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No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation

Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan

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July, 2011
Cloth, 360 pages, 5 line drawings, 1 table
ISBN: 978-0-231-15336-2
$45.00 / £30.95

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The book coheres around the theme of “return home,” whether regarded as legitimate or illegitimate, realistic or unrealistic, when those seeking to return are refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled or were forced to flee ethnic conflict. The notion of return focuses on return to a place memorialized as home. We concentrate on ethnic minority return in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to ensure a wide spectrum of cases that include Jews and Palestinians, Kurds and Chaldeans, Sudanese and Somalis, Vietnamese and Rohingas, Kosovars and Bosniacs.

Majority and minority repatriation indicate numerical relations in the specific region under discussion. Palestinians were a majority in Palestine before 1948 and remain a majority outside the state of Israel in Gaza and the Occupied Territories, but are a minority inside Israel. Palestinian return to Israel (part of historic Palestine) would be a minority return. Kosovars are a majority in Kosovo, but a minority in Serbia. When the Kosovars refugees returned at the end of the war, this was a majority return to an area controlled by NATO and dominated by Kosovars. Various groups in Southern Sudan are local majorities, but nationally are minorities. The list is long. Empirically, ethnic repatriation succeeds when refugees return to areas where they are a majority or have force behind them if they are a minority.

Over the last century there may have been two hundred million people displaced from their homes, regions, and countries as a result of political violence. This book focuses on those among the displaced who were uprooted because of their identity—ethnic, national, and religious. Many millions belong in this category, but not all. The common characteristic of the groups discussed is their status as a minority in the country or region to which they desire to repatriate. This desire has been reinforced by the predominant policy developed over the last two decades that privileges repatriation in preference to either local integration in the host or first country of asylum or resettlement in a third country in various situations and different refugee crises.

The argument we advance is fairly simple. There is a widespread popular belief that displaced refugees and IDPs have the right to be repatriated. We examine this claim empirically. We conclude that the displaced are divided into two categories: majority and minority refugees. The case studies we examine deal only with minority refugees. Majority refugees often repatriate as a matter of politics, not rights, usually following a political change. As a matter of historical record, most minority displaced never return except as a result of power politics, not rights, whether or not we consider this outcome to be right or just.

The rhetorical insistence on rights that have never been implemented is detrimental to refugees and locks them in purgatory. They cannot resettle because they are supposed to be repatriated; they cannot repatriate because they are a minority. This predicament will be explored throughout the book. Whether repatriation of the displaced should or should not be a priority is an important conversation; it should be conducted recognizing political patterns and realities on which we focus. Our concern is those who populate the twilight zone of implausible rights that exist primarily as rites.

No Return, No Refuge focuses on the conventional association of return and repatriation with rights and evokes the association to rites. We are acutely aware that words can be equivocal and can be read differently in competing contexts. We examine the juxtaposition of rites and rights in the context in which they emerged, historically developed and in the current contentious political context where words are adopted and utilized to advance a future agenda. The equivocal and historical layers of language are not shells to be discarded in the pursuit of scientific univocal meanings but are themselves sources of insight.

It is one thing for a refugee to want to return. It is another for a refugee group to base that desire to return on rights, especially in the face of resistance to return and the record that only recourse to force will bring about that return. Ironically, the rhetoric of rights seems to signal either that violence is not a viable option or a prelude to resorting to violence. The more rights are advocated in the face of demonstrable nonperformance and no adoption of force, the more they turn into rites.

Rites are preformed. Rights of return are advocated, by two different constituencies. The first includes international advocates on behalf of refugees who believe that return is the only just solution to the plight of the displaced. The second includes refugees who demand repatriation as a right when a certain combination of the following four conditions are in place: (1) no alternative to return seems readily available; (2) the powers in place in the area from which they fled are opposed to return; (3) the refugees and their leaders are determined to return using force to displace those in power preventing return; (4) the refugee leadership recognizes that calls for universal justice can be a critical ally of the use of force to bring about return. Refugees demanding return forge an alliance with cosmopolitans who advocate on their behalf.

Rights are advocated by refugees to justify the use of force or, more often, when force is recognized as insufficient to bring about return and the assistance of the international human rights community is needed. If the implausibility of return becomes apparent, advocacy turns into ritual and rights gradually metamorphose into rites. Among refugees, only some groups integrate return as a ritualistic mantra: Jews, Palestinians, and Sudeten Germans, to name some famous ones. However, many do not. Among international advocates on behalf of refugees, the mantra of return may be repeated by some indifferent to either feasibility or the wishes of the refugees themselves. The latter discrepancy became most evident in the case of the former Yugoslavia, which we discuss in chapter 4. The association of return and rights and then rights and rites is not a necessary byproduct of expulsion or flight by minorities. However, when return is advocated on the basis of rights, rights become a mantra and turn into rites in inverse proportion to the political feasibility of return.

Rites can be turned back into a practical program of political action when circumstances change and return once again becomes feasible. This is the attraction of a rite. It offers a way to park a desire that cannot be exercised in reality. A right becomes fully a rite when return is accepted as an unrequited form of love. A rite reverts to politics when the feasibility of its exercise once again enters the horizon of possibilities. Then rites become functional. In exceptional cases, return may even be implemented. However, by and large, rites, until they are purified of possibility and placed on a mantle, that is, until they are recognized as symbolic of national identity, are counterproductive, often the embodiment of an aspiration for a possible world, not a world that is or can be realized in the foreseeable future. In the international realm, rites and rights do not cohere.

We discuss the return of refugees and IDPs in the context of international covenants, agreements, and practices. At the heart of the exploration of return lies the fate of the Palestinian refugees, a “core” issue of the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Return assumed messianic dimensions for both peoples as we discuss in chapters 7 and 8. We attempt to enter empathetically into the hearts and minds of both Palestinians and Jews to understand the spectrum of views members of each polity express about the rhetoric of return and how it has evolved in meaning over the life of the conflict. We try to present the historical spectrum of the representations of the right of return as a guiding principle of various political agendas associated with its adoption, mutation, or proposed abandonment. Neither “the Jews” nor “the Palestinians” present a single national perspective.

Before we reach that point, however, we establish our groundwork by surveying policies and practices around the world over the twentieth century. After we describe in more detail the historic and geographic approach in the introductory first chapter, chapter 2 traces the disintegration of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian empires early in the twentieth century during which the established norm of population transfers was not only legitimate and prudent, but also presumed to have represented the perspective of the refugees. Refugees were better off, it was reasoned, since they would not be subject to future clashes and violence. Viewed as a bitter pill, population transfer caused many deaths. But the long-term outcome, it was argued, favored the refugees. One does not have to agree with the judgment in the twenty-first century to recognize that this was the prevailing view in the first half of the twentieth century. The situation, however, was further aggravated by the failure of minorities’ protection and the viciousness of World War II. Needless to say, there were no cases of minority repatriation that took place in that period.

Chapter 3 follows the population expulsions in the immediate post–World War II years and underscores the coexistence of ethnic cleansing and population transfer together with an emerging public commitment to human rights. Though the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was not used until the 1990s, it refers to situations in which the dominant majority stimulates or forces an unwanted minority to flee in order to establish the majority control over a geographical area, often as a means of establishing sovereign rights over the territory. The effort to reverse ethnic cleansing is referred to as “minority return,” which also became a common phrase in the aftermath of the 1990s Balkan crisis to refer to the effort to return a population that had been expelled to a territory now controlled by another ethnic group where the returning population would be a minority even if it once might have been a majority before the forced displacement.

The practice of ethnic cleansing, though not the language, took place after World War II at the same time as rights were emerging as foundational norms and when the conflict among competing political, civil, and social rights, between individual and group rights, and between justice based on rights versus peace faced their first serious tests. The results were not pretty. In both Europe and India, millions were expelled in the name of national sovereignty and homogeneity. Expulsions were supported by the international community, by democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. This predicament of the leaders who could, at one and the same time, support both cleansing and rights engages our attention as the background to the rest of the chapter which describes the growing edifice of formal, legal, and rhetorical protection for refugees and human rights more generally as Europe lived through a long, peaceful period.

During and after the Cold War, refugee crises largely occurred in Asia and Africa, the subjects of chapters 5 and 6, respectively. But before exploring these regions, chapter 4 describes the situation in the former Yugoslavia, specifically Bosnia and Kosovo. The long durée of peace was suddenly upturned by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Violence broke out with the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Following the war and the peace agreement (the Dayton Accords), there emerged a public commitment of leaders in the West to repatriation and reversing ethnic cleansing. The perfect opportunity for the repatriation of refugees seemed to exist. The West backed the process with troops and money. The High Representative was charged with transitioning the country back to political normalcy and, among other powers, could fire noncooperative officials who resisted repatriation.

A great deal of effort and capital was invested in the enterprise. Indeed, many see Bosnia as a successful case of minority repatriation; more than half of the two million refugees returned. We believe this perception of successful minority repatriation is wrong. Most returnees to their original homes belonged to ethnic majorities. Minorities moved to where their ethnic group was the majority or stayed abroad. There was some return to “mixed” cities and of older people, but the numbers were relatively small. The shortcoming of minority repatriation in Bosnia offers a strong case suggesting why minority repatriation should not be considered a preferred solution in situations of ethnic conflict.

Chapter 5 reviews five cases in Asia. The first, in the late 1980s, was the repatriation of Vietnamese nationals after the previous decade of very successful resettlement of the Indochinese refugees. The repatriation included only Vietnamese, not ethnic Chinese. Further, return was largely involuntary; the Vietnamese were simply reclassified as illegal immigrants rather than refugees. On the other hand, the return only took place when Vietnam made a commitment, which it kept, not to send the returnees to reeducation camps or otherwise penalize them. In the second case, that of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, Bhutan refused to allow their return after the government rescinded their citizenship. In response, after a long protracted period, the international community finally agreed to resettle the bulk of the refugees. In Burma, there were several separate failed repatriations. In the first, the government agreed to repatriate the Rohingas not once but twice. The first repatriation led to widespread abuse of the refugees; other Rohingas refused to follow. Of the repatriated, many fled again. The next effort to repatriate them was a nonstarter. Among the Keren refugees in Thailand along the border with Burma, when return under the banner of military victory receded as a possibility, a new program was recently launched to resettle those refugees while possibly integrating some into Thailand. East Timor offers a fourth case; successful repatriation only followed the withdrawal of Indonesia but at the cost of producing new refugees who fled to Indonesia. Another internal displacement resulted from the riots in 2006 as a result of internal ethnic divisions. Sri Lanka offers a case of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled the battle between the government in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers, which the government eventually won. Refugees are being resettled in patterns dictated more by security than by repatriation.

Chapter 6 begins with a brief discussion of recent displacement in Kenya and then takes up five cases in Africa—Southern Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea/Ethiopia, and Darfur. As an example, in Rwanda, the Tutsi minority that was driven out or fled in the early 1960s and their descendents did return, but only through the victory of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army. Then a new group that belonged to the majority Hutu population fled, most of whom returned when a military force freed them from the control of the previous genocidal military regime that controlled the refugee camps. Those with blood on their hands continued to avoid repatriation if they could, creating a source of instability in the DRC. The internal displacement in the DRC is widespread and complex. A process of repatriating refugees and IDPs within the framework of a peace agreement is underway, but it is one in which every group is a minority.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, there have been no attempts or efforts to allow the return of those forced or “encouraged” to leave in either direction. In Southern Sudan, most of the refugees returned home because the peace agreement terms gave the rebels control and even eventually the option of autonomy or independence. They are minority returns in the context of the whole of Sudan but majority returns in the regional context of Southern Sudan. Yet even in that case, conflicts between different ethnic groups in the south have inhibited return. In Darfur, we find a very different story of internal ethnic cleansing, an effort to transfer water rights from the African agricultural tribes to the nomadic Arab tribes, a shift unlikely to be significantly reversed in spite of the relative intense international attention, the presence of large numbers of humanitarian workers at times, a relatively large peacekeeping force, and the indictment of President Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

In addition to the Jews, who occupy an iconic place in the history of the twentieth century, whose “return” to Zion we discuss in chapter 7, the most prominent and protracted refugee crisis is that of the Palestinians, which we discuss in chapter 8. At the core of several conflicts between Israel and Arab states, and part of the wider one between Islam and the West, the conflict that has lasted over sixty years and began even earlier embodies the multiple predicaments and tensions between rights and rites, between conflicting demands for national self-determination, and between national goals and individual well-being. The suffering of the Palestinian refugees is the heart of this book. Showing the diverse and historically contingent Palestinian positions on repatriation is a necessary step to turn it from a messianic idea (as it appeared in Camp David in 2000) into a political debate.

The Jewish claims for repatriation did not stop with the achievement of self-determination but metastasized into occupation and settlements under the rhetorical cover of return and the umbrella of force. From the Palestinian perspective, for historical reasons, although the question of refugee return emerged rhetorically at the heart of the conflict, this position is now widely understood among the mainstream Palestinian leadership to be unproductive to Palestinian interests and especially to the refugees themselves. The rite of return, however, assumed the mythological force that made its contestation unthinkable both for many Israelis and most Palestinians. In the last few years, and we believe increasingly, there is a growing recognition and legitimation of creative solutions to transform the rite of the right of return to the homes from which they were uprooted into a right of return to an independent Palestinian state. This involves the cooperation of Israel, which has to disabuse itself of some of its own sacred rites in ways that have also become self-evident to many Israelis.

Many minorities do not envision either self-determination or autonomy, nor are strong enough to formulate their demands in terms of repatriation. When minority refugees are left in limbo over time, however, and focus on repatriation, rites replace failed rights. There are exceptions, such as when a minority, the Tutsi, was able to return through the use of force. The Palestinians once believed, and some still do believe, they can still return through the use of force. Most focus on rites because of the failure of force as well as the unsuccessful efforts to bring about self-determination.

The lack of viable solutions leads to rites. This was most pronounced among Jews with the birth of Zionism. However, the availability of a state or, alternatively, resettlement shifts the attention of refugees from repatriation to rebuilding life. Not all failed repatriation turns into rites. Indeed, most do not once a political solution is found. There are exceptions, however. The Sudeten Germans provide an example where rites remained critical despite successful resettlement. The balance between self-determination and refugeehood, as well as the feasibility of self-determination, provides only a partial explanation for evolving rites.

In these historical chapters, we do not examine a large number of other cases—the over half a million in Zimbabwe, the three-quarters of a million in Côte d’Ivoire, and an estimated three million plus in Colombia produced by the civil and narcotic wars. When China launched its major gorges dam project, several million Chinese were forcefully displaced by this development project. Ethnic or national violence is not the only catalyst of internal forced displacement. Other IDPs result from natural disasters, such as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (26 December) or Hurricane Katrina in the United States on 28 August 2005. However, we restrict our concern to refugees and IDPs who are minorities and who are uprooted as a result of violence.

In chapter 9 we analyze the right of return in its philosophical context. For here we turn from the empirical and historical to questions of justice and rights. We take up the issue of whether minority return should still be advocated in spite of the negative results in the past. In that examination, we clearly differentiate the objections to ethnic cleansing from the efforts to reverse the ethnic separation of populations. The examination begins with an analysis of Arendt’s views of the state and the nature of membership in that state. We compare the emergence of the prevalent doctrine prohibiting forced repatriation against the advocacy of the right to return rooted in references to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that specifically provides for return, resettlement, and reintegration in article 12(1), with a basic right of free movement to choose a place of residence. Guiding Principle 28(1) calls on states to provide the means and establish the conditions for IDPs to exercise those rights so that IDPs can return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes and places of habitual residence or can resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. In that discussion, we explore different foundations for rights and differentiate between moral affirmation and rights embodied in international law. We then revisit the possibility of return being at least an aspirational right.

The final chapter explores the place of rights within the context of the recent refugee crises, Iraq and Georgia. We contextualize the desire to return in lessons drawn from history about clinging to nostalgic attachments. We argue that political failure reinforces escapist dreams. Nostalgia mediates the refugee’s desire for security and improved life conditions compared with the harsh realities of current existence. The ideology and commitment to return conveys the notion of repatriation as a distant, impractical solution in the face of real desperation. The devastation of the political struggle and political resentment, combined with distrust of local, national, and global conditions, subvert any sustainable material and political improvement. Instead, refugees are left to embrace a dream that repatriation will cut the Gordian knot, enable return to the fantasized past, and offer salvation from the jaws of despair. They deserve better.

Throughout the book we try to demonstrate through the diversity of cases from one region of the world to another that in cases of interethnic conflict and minorities—the most common form of violence that currently produces refugees—not only is return not the preferred solution for these minorities (except in the abstract ideology), but attempted return is unlikely to resolve the problem. In instances where the refugees resulted from ethnic conflict and a solution is found in terms of return, it is result of force and not a right of return. This is the challenge that faces the international community: resolving refugee suffering in the short term rather than hiding behind eschatological promises. The problem of the return of refugees has to be contextualized in terms of the various types of individuals who are forcefully displaced, the different types of refugee situations, the options for resolving their status as displaced persons, and the method and approach adopted in dealing with the problem.


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About the Author

Howard Adelman has been a research professor at Griffith University, a visiting professor at Princeton University, and a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, where he was founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies and editor of Refuge.

Elazar Barkan is professor of international and public affairs and director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. He is author of The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices and editor of Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation.

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