Midyear Update: Returning Refugees Pressure Grows in a Pivotal Year

New Humanitarian

The pressure remains high on millions of vulnerable people to return to dangerous homelands, with 2019 showing itself to be a pivotal year for the four largest refugee crises: Syrians, Afghans, South Sudanese, and Myanmar’s Rohingya account for around half the world’s registered refugees, not to mention millions more internally displaced people.
What’s new:
More and more Syrian refugees are heading home, in some cases under pressure from host governments, but given how widely the figures vary, we can’t be sure exactly how many: While the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was able to verify 21,000 returns from January through early April, Turkey said in late May that 329,000 people had returned to Afrin alone since the country’s forces took control of the Syrian-Kurdish enclave last year.
Afghans continue to face pressure to return on multiple fronts. The UN recorded more than 220,000 returns this year from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan; UN agencies are planning for at least 680,000 by the end of 2019. The threat of deportation has eased in Pakistan but heightened in Iran, the source of the vast majority of recent returnees. In Europe, Afghan asylum seekers are increasingly seeing their claims rejected, and thousands each year are returned.
The UN’s envoy for South Sudan has said that half a million refugees and displaced people have gone home since last year’s fragile peace deal, and in Bangladesh nearly one million Rohingya refugees are still in limbo. The cramped refugee settlements have the population of a city, but Rohingya can’t attend formal schooling or legally work. Bangladesh has not announced new repatriation plans following two aborted attempts last year, but the government says the Rohingya must one day return home.
Why we’re watching:
Even as some Syrians come back from internal displacement or exile, more than 330,000 people have just fled a government assault in the rebel-held northwest. Some returning refugees have reportedly met with arrest and interrogation, and others have found their homes destroyed and difficulty making a living.
Afghans are coming home to a country wracked by war and disaster. Civilian deaths from conflict are at a 10-year high, 132,000 people are newly displaced by fighting this year, and drought and floods have displaced even more.
Not all south Sudanese are interested in going home: some have said that they are concerned about interrupting their children’s education.
In Myanmar, UN investigators say the government has done little to ensure that Rohingya will be safe should they choose to return. At the same time, conflicts new and old continue to trap civilians while humanitarian access shrinks: the UN says 30,000 civilians have been displaced this year in Rakhine State as the military clashes with the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group.
Keep in mind:
Kenya is set to begin closing the Dadaab refugee camp, home to 211,000 mainly Somali refugees, at the end of August. The government flagged its intention to shutter the camp in 2016, claiming – without evidence – that it was a terrorist training ground. It has already stopped the registration of new arrivals, and current residents will be relocated to other camps in Kenya or encouraged to return to war-torn Somalia In an effort to continue monitoring refugees’ intentions and aspirations vis-à-vis return and in turn inform interagency operational planning, between November 2018 and January 2019, UNHCR conducted its fith Refugee Perception and Intention Survey (RPIS) in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Due to the operational context, Turkey did not take part in this RPIS exercise.
In line with the results from the previous surveys, the fidings show that voluntary repatriation in safety and with dignity remains the preferred durable solution for Syrian refugees, with the majority continuing to express their hope to return one day. Survey results indicate that as a regional average, 75 per cent of Syrian refugees in the four countries where the survey was conducted are hopeful to return to Syria one day. However, only a minority, 5.9 per cent, intend to return in the next 12 months.
It is noteworthy that while the fidings of the RPIS report represent an aggregation of regional fidings, individual countries may have specifi variations. For instance, those hoping to return to Syria one day reaches as high as 86 per cent in Lebanon and those planning to return within the next 12 months was only 2.1 per cent in Iraq.
Further, when asked about the key drivers inflencing their decision-making on return, respondents mentioned security, access to basic services and shelter, military exemptions, and the need for job opportunities. These were essentially the top factors among all refugees surveyed regardless of their current return intentions. Importantly, these factors also indicate the areas where obstacles will need to be removed in order for refugees’ intentions to change.
Also, 51 per cent of those undecided about their return plans reported that “go-and-see” visits are an “important” element in order to make a fial decision.
Finally, a number of refugees reported not having suffient information on their area of origin, including in relation to security, military exemptions and access to services and property, before returning. Therefore, ensuring safe, unhindered and regular humanitarian access inside Syria will not only enable provision of assistance, but is also essential in order to present reliable, objective and timely information to refugees so they can make informed decisions on their future.
While the number of those who are undecided about return is decreasing, the percentage of Syrian refugees with no hope to return remains relatively steady. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain a comprehensive protection and solutions strategy.
Such a strategy seeks to:
1) support host country resilience; 2) enable refugee self-reliance; 3) expand access to resettlement and other safe pathways to a third country, and; 4) plan for and support voluntary, safe, and dignifid return of refugees to Syria.
Resettlement needs for Syrian refugees continue to far outpace the places provided by resettlement countries. 2019 has unfortunately – so far – illustrated a continuation of this trend. The decrease in resettlement places for Syrian refugees began in 2017, which saw a drastic reduction of quotas available for Syrians. The main cause of this decrease was a global drop in the number of resettlement places available, but also a shifting of resettlement opportunities to other (global) priority situations.
As a result, only 28,046 Syrian refugees were submitted for resettlement from the region in 2018.
This fiure is signifiantly lower than previous years and a 63 per cent reduction from the all-time high of 76,693 submissions in 2016. While some States’ individual quotas are still to be confimed, the outlook for 2019 forecasts a continued downward trend. Moreover, given that resettlement needs of Syrian refugees are currently projected at over 600,000 persons, refugees are now remaining in countries of asylum for longer, compounding their needs and resulting in increased pressure on assistance programmes and vital services. Despite the sharp decrease in available resettlement places, and as was reiterated in the co-chairs declaration of the Brussels III Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region,” it remains vital that resettlement is pursued and available as a durable solution – with efforts presently being made to expand the number of resettlement countries and continued advocacy for
placements in existing resettlement countries.

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