Magazine Article - Foreign Policy

Sending Refugees Back Makes the World More Dangerous

  • Stephanie Schwartz
| Nov. 27, 2019

The oft-repeated refrain that the world is witnessing an unprecedented refugee crisis is both misleading and dangerous. While the number of refugees worldwide has nearly doubled in the past decade, if there is a crisis today, it is one of refugee return. Despite the fact that non-refoulement—the prohibition against sending asylum-seekers back to a country where their life or liberty is endangered—is considered one of the strongest norms in international law, governments across the world are going to great lengths to send refugees back. Some, such as the United States, are blatantly flouting non-refoulement with plans to send Central American asylum-seekers directly back into the violence they are fleeing.

One of the primary goals of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invasion of Syria in October was to capture territory where he could then send the millions of Syrians currently seeking refuge on Turkish soil. Other countries, such as Germany and Lebanon, have taken more subtle approaches, offering payments to refugees who opt to go back to Syria, or simply making life for refugees so miserable that many feel they have no alternative but to return.

Given how far countries are going to coerce refugees to return, one could easily be mistaken that sending refugees back to their countries of origin is the key to solving the problem of mass displacement. Indeed, voluntary repatriation is one of the United Nations-endorsed “three durable solutions” to refugee situations, and protecting that right to voluntary return is essential. Refugee repatriation today, however, is seldom voluntary or durable.

In sending refugees back to Syria, for example, not only would Erdogan be putting refugees back in harm’s way, but the process of refugee repatriation itself could also create new sources of conflict. In fact, hostility between people who stay home during a civil war and those who leave and later return is common in many post-conflict societies. It has occurred in Iraq, El Salvador, and other countries.

Take the case of Iraq. Between 2008 and 2009, the Iraqi government actively encouraged internally displaced people and refugees to return home. But many of these returnees faced a violent backlash in their home communities and were forced to flee again. And the deportation of Salvadorans living in the United States back to El Salvador in the 1990s led to the creation of the transnational gangs from whom thousands of people are fleeing today. Understanding why this happens is crucial for policymakers who want to find real solutions for refugees.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Stephanie Schwartz, “Sending Refugees Back Makes the World More Dangerous,” Foreign Policy, November 27, 2019.

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