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Bwog » When Return Isn’t Easy: Discussing Refugee Repatriation

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When Return Isn’t Easy: Discussing Refugee Repatriation

Bwoggers Eliza Staples and Charlotte Slovin attended a lecture .by Stephanie Schwartz about the challenges facing Burundian refugees returning home

On Thursday afternoon, Stephanie Schwartz delivered a presentation called “Refugee Return and Alternative Solutions”. Schwartz received her Ph.D. in political science from Columbia and is now a professor at the University of Southern California, where she teaches political science and at the International Affairs Policy School. Her publications include Foreign Policy, Slate, and International Security.

She was invited to campus by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Jack Snyder, a member of the FAculty Advisory Board for the ISHR, introduced Schwartz and further explained the role of the ISHR. He underscored the variety of constituencies that the ISHR works with, from supporting those doing cutting-edge research, like Schwartz, to students in the MA program at the School for International and Public Affairs, to Law School students interested in the practical applications of studying human rights. For Snyder and the rest of the ISHR, scholarship and practice of human rights go hand in hand as ways to understand and improve the world.

First, she critiqued the idea of referring to the current situation of migration worldwide as “unprecedented” or a “crisis”. Comparatively speaking, 10% of the global population was displaced after World War II, as opposed to the less than 1% that is displaced today. Schwartz, however, did not underplay the current situation. One of the most well-followed human rights norms is “non-refoulement”: the prohibition of states to send asylum seekers back to their country of origin when they would be at great risk in that country. This norm means that those who are fleeing dangerous situations can be granted safety in a host country. However, non-refoulement holds only when asylum seekers and refugees are labeled as such. Increasingly, host countries label asylum seekers as economic migrants

Schwartz went on to describe how the three global “durable solutions” that are currently used to resolve displacement– third party, integration, and repatriation– are severely mismatched with current displacement trends.  Less than 1% of displaced people are able to resettle in a non-neighboring state, host states are reluctant to guarantee permanent status to large groups of asylees, and there is empirically more conflict after mass-repatriation.

This third challenge is the focus of Schwartz’s research.  She explores what happens to refugees when they return to their country of origin, and why conflict seems to be the most likely outcome.  Through her research on the Burundi-Tanzania border, Schwartz has found that cultural conflict gets compounded with new cleavages between those who stayed and those who left during the unrest.

Schwartz’s research methods were mainly ethnographic, speaking with locals on both sides of the Burundi-Tanzania border and in refugee camps.  When she asked locals to draw pre- and post-war “community maps,” Schwartz found that the overwhelming divide between locals went from culturally-based division to division based on returnees versus residents.  Schwartz’s data reveals that this division has manifested into violent conflict, with statistically higher assault and murder rates in areas that had recently experienced massive refugee return. Additionally, there were legal conflicts within families over land: land inheritance is patrilineal in Burundi, and returnees who attempted to claim their portion of inheritance were often met with backlash from their family members.

Schwartz then addressed some of the challenges of field research. She mentioned the delicacy required to conduct research on vulnerable populations such as refugees. To avoid retraumatizing those she interviewed, she avoided asking direct questions about their experiences with violence and instead asked them to describe their community, and what issues it might face. Many people would mention the resident/returnee conflict, and Schwartz would document their stories, stressing that she let her interviewees guide the conversation and stopping whenever they felt uncomfortable.

In light of her research findings, Schwartz suggested several policy changes. In terms of short term relief, she stated that there should be distance between refugee camps and areas of conflict, and those running the camps should listen more to their refugees’ concerns. Schwartz cited instances where individuals came to camps and killed family members over land disputes.

Before repatriation even occurs, host countries should allow refugees access to legal pathways that permit them to live in the host country for the medium term. This would include temporary, renewable 1-year residencies that would allow refugees access to healthcare and education, meaning refugees could live and work in the host countries, and escape the legal limbo they would otherwise find themselves in.

If refugees decide to repatriate, the governments of their home-countries must create safe environments for these returnees and anticipate how both formal and informal institutions may exacerbate conflicts.

Additionally, governments and administrations must take a more nuanced view of the reasons why one might become a refugee. Currently, religious persecution, facing high rates of violence, and natural disasters might all play a role in determining one’s refugee status, yet are not qualifiers under the laws of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

Event image via ISHR

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