As the world focuses on the debates surrounding US President Trump’s foreign policy, especially the recently introduced travel ban, little attention has been paid to what it means in practical terms for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are forced to return home. Can, for example, Iraqi refugees and IDPs safely return to their homes in Nineveh Plains?
A widespread, and often erroneous, perception is that refugees and IDPs want to move to other countries and resettle. But it is important to remember that refugees and IDPs are often forced from their homes, have to leave all of their belongings, and travel to a foreign land where they will likely encounter an unfamiliar culture and language. Many would prefer to be back in their homes.
The circumstances that force refugees and IDPs to flee may change; occupied zones may become liberated. In such cases, refugees and IDPs have a so-called ‘right to return’, namely, a right to go back to their countries and their homes. This right is protected under international law, for example under Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This right is sometimes also protected under domestic law, for example in the Iraqi Constitution under Article 44(2). However, the existence of this right does not mean that in practice it is easily achieved. It takes time, money, and effort for liberated areas to be safe for refugees and IDPs to return. According to a report by Aid to the Church in Need (a Pontifical Foundation of the Catholic Church), in nine Nineveh Plains towns over 12,000 houses were vandalised by Daesh. The cost of rebuilding the towns is in excess of $200 million.
Recent news reporting suggests that few IDPs and refugees are returning home. This is not only because of their hometowns being destroyed. Security concerns remain an issue that has not been adequately addressed. In response to this failing, NGOs continue to call upon international institutions to establish safe zones in Nineveh Plains. Establishing such safe zones is not without difficulty. As history has shown, the environment in safe zones may contribute to post-conflict community oppression. For example, while the ‘safe zones’ established in Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994 or Sri Lanka in 2009 provided humanitarian assistance, they failed to protect people from further abuse.
Establishing an autonomous administration, as in the case of Kurdistan in Iraq, may provide for a more sustainable and long-lasting solution. However, the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan was not easy. The peace accord that granted the Kurdish autonomy in 1970 was followed by violent clashes and years of debate surrounding the autonomy arrangements. In October 1991, Kurdistan gained de facto autonomy after Iraqi forces left the region and the Kurdish government was established in 1992. Instability in the region continued in subsequent years. Nonetheless, as Kurdistan withstood the Daesh invasion in 2014, this option would need to be scrutinised, as it proved to be a more secure option than safe zones.
The inclination of states to exclude refugees is increasingly visible. However, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Over 21 million of them are refugees and 10 million stateless people. In 2015, only 107,100 of them were resettled. In 2015 in Iraq, the number of people of concern was at over 4.7 million, with over 4.4 million IDPs and over 270,000 refugees (mostly from Syria). The remaining millions are still in limbo without being able to resettle and move on with their lives.
While it is difficult to pressure states to accept more refugees, there are positive steps that can be taken by states to respond to the current challenges. This response should include efforts to protect refugees and IDPs on return to their homes. As the cases of safe zones and the Kurdistan autonomous region show, there are no easy solutions. But the guarantee of a right to return means nothing if returnees are left unprotected on returning to their region.