Note on Voluntary Repatriation
International Protection (SCIP), 27 August 1980
NOTE ON VOLUNTARY REPATRIATION (Submitted by the High Commissioner)
1. Voluntary repatriation, whenever feasible, is of course the most desirable solution to refugee problems. If refugees in complete freedom express the wish to return to their country of origin, it is essential that everything possible should be done to assist them in this regard. The facilitation of voluntary repatriation is one of the basic functions of UNHCR and indeed in recent years this aspect of the work of the Office has assumed increasing importance.
2. From the time when the United Nations began to concern itself with the refugee problem, emphasis has been placed on the importance of voluntary repatriation as a solution. Thus in a Resolution on the Question of Refugees adopted on 12 February 19461, the General Assembly stated that the main task concerning displaced persons was to encourage and assist in every way possible their return to their country of origin. At the same time, the General Assembly laid down the basic principle that repatriation must always be voluntary:
"No refugees or displaced persons who have finally and definitely, in complete freedom, and after receiving full knowledge of the facts, including adequate information from the governments of their countries of origin, expressed valid objections ... shall be compelled to return to their country of origin."
3. The essential need for repatriation to be voluntary is, indeed, the counterpart of the fundamental and generally accepted principle non-refoulement, according to which no person may be returned against his will to a territory where he has reason to fear persecution. Efforts to ensure that repatriation is voluntary, both in the case of individual repatriation and in regard to large-scale repatriation operations, constitute an important aspect of the Office's work in the field.
4. Voluntary repatriation is mentioned in the Statute of the high Commissioner's Office as one of the principal solutions to refugee problems. Moreover, in Resolution 428(V) of 14 December 1950 – to which the Statute is annexed – the General Assembly specifically called upon Governments to co-operate with the High Commissioner in the performance of his functions, inter alia, by "assisting the High Commissioner in his efforts to promote the voluntary repatriation of refugees." The importance of voluntary repatriation has also been repeatedly stressed in various General Assembly resolutions adopted subsequent to the UNHCR Statute. The Office has also been called upon by the General Assembly to carry out various functions in connection with large-scale repatriation operations which have resulted in an expansion of its original terms of reference, more particularly as regards the provision of assistance to countries of origin to facilitate the re-integration of returning refugees.
5. While on the universal level, the question of voluntary repatriation is dealt with in General Assembly resolution and the UNHCR Statute, on the regional level in Africa, it is the subject of more concrete and detailed legal provisions. The OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (Article V) in addition to affirming the voluntary character of repatriation, calls upon countries of asylum, in collaboration with countries of origin, to make adequate arrangements for the safe return of refugees who request repatriation. The Convention, moreover, calls upon countries of origin, on receiving back refugees, to facilitate their resettlement and to grant them the full rights and privileges of nationals of the country and subject them to the same obligations. It is further provided that refugees who voluntarily return to their country shall in no way be penalized for having left it for any of the reasons giving rise to refugee situations. The question of voluntary repatriation was also considered by the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa which met in Arusha (United Republic of Tanzania) in May 1979. The Conference adopted a number of detailed recommendations on the matter which were subsequently endorsed by the Assembly of Heads of State and Governments of the OAU. The text of Article V of the OAU Refugee Convention will be found at annex to the present Note, and the relevant recommendations of the Arusha Conference endorsed by the OAU Heads of Sate and Government are to be found in document A/AC.95/INF.158.
6. It is proposed in the following paragraphs to examine (a) the development of the Office's action in regard to voluntary repatriation; (b) some of the specific questions which arise when seeking to facilitate voluntary repatriation and (c) on the basic of this examination, to arrive at some conclusions aimed at strengthening the institution of voluntary repatriation and assisting in the solution of problems which may arise.
Development of the Office's action in regard to voluntary repatriation
7. The early activity of the Office in regard to voluntary repatriation was aimed at the return of individuals or of small groups of refugees. This activity was principally concerned with resolving various technical problems connected with the actual return of the refugee to his country of origin, viz. obtaining entry permission from the authorities of that country, ensuring that repatriating refugees were provided with the necessary travel documents and transit visas and, if necessary, covering the transport costs. While the Office continues to provide such assistance with regard to the repatriation of individuals or small groups of refugees, it has been increasingly called upon to engage in more far-reaching activities in the case of large-scale repatriation operations. Where a large-scale return of refugees is foreseen, the absence in the country of origin of the necessary facilities for the reception and reintegration of substantial numbers of returning refugees may constitute a major incentive to repatriation. The idea has thus emerged that UNHCR should concern itself with the availability of adequate reception arrangements in the country of origin and in certain cases even with the implementation of assistance projects for the reintegration of returning refugees. This extension of the Office's functions in regard to voluntary repatriation derives from a series of General Assembly resolutions adopted subsequent to the Statute.
8. The first occasion on which UNHCR was required to assist in large-scale repatriation operations and to consider the possibility of facilitating the resettlement to their homeland was in 1962 with the mass return of Algerian refugees from Morocco and Tunisia.2 Subsequently, in 1972, UNHCR was requested by the General Assembly to render the maximum possible assistance to the Government of the Sudan in the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of Sudanese refugees coming from abroad.3 Thereafter, successive resolutions of the General Assembly have given UNHCR a general competence to assist in the rehabilitation of returning refugees when this may be necessary to secure the effective implementation of large-scale repatriation operations.4
9. In the last decade, UNHCR has been involved in a number of repatriation operations of significant size involving both the return and the reintegration of returning refugees.
10. In Africa, where voluntary repatriation has proved a particularly important solution for refugee problems, the Office was instrumental in facilitating the return of many thousands of refugees to Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique following the attainment of independence by these countries. The Office also co-operated with the authorities of Zaire in regard to the return of some 150,000 Zairians pursuant to an amnesty declared by a presidential announcement in June 1978. Furthermore, the Office is currently undertaking a large-scale programme for the repatriation and rehabilitation of Uganda refugees and is also co-operating with the Government of Ethiopia in the return of a number of Ethiopian refugees from neighbouring countries and assisting in their rehabilitation. In the most recent example of large-scale repatriation in Africa, UNHCR was involved in an operation for the return of some 200,000 Zimbabweans to their home country. UNHCR was appointed co-ordinator of this repatriation programme and thereafter at the request of the newly-independent Government of Zimbabwe has been entrusted with the task of co-ordinating for a certain period a United Nations programme for the rehabilitation of returning refugees and displaced persons within Zimbabwe.
11. In Asia, the Office co-operated with the Governments concerned in arranging for the repatriation to Burma of some 200,000 refugees returning from Bangladesh and in assisting with their reintegration in the country of origin. The Office is currently in contact with the authorities of the Lao People's Democratic Republic with regard to the creation of conditions which might encourage the further return of refugees and displaced persons from that country presently in Thailand.
12. In Latin America, the Office participated in a programme for the large-scale repatriation to and reintegration in Nicaragua of some 80,000 Nicaraguan refugees.
Specific questions which arise when seeking to facilitate voluntary repatriation
(a) Ensuring that refugees are informed about conditions in their country of origin
13. The decision of refugees to repatriate may of course be greatly facilitated by the availability of adequate information on the situation prevailing in their country of origin. The Office thereafter welcomes arrangements whereby such information can be made available to refugees. The importance of encouraging voluntary repatriation through the provision of the necessary information to refugees is expressly recognized in the OAU Refugee Convention. Thus Article V, paragraph 4, provides specifically that " ... whenever necessary, an appeal shall be made through national information media and through the Administrative Secretary-General of the OAU, inviting refugees to return home and giving assurance that the new circumstances prevailing in their country of origin will enable them to return without risk and to take up a normal and peaceful life without fear of being disturbed or punished, and that the text of such appeal should be given to refugees and clearly explained to them by their country of asylum."
14. Mention should also be made of the consideration given to the question of dissemination of information regarding conditions in countries of origin by the Arusha Conference in 1979. In stressing the importance of voluntary repatriation as a solution to refugee problems, the Conference recommended5 that appeals for repatriation and related guarantees given by countries of origin should be made known by every possible means to refugees and displaced persons.
15. In order to ensure that refugees are adequately informed, it may also be an advantage if refugees or representatives of refugee groups are enabled to visit their country of origin with a view to gaining a first-hand impression of conditions there which may indeed be favourable to voluntary repatriation. Experience has shown that visits of this kind may certainly be instrumental in bringing about voluntary repatriation. While such visits are therefore to be encouraged, they must, of course, take place with the agreement of the authorities of both countries of asylum and of origin.
(b) Safety of repatriating refugees on their return and the related question of amnesties
16. Experience has shown that refugees may be reluctant to repatriate due to the fear that reprisals or other punitive measures may be taken against them on their return to their country of origin. This was the subject of a specific provision of the OAU Refugee Convention according to which "Refugees who voluntarily return to their country shall in no way be penalized for having left it for any of the reasons giving rise to refugee situations." (Article V, paragraph 4)
17. The concern of refugees for their personal safety in the event of repatriation may be met by the granting of amnesties or the provision of formal assurances by the authorities of the countries concerned. Such amnesties or assurances may therefore be a positive factor in promoting voluntary repatriation. Several such amnesties have been issued in recent years, in different parts of the world, and have formed an essential element in the various large-scale repatriation operations with which UNHCR has been concerned.
18. The observance of the terms of an amnesty is, of course, important not only for the returning refugee but also to ensure that the amnesty fulfils the function of generally encouraging voluntary repatriation. It may be mentioned here that in one specific situation UNHCR, in co-operation with the OAU, was given a specific role by a Government to ensure that the returning refugees were treated in accordance with the terms of the amnesty.
19. The question of the observance of the terms of amnesties or of similar assurances was also the subject of a recommendation6 of the 1979 Arusha Conference, in which the Conference invited the OAU "to make a declaration to the effect that granting of amnesty should be held sacrosanct and inviolate". In this recommendation, the Conference also called upon all African Governments:
"To consider making official public declarations of amnesty to their respective nationals currently in exile, so as to encourage their voluntary repatriation. Guarantees for safe return and machinery to supervise such guarantees to be considered and worked out both by the countries of origin and the countries of asylum in co-operation with the OAU, the refugee-serving agencies and the refugees concerned or their representatives."
20. It sometimes happens that the Office is requested by refugees to provide guarantees as to their safety upon their return to the country of origin. It will be appreciated that UNHCR is not able to give such a guarantee, which can only be provided by the State to which the refugee wishes to repatriate.
(c) Establishing the voluntary character of repatriation
21. As indicated earlier, the need for repatriation to be voluntary is an essential requirement. Refugees should always have the opportunity to express in complete freedom their wish to return home. In certain situations it may be in the interest of the refugee and the Governments concerned to establish special arrangements, for example, providing for the presence of representatives of the two interested countries and a neutral observer. UNHCR has indeed frequently acted in the latter capacity.
22. Where individual or small groups of refugees are concerned, the voluntary nature of repatriation can normally be established without any difficulty, e.g. by speaking to the refugees personally and asking them to sign a repatriation form. In the case of large-scale repatriation movements, on the other hand, it may be difficult or even impossible to establish the voluntary character of the repatriation on all individual basis and it may be necessary to work out special arrangements involving, for example, the presence of independent observers at established assembly centres and/or crossing points.
(d) Readiness of Governments to re-accept refugees wishing to repatriate
23. For voluntary repatriation to take place, it is of course essential that the Government of the country of origin should be ready to agree to the return of refugees and to assist them in practical ways to do so. While in the majority of cases this question will not give rise to any particular difficulty, it may in certain circumstances prove difficult for Governments to re-admit their nationals, particularly because of problems of an economic and social nature which may militate against the immediate and simultaneous return of a substantial number of persons. This, for example, may be the case with regard to countries which have recently attained independence and are still confronted with serious economic problems. Situations of this kind may call for appropriate action on the part of the international community, through or in co-operation with UNHCR, in order to assist these Governments to provide adequate reception and reintegration facilities for returning refugees.
UNHCR action in facilitating voluntary repatriation
24. There are of course many cases in which refugees return home spontaneously and without any involvement of UNHCR. Frequently, however, a number of difficulties may have to be overcome before repatriating can actually take place.
25. As far as individual refugees are concerned, it may be necessary to obtain travel documents, transit visas, entry permits, etc. The travel costs may have to be covered or even the actual travel to be arranged. In certain cases, it may also be necessary to approach the authorities of the home country with a view to obtaining their agreement to the refugee's return.
26. In the case of large-scale operations, the action which needs to be undertaken assumes a variety of forms. Agreement to the operation and arrangements for its implementation needs to be negotiated with the refugee's home country and with his country of present residence. In certain situations, e.g., where diplomatic relations do not exist between the Governments concerned, UNHCR, through its good offices, may play an active role in the conclusion of such arrangements. These arrangements normally include the transfer of repatriating refugees to agreed assembly points or centres and the establishment of crossing points at the border. As already indicated above, it will also be necessary to work out appropriate procedures for ensuring that the repatriation is voluntary.
27. On the receiving side, the screening of the returnees by the authorities of the home country and the actual movement of returnees to their homes may have to be organized, especially in countries where transportation presents considerable difficulties. In special situations where the returnees may have to walk long distances, special stop-over points will have to be created and interim care and maintenance will have to be ensured. Special projects for the rehabilitation and reintegration of refugees may have to be envisaged involving the provision of homes, health assistance, agricultural equipment and seeds. Such projects may be necessary in order to avoid situations in which repatriating refugees find themselves in a precarious situation. The General Assembly has repeatedly stressed the importance of such measures and has called upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, other United Nations bodies, and non-governmental organizations to assist Governments for this purpose.
28. From the various considerations mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, the following conclusions may be drawn:
(a) Voluntary repatriation, whenever feasible is the most desirable solution for refugee problems. When, therefore, refugees express the wish to repatriate, the Government of the home country as well as other Governments concerned should, in co-operation with UNHCR, do everything possible to assist them to do so.
(b) The essentially voluntary character of repatriation should always be respected. This may call for appropriate arrangements for establishing the voluntary character of repatriation, both for individual refugees and in the case of large-scale repatriation movements.
(c) Voluntary repatriation may be facilitated by appropriate measures to ensure that refugees are fully informed of the situation in their countries of origin. Visits of individual refugees or refugee representatives to inform themselves on the situation in their home country may also be of assistance in this regard.
(d) Voluntary repatriation may also be facilitated by the provision of formal guarantees for the safety of returning refugees and/or the promulgation of amnesties by the countries of origin. It is desirable that appropriate steps be taken to ensure that the text of such guarantees or amnesties are brought to the notice of the refugees.
(e) Where refugees have expressed the wish to repatriate, it is desirable that they be provided with the necessary travel documents, visas, entry permits and transportation facilities.
(f) It may also be necessary to envisage appropriate arrangements to facilitate the reintegration of returning refugees into the society of their country of origin. Such arrangements may be of particular importance in the case of large-scale repatriation movements.
ANNEX – OAU CONVENTION GOVERNING THE SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF REFUGEE PROBLEMS IN AFRICA
ARTICLE V VOLUNTARY REPATRIATION
1. The essentially voluntary character of repatriation shall be respected in all cases and no refugee shall be repatriated against his will.
2. The country of asylum, in collaboration with the country of origin, shall make adequate arrangements for the safe return of refugees who request repatriation.
3. The country of origin, on receiving back refugees, shall facilitate their resettlement and grant them the full rights and privileges of nationals of the country, and subject then to the same obligations.
4. Refugees who voluntarily return to their country shall in no way be penalized for having left it for any of the reasons giving rise to refugee situations. Whenever necessary, an appeal shall be made through national information media and through the Administrative Secretary-General of the OAU, inviting refugees to return home and giving assurance that the new circumstances prevailing in their country of origin will enable them to return without risk and to take up a normal and peaceful life without fear of being disturbed or punished, and that the text of such appeal should be given to refugees and clearly explained to them by their country of asylum.
5. Refugees who freely decide to return to their homeland, as a result of such assurances or on their own initiative, shall be given every possible assistance by the country of asylum, the country of origin, voluntary agencies and international and intergovernmental organizations, to facilitate their return.
1 Resolution 8 (I)
2 Resolution 1672 (XVI) of 18 December 1961.
3 Resolution 2958 (XXVII).
4 e.g. Resolutions 3143 (XXVIII), 3271 (XXIX), 3454 (XXX), 31/35 and 32/67.
5 A/AC.96/INF.158, paragraph 3.
6 ibid., paragraphs 7 and 8.