Science - May 18, 2006

‘Give refugees more say on repatriation’

Millions of people worldwide are on the run from war. Western governments regard camps in nearby regions and repatriation to place of origin as long-term solutions. Behind this façade, however, lies above all the wish to limit the number of asylum seekers in the west. But according to Dr Jan Gerrit van Uffelen, formal repatriation programmes have a number of serious drawbacks and put people in life-threatening situations.

At present there are about six million people in Sudan who have left their homes as a result of war and conflict. One million fled the war in South Sudan and have gone to Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt and Congo. Three million are in camps near the capital Khartoum, and in the province of Darfur there are another two million displaced people.

Van Uffelen tells about the Uduk, a South Sudanese group that fled to Ethiopia at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. The UN refugee organisation started repatriating 4500 of them in April this year. To discover the wishes of the refugees, the UNHCR held a simple survey asking the question ‘Do you want to return home?’ Many refugees answered yes. Van Uffelen: ‘The question is far too simple, and one which is usually answered emotionally. People long for freedom, the right to a dignified existence, to return home. But if you pursued the matter further, you would find that refugees know very well when they want to return and under what conditions.’ But they were not asked these questions.

‘The danger of these formal repatriation programmes,’ says Van Uffelen, ‘Is that they are often at odds with the return strategies and initiatives of the people themselves.’ On their arrival home, the Uduk refugees receive enough food for a number of months, a piece of plastic to use as shelter, some seed to sow and a few simple tools to work the land. But the Uduk repatriation programme did not take the rainy season into account. The refugees are due to arrive around now, and at the end of this month the rains will start. That leaves too little time to prepare the fields. This season they will have no harvest and will have to wait until September 2007. That means they do not have enough food aid either, so the returning Uduk face the prospect of months of hardship and hunger.

Mistakes
‘Such unbelievable mistakes have been made,’ says Van Uffelen, who worked for years as a humanitarian relief worker in Asia and the Horn of Africa. And this is not the only example of failed aid programmes that he knows. He saw the same happen in Cambodia, where people were placed in dangerous situations that resulted in unnecessary numbers of dead and wounded. Van Uffelen started to wonder why refugees and internally displaced persons themselves are not listened to better.

The underlying reason, he thinks, is that the UN relief organisations regard the refugees as hopeless and passive receivers of help, instead of rational people who assess the possibilities for return and know what is going on in their places of origin. People have a right to a rational return-decision, says Van Uffelen, in which they can decide themselves when they return and under what conditions. To throw light on the rational considerations refugees make, Van Uffelen developed a model. He made a statistically valid model rather than a qualitative study, to avoid being dismissed by the UN as an anthropologist with political motives.

The most important factor turns out to be the personal wishes of refugees concerning their return. The opinions of friends and family, emergency aid organisations, and politico-military organisations are also taken into account in their considerations. The extent of control that the refugees can exercise over the decision to return and the process of return itself was also an influential factor. Van Uffelen also added the estimates the refugees make of how vulnerable they are likely to be if they return home. Estimates concerning risks and ability to deal with them were very detailed. ‘The research showed that there is a large discrepancy between the risks weighed up by the refugees in their decision to return and the risk-assessment of the UN, which is used as the basis for the formal programmes. The latter is far more positive about return.’

Own initiative
The majority of refugees and internally displaced persons return to the areas they fled from on their own initiative. Study of the return of the Dinka Ngok people, who fled from the war in South Sudan and stayed in refugee camps near Khartoum, shows that it is a process that takes years. Important leaders and a number of men return first to start on reconstruction of the villages. As more food is grown and safety improves, women and children start to return to help in the process of reconstruction. Formal repatriation programmes do not take this phased type of return into account, instead repatriating whole families, including small children and elderly people. In the case of the Dinka Ngok, it emerged that this intervention undermined the spontaneous process of return and reconstruction instead of supporting it.

The policy makers of the repatriation programmes in Geneva and New York would do better to listen the refugees themselves.

Joris Tielens

Dr Jan Gerrit van Uffelen received his PhD on 9 May. His promotor was Professor Georg Frerks, chair of Disaster Studies.

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