society.

This readiness to integrate residual refugee populations at the end of a crisis does not imply, however, that states are willing to integrate populations while crises are still underway. As donor governments cut back resources for long-term refugee relief programs, relief organizations will come under pressure to find durable solutions.

One approach -- demonstrated by UNHCR's camps along the Kenyan-Somalian border -- is to avoid camp conditions that encourage refugees to remain for extended periods. In Kenya, UNHCR decided to begin the process of voluntary repatriation to Somalia as soon as possible, using Quick Impact Projects inside Somalia to make return easier. We can expect international organizations to undertake more initiatives of this type.(16)


Sadako Ogata, soon after her appointment as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, declared 1992 the Year of Voluntary Repatriation. This declaration signaled that regional disputes deadlocked during the Cold War might now be resolved, and that many refugees might be able to return home. Managing the repatriation of millions of Namibian, Cambodian, Laotian, Afghan, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Angolan, Mozambican, Ethiopian, Eritrean and other refugees is one of the larger challenges.

The political settlement in Namibia and repatriation of Namibian refugees under the peace agreement are encouraging developments. In Central America, discussions about refugee repatriation were intimately connected with peace negotiations in the area. A number of participants at a regional conference on refugees and displaced persons (CIREFCA), held in Guatemala City in May 1989, contended that negotiating peace agreements, resolving the plight of uprooted populations and creating conditions for the reconstruction and development of these war-torn societies were inextricably linked.(17)

The main lesson from the Namibian and Central American experiences -- that the restoration of legitimate government and the rehabilitation of national economies are necessary for repatriation programs to succeed -- was reflected in the United Nations' implementation of the Cambodian peace accord. Under this wide-ranging agreement over 300,000 Cambodians returned after more than a decade in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Nevertheless, elaborate operational plans for their repatriation, developed during the long period of peace negotiations, soon gave way to simpler and more flexible approaches.

While the United Nations informed the Cambodian refugees about the circumstances to which they would be returning, there was little doubt that all but a few would go back or be left to their own devices in Thailand. The long-awaited repatriation program to Mozambique from Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and other countries in the region will push the United Nations' capacity to new limits. Over one million refugees may return;(18) meanwhile, internally displaced Mozambicans must be reintegrated. Furthermore, as in Cambodia, this is part of a peace agreement which contains provisions to establish a new government and reconstruct a country ravaged by years of war.

There is also growing awareness that the mandates and responsibilities of the principal international aid agencies often do not mesh. What the aid package should be, who is responsible for implementing it and where the money will come from often remains unclear. The newly created U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs is charged with providing coordinative assistance, but its record has not been good.(19) Without effective plans for implementing voluntary repatriation programs and restoring responsible government, peace agreements and the viability of the subsequently established governments will be threatened.


The standard practice for repatriation is for the country of asylum, the country of origin and UNHCR to negotiate Tripartite Agreements, which spell out the conditions and modes of repatriation. Typically, such agreements cannot be negotiated while the conditions that caused the refugees to flee persist. While UNHCR supports the principle that individual refugees have a right to return at any time, it is reluctant to support voluntary repatriation programs when conflicts are still in progress.

Recent experience, however, demonstrates that refugees do not always wait for peace agreements before deciding to go home.(20) This appears to be particularly common when the refugees have maintained some sense of community and political organization in the countries of asylum. In 1985, the humanitarian arm of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front organized the repatriation of many Tigrean refugees from Sudan. Initially, UNHCR hesitated to participate in the repatriation process because it was not based on any agreement. Finally, UNHCR agreed to help arrange transport from the refugee camps in Sudan to the Ethiopian border. In the same year, Salvadoran refugees expressed a similar resolve to return from Honduras to their homeland. Again, UNHCR was reluctant to support the repatriation effort, because the civil conflict was still underway and there was no Tripartite Agreement defining the terms of the repatriation. Non-governmental organizations assisted the refugees in returning to El Salvador. UNHCR ultimately helped move the refugees to the border and opened an office in El Salvador from which their return could be monitored. More recently, Guatemalan refugee leaders in Mexico decided that it was time to go home despite continuing civil conflict in their country. UNHCR has agreed both to facilitate negotiations with the Guatemalan authorities to make return as safe as possible and to provide economic assistance to the areas to which the refugees are returning.

UNHCR decided to help Afghan refugees who chose to return even though the conflict in Afghanistan was still underway. Following the regional agreement that led to the Soviet troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan, the international community hoped that many refugees living in Pakistan and Iran would return home. Initially, however, such voluntary repatriation did not proceed on a very large scale. As conflicts continued following the Soviet withdrawal, many refugees decided to stay in their countries of asylum. But without the incentive the Cold War provided for refugee relief programs, particularly in Pakistan, key donor countries made it clear that they would no longer back these efforts on the scale they had in the past. The UNHCR therefore decided to mount a program to help refugees return voluntarily. Unable to monitor circumstances closely once refugees returned to Afghanistan, UNECR nevertheless offered to buy back their refugee ration cards and to help arrange their transportation back to Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans eventually decided to return.(21)

In contrast, UNHCR long opposed repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees in India on the grounds that they did not have sufficient access to guarantee that the refugees' decisions to return were voluntary. Following the Sri Lankan Tamil extremists' assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the Indian government began returning Tamil refugees with the consent of the Sri Lankan government. While opposing this practice and continuing to request access to the Tamil refugee camps in southern India, UNHCR gained New Delhi's agreement to interview Tamil refugees to ensure that they had chosen to return. Negotiations led to a Tripartite Agreement for the refugees' repatriation. Inasmuch as the civil war in Sri Lanka has not ended, Sri Lankan Tamils claim human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government continue, and UNHCR has no access to refugee camps in south India, this repatriation has provoked particular controversy among refugee advocates.

In sum, it is clear that UNHCR, faced with a growing worldwide refugee population and the need to provide protection and assistance in the midst of conflicts, is supporting solution-oriented approaches that recognize the limits of host country tolerance and donor support.


Refugee programs seek to achieve durable solutions. Such solutions not only resolve the cases of individual refugees, but also end the international community's obligation to provide protection and aid, and to share the burdens that states incur in hosting them. Whether and how such solutions are achieved, however, depends almost wholly on the political context in which they are sought. During the Cold War this context made clear what solutions were and were not possible. This is no longer the case, as the Cold War political consensus about foreign policy priorities has evaporated.

What does seem clear is that states are eager to prevent mass exoduses. They are adopting policies and practices designed to restrict access to political asylum procedures. States are also eager to reduce the numbers of people under the care and protection of the international community. Voluntary repatriation programs may provide the only means to do this, as other durable solutions seem unlikely to expand. Peace agreements make such repatriation possible. Donor countries, however, expect that refugees will return to their countries in accordance with the timelines of these agreements. Increasingly, refugees are returning to their countries before all the problems that caused them to flee in the first place have been solved.

Thus, the international community is shifting its focus from what can be done in countries of asylum, to what can be done in countries of origin. The concept of durable solutions assumed that people would make a definitive -- although, it was hoped, temporary -- break with their country of origin by leaving their countries and seeking asylum in another. But what is a durable solution for displaced people who remain in their countries of origin? There are both pros and cons to this shift in orientation. The refugee and humanitarian communities must try to make this shift work in favor of protecting and assisting people who have a well-founded reason for fearing persecution and death.

Being able to undertake humanitarian action on both sides of a border, and to undertake such action before, during and after crises strike, presents previously unavailable options. Ogata is correct in asserting that the key issue is whether the international community has the will to protect human beings from abuses that force them to uproot themselves. She is also correct in stating that sustainable peace and observance of human rights are the real durable solutions. (1.) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, United Nations Treaty Series, 189, no. 2545, 28 July 1951, p. 137. (2.) Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, General Assembly Resolution, 428,14 December 1950. (3.) OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government at its Sixth Ordinary Session (Addis Ababa, 10 September 1969). (4.) Lance Clark and Barry Stein, "Older Refugee Settlements in Africa" (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1985). (5.) UNECR, The State of the World's Refugees: The Challenge of Protection (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). (6.) Dennis Gallagher and Barry Stein, "ICARA II: Burden Sharing and Durable Solutions," Migration Today, 13, no. 1 (August 1985). (7.) Barbara Harrell-Bond, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). (8.) Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, Report on the Status of Contributions to UNHCR Voluntary Funds and the Overall Voluntary Fund Requirements for 1988 and 1989 as of 31 May 1988, A/AC.96/712. (9.) UNHCR Information Sheet, 31 August 1993. (10.) Susan Forbes-Martin, "Emigration, Immigration and Changing East-West Relations," A briefing paper for the North American-European Dialogue on Political Migration (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1989). (11.) Summary of North American-European Dialogue on Politics and Migration Meeting, "The Ramifications of Soviet Emigration" (Prague: 8-10 December 1990). (12.) Statement of the UNHCR in the International Meeting on Humanitarian Aid for Victims of the Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia (Geneva: 29 July 1992) p. 2. (13.) Roberta Cohen, Human Rights Protection for Internally Displaced Persons (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1991). (14.) Iain Guest, Repression in Haiti: A Challenge to Multilateralism (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1993). (15.) Dennis Gallagher et al., Of Special Humanitarian Concern: U.S. Refugee Admissions Since Passage of the Refugee Act (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, September 1985). (16.) Dennis Gallagher and Susan Forbes-Martin, Many Faces of the Somali Crisis: Humanitarian Issues in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, December 1992). (17.) Dennis Gallagher and Janelle Diller, CIREFCA at the Crossroads Between Uprooted People and Development in Central America (Washington, DC: Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development, March 1990). (18.) "UNHCR to Repatriate 1.3 Million Mozambican Refugees," U.N. press release (REF/1018, 10 March 1993). (19.) Jacques Cuenod, Coordinating United Nations Humanitarian Assistance (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, June 1993). (20.) Frederick Cuny, Barry Stein and Pat Reed, eds., Repatriation During Conflict in Africa and Asia (Dallas: The Center for the Study of Societies in Crisis, 1992). (21.) Afghanistan: Trends and Prospects for Refugee Repatriation (Washington DC: Refugee Policy Group, April 1992).
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Title Annotation:Refugees and International Population Flows
Author:Gallagher, Dennis
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:The evolution of UNHCR: Mrs. Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
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