Unhcr and Involuntary Repatriation: Environmental Developments, the Repatriation Culture, and the Rohingya Refugees



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This discourse of repatriation, therefore, generates power inequalities between UNHCR and refugees. The central question is: whose voice matters? UNHCR’s discourse of voluntary repatriation combined with its growing authority to assess the human rights and political situation in the refugee-producing country means that it arrogates for itself a privileged position to judge whether the conditions warrant a repatriation exercise. In short, the knowledge claims of UNHCR overshadow the knowledge claims of the refugees. Although UNHCR has attempted to democratize its decision making process by providing linkages between refugees and the agency, such linkages might not have a decisive influence if they are embedded with an organizational culture that privileges the views and understandings of UNHCR officials. Although this culture will not necessarily trammel refugee rights and leave then in harm’s way, the possibility is ever present.




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1Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, “Note on International Protection.” 9 August 1984, p. 7. Many of the subsequent Notes on International Protection reminded states that the concept of “refugee” had expanded considerably from the “classic” concept (note that reference is not made to “statutory”) to include all peoples that flee violence and harm.

2 “Note on International Protection,” 27 August 1990, p. 6.

3 Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, “Note on International Protection.” 31 August 1983, p. 3.

4 See Morris (1990: 46-52) for an insider’s account of the financial and management crisis.

5 Indeed, UNHCR’s interest in keeping its powerful patrons happy, according to some observers, led it to be silent or complicit regarding their violations of international law (Hathaway, 1991: 115; Harrell-Bond, 1989: 45).

6 According to UNHCR’s Erika Feller (1990: 342), governments sometimes tie their willingness to hear UNHCR’s protection de marche to the UNHCR’s willingness to make funds available for refugee assistance.

7 See Warner (1994) on the discourse of “home.”

8 Interviews with UNHCR officials, Washington D.C. and Geneva.

9 Interview with UNHCR official, Geneva, January 24, 2000.

10 While Chimni (1998) notes that UNHCR has relative autonomy because of its role as protector of refugee law and refugees, he quickly negates that observation as he writes that UNHCR serves the interests of the powerful states.

11 Executive Committee of the UNHCR, Conclusion 18 (XXXI, 1980).

12 UN doc. A/AC.96/887 9, September 1997

13 On the conditions for repatriation, see UNHCR, Durable Solutions, Executive Committee, 37th session, A/AC.96/663, July.

14 Interviews with HCR officials, Geneva, January 2000.

15 Stein and Cuny, 1993; cited in Chimni, 1993: 448.

16 For other discussions on the changing meaning of “protection,” see Kennedy (1986), Anonymous (1997), Kourula (1998), and “Working Group on International Refugee Policy (1999).

17 Coles, 1989: 165, and 192-93.

18 See Morris (1997) for an insider’s view of “protection dilemmas.”

19 See, in particular, “Note on International Protection,” 15 July 1986.

20 Interviews with UNHCR officials. Also see Barbero (1993).

21 On prevention, see Chimni (1993: 444) and Frelick (1993). On root causes, see Coles (1989: 203) and Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, “Note on International Protection.” 31 August 1983, p. 2. On “State responsibility” see “Note on International Protection.” 27, August 1990, p. 8.

22 Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. “Annual Theme: The Pursuit and Implementation of Durable Solutions,” 30 August 1996, p. 2. A/AC.96/872.

23 “UNHCR’s Protection Role in Countries of Origin,” 18 March 1996, EC/46/SC/CRP.17, p. 1.

24 Interview with UNHCR official, January 28, 2000.

25 “Note on International Protection.” 9, September 1991, p. 10.

26 “Note on International Protection,” 31 August 1993, p. 10.

27 Interview with Irene Khan, UNHCR, Geneva, January 26, 2000.

28 UNHCR “Note on International Protection,” 15 July 1986, p. 3.

29 “Beyond Humanitarianism: The Need for Political Will to Resolve Today’s Refugee Problem." Inaugural Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture, Refugee Studies Programme, QEH, Oxford, 29 October 1986. Cited in Harrell-Bond, 1989. A remarkable statement, Harrell-Bond (1989) notes, for UNHCR is suggesting that the weakest members of society knowingly return to the very conditions that precipitated their flight and to countries that have no welfare systems

30 UN doc. A/AC.96/799 (1992), paras. 38, 39.

31 UN doc. A/AC.96/887 9, September 1997.

32“Once the solution of voluntary repatriation is presented as the humane solution, it generates undue pressure to pursue it even when it is relatively inappropriate; an idealized image of the ultimate solution legitimizes a degree of coercion since it is perceived as a solution which the refugees should themselves desire most” (Chimni, 1991: 453).

33 UN doc. A/AC.96/815 (1993). Cited in Zieck, 1997:89.

34 See Stein (1986), Zieck (1997: 434), Cuny and Stein (1989: 306) Goodwin-Gill (1989: 274); Crisp (1984), Ruiz (1987), and Human Rights Watch (1997: 5-12).

35Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, “Annual Theme: Repatriation Challenges,”9 September 1997, A/AC.96/887, p. 2.

36 Geneva, January 27, 2000.

37 This background draws from many sources, though largely from HRW (1996).

38 See Reid (1994).

39 There were five mass exoduses between 1942 and the contemporary period.

40 Bangladesh has forcibly repatriated refugees on several occasions, using a variety of tactics including coercion, cutting rations, and imprisonment. Human Rights Watch Report, 1996: 14.

41 For the general maltreatment at the hands of camp officials, see Asia Watch, 1993.

42 Neither Bangladesh nor Burma are signatories of the refugee convention or protocal, which meant that UNHCR probably had a more difficult time using normative arguments than would otherwise be the case.

th For discussion of forced labor and UNHCR’s blindspots in Burma, see Australian Council for Overseas Aid, 1996.

43 This figure was consistent with a similar survey conducted in April. Dhaka officials were hardly overjoyed by the news, and on April 25 told UNHCR that it would not be renewing the MOU that was due to expire on May 12, but would be extending the agreement for an additional month. There was growing pressure on UNHCR. USCR 1995: 6.

44 Refugees International filed a series of reports that those returning to Burma were sending back messages to refugees not to return, that they had not been contacted by UNHCR officials inside Myanmar, and that repression continues. They also report coercion. “Some families who dared to say “no” at the UNHCR interview in the transit camp were sent back to their original camp where, under the eyes of UNHCR staff, they were deprived of food and water and forced to stand on one leg and beaten until they fell repeatedly.” Refugees now mistrust UNHCR, fearing that they are little better than the local governments. Yvette Pierpaoli, Refugees International, June 6, 1994.

45 In an internal and confidential review of the Arakan situation, UNHCR concluded that “monitoring would be delicate as complaisance could compromise our credibility with zealous orthodoxy, could spoil UNHCR’s chances of remaining involved in Arakan.” Cited from HRW, 1996: 21.

46 However, one UNHCR official interviewed estimated that about 50% of all those repatriated were forced. USCR, 1995: 6.

47 Also see the supporting evidence by USCR, 1995.

48 See MSF/Holland, May 1, 1995, and March 15, 1995 Referring to this survey, one field officer doubted that the refugees adequately understood what was being asked of them (though the same could be said about UNHCR’s original survey).

49 Cited in HRW, 1996: 16. UNHCR responded to a USCR site visit report that was critical of the agency’s repatriation activities in the following way: “In the absence of a better alternative....[UNHCR] decided to become actively involved in the repatriation in order to ensure its voluntary character in the country of asylum and...that the repatriates can safely return to their respective villages. Whilst not denying that this voluntary repatriation program, unique in its many facets, remains a challenge to UNHCR, our presence has made a difference on a number of issues....and a general improvement of the living conditions in the area.” Cited from USCR 1996: 10; my italics. Also see HRW, 1996: 16.

50 However, the repatriation exercises in 1992-3 and 1996 did occur under physical duress.

51 Interview with UNHCR protection officer, January 28, 2000, Geneva.

52 Here it is important to note that before becoming the High Commissioner, Ogata was the Human Right Commissions’ special rapporteur on Burma, and thus was more willing to view herself as the expert and believe that she had a special relationship with the Burmese authorities. This might also help to explain the rumored clash between Ogata and the International Labor Organization because in the latter’s view forced labor was a human rights violation and in her view it was a “cultural tradition.”

53 Petrasek (1999: 6) identifies a slightly larger number of UNHCR in Burma, roughly 40 local staff, the majority of whom are in Arakan.

54 This relates to whether UNHCR is becoming involved in a strategy of “containment.” See Mertus (1998: 340), Barutciski (1996), and Shacknove (1993).

55 This pragmatic approach, argues Petrasek (1999), can be defended on one of two grounds. The first is that there is evidence that this policy does improve the situation for the Rohingyan. According to Petrasek, however, there is no evidence. The second is that this position did not compromise what UNHCR consistently noted was its primary mission: to safeguard refugee rights, to preserve their right to flee persecution, and to defend the principle of nonrefoulement.

56 Geneva, January 28, 2000.

57 This interesting observation is made by Chimni (1998: 364), Bascom (1994), and Rogge (1994).
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