How refugees make or break peace?
When refugees and peace are mentioned in the same sentence, it is often about the threat posed by refugees to peace. Countries exiting situations of conflict are fragile and unstable. We’ve seen this in countless contexts: Iraq, Liberia, East Timor, etc. And in all cases, national governments as well as regional and international key actors care most about rebuilding a country’s resilience.
The return of thousands, hundreds of thousands, in some cases even millions of refugees then is seen as a severe threat to this process. Post-conflict countries have strained resources, destroyed infrastructure, and are heavily dependent on international aid. As they struggle to materially provide their remaining citizens with the necessary for survival, let alone thrive, many countries fear the prospect of returnees.
These material deficiencies also affect the relationship between people. Stayees struggle in their own survival, and the added competition of returnees for scarce resources is not well received. Even for refugees themselves, the lack of perspective in their home countries delays their return, apprehensive of both their future and competition with stayees and other returnees (Parry, 2020).
But the material constraints also affect host countries, who seize the first possible opportunity to push for return, often when international bodies such as UNHCR do not deem it safe yet. This leads to premature deportation into unstable contexts. Historical examples include Tanzania tripling the number of refugee returns to Burundi in 2002 at the earliest signs of peace (Milner, 2009). This decision was also influenced by a divergence of donor flows from supporting refugees to supporting peace-building, a typical pattern.
Currently, forced or soft deportations back to Syria, notably from Turkey and Lebanon, raise this issue again. Host countries’ resources are depleted and the perceived socio-political strains on internal affairs pushes politicians to ‘end’ their refugee crisis. Since its Operation “Olive Branch”, Turkey has steadily increased the number of repatriations from Turkey to Syria, though these are deemed by most external observers as soft deportations (Mencutek, 2019). On October 12th, Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced the beginning of a large scale repatriation programme of Syrian refugees.
And though such decisions further strain national resources and are not a signifier of an end of hostilities, countries of origin often willingly accept them. Returnee numbers are often seen as a barometer of peace-building success (Milner, 2009). As national governments seek to reaffirm their authority and legitimacy, superficial signs of return to normalcy such as refugee return rates are welcome arguments.
But the end of armed conflict does not automatically entail the end of hostilities. Refugees are often the victims of peace processes which leave them out. Consequential frustrations which could lead to armed resistance make refugees the subject of increased securitisation discourses at home. This has been defined by scholars as refugee ‘spoilers’ (Milner, 2009). In many cases refugee camps became operating bases for armed groups, such as mujahideen in Pakistan or Khmer Rouge in Thailand. Reintegrating such refugees, especially if they are part of the ‘losers,’ is a particularly daunting and often unsuccessful task.
However seeing refugees as a threat to peace is a dangerous and politically charged discourse. Refugees are often amongst the most vulnerable populations following armed conflicts, having lost almost all material belongings and most local social ties. Refugees should not be an afterthought to an otherwise successful peace-building effort, but a central component of a comprehensive action plan. In fact, certain case studies have shown that refugees present opportunities to better pursue peace-building.
Materially speaking, refugees do not necessarily only present a burden, or be a cause of unwelcome competition. Correct planning of resource allocation as well as sufficient and intelligent international aid can be provided in ways that benefit both returnees and stayees alike. In Eritrea, regions which would see the largest influx of returnees where identified in advance by the government, UNHCR, and NGOs, and accordingly received more assistance and attention to alleviate the pressure (Kibreab, 2002). These were notably border regions to Sudan, such as Gash Barka. Ultimately, stayees benefited equally, notably from increasing numbers of schools (in Gasha Barka, the number of primary schools went from 50 in 1991 to 119 in 2000) and medical facilities compared to pre-war times. Other services such as water supply, veterinaries, and even credit sources improved substantially for all following the return of refugees.
Returnees also have agency in shaping post-war economies. Again in Gash Barka, returnees actually boosted the local economy instead of hampering it. They created employment and income-generating opportunities, simply through the substantial increase in workforce and financial transactions. Returnees wanted to buy cattle from locals, wanted to become employed in local farms, wanted to be part of a functioning economy and benefited from the new freedoms they couldn’t enjoy in refugee camps. Through their return they repopulated what previously were ghost towns, in regions which were neglected during pre-war years and suffered most during the war. They rehabilitated them through their arrival.
Returnees’ economic agency can even go beyond quantitative benefits, and be qualitative. Especially returnees from protracted situations can return with new skills and vocations, with a new labour outlook. As such, they have the potential to contribute to the human capital necessary for peace-building. Comparative studies among Liberian refugees in Ghana and Guinea has shown the impact of access to education (including higher education) and skills training on returnees (Coffie, 2014). Returnees from Ghana, where access to these services was much easier, were more likely to return and successfully integrate in Liberia. They filled important niches in post-war Liberian society, such as journalists, nurses, or primary school teachers, all skills acquired abroad.
This again highlights the importance of providing refugees with the necessary tools to facilitate their return. Though providing work and education opportunities are often seen by host countries as pull factors, they encourage and facilitate return, as well as augment the chances of a successful peace-building process, thus becoming push factors in the long run. The time spent as refugees is extremely important in shaping and supporting citizens to become future agents of peace, allowing not only to survive but thrive, both in bellum and post bello.
But peace-building is not only about materially rebuilding a nation for peacetime, but also a narrative enterprise, which seeks social peace between previously warring parties. In this regard it must be noted that there are two types of refugee-producing conflicts, inter-state and intra-state. In the case of inter-state conflicts, there is a high probability that upon their return, refugees receive a positive reception by stayees. This is notably due to a shared enemy and mutual respect for the other’s suffering, as was the case in Eritrea as observed by Kibreab (2002). Thus social peace is fairly easily attainable in such cases, though this could be outweighed by material scarcity, if the latter is not addressed correctly.
In cases of civil war, post-conflict social peace is much harder to achieve, as most warring parties still cohabit the same land. It becomes a clash of narratives which must be carefully navigated. There is a plethora of literature on this topic, yet little of that involves refugees’ narratives. And yet it is absolutely essential to include refugee narratives in any meaningful peace effort. Forced migration is one of the most violent acts which occur in war, and refugees’ understanding of what is ‘justice’ can be vastly different from that of stayees or governments. Whereas the ‘Truth & Reconciliation Committee’ (TRC) method is tested and has been successful in the past, most famously in South Africa, it only offers a monolithic and fact based account of individual violations.
In the case of Liberian refugees, studies have shown alternatives that are much more effective in helping reconciliation through understanding injustice. Community-based dialogue groups in the Buduburam settlement seemed to more adequately respond to refugees’ justice and transitional needs (Parry, 2020). This was in part due to them not addressing the what of the conflict but the why, a question of great concern to people who were forcibly displaced. Furthermore, addressing the violence of the war on a systemic but thus anonymous level seemed to facilitate reliving these memories, compared to the case-by-case approach of the TRC.
However it remains highly commendable that the Liberian TRC extended its jurisdiction to refugees as well, as potentially better developing this model, with more information and public hearings, could improve the TRC’s effect as well.
Refugees have been seen for too long as threats to peace-building at worst, or simple barometers for success at best. Comprehensive and holistic attempts at sustainable peace-building must include the needs of returnees from the beginning, seeing them as valuable contributor and not a potential spoiler. Returnees, due to numerous factors, are in fact positive factors in regards to material needs and economic reconstruction. And one cannot claim to have successfully brought a country to peace if one hasn’t addressed peace in the eyes of the refugees. Violence for refugees does not end with the final gunshot, but once they are finally at peace, either abroad or at home. It ends when they are no longer refugees.
Coffie, A. (2014). Filling in the Gap: Refugee Returnees Deploy Higher Education Skills to Peacebuilding. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 33(4), 114–141. https://doi.org/10.1093/rsq/hdu015
Kibreab, G. (2002). When Refugees Come Home: The Relationship Between Stayees and Returnees in Post-Conflict Eritrea. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 20(1), 53–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/02589000120104053
Milner, J. (2009). Refugees and the Regional Dynamics of Peacebuilding. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 28(1), 13–30. https://doi.org/10.1093/rsq/hdp015
Parry, J. (2020). Constructing space for refugee voices in national peacebuilding processes. Peacebuilding, 8(2), 159–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/21647259.2018.1551279
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Maxim is a Master's student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po, Paris. He researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & Sciences Po Internship programme.