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“The Changing Nature of ‘Solutions’ to Refugee Situations” Refugee Law Initiative- 13th Annual Seminar Series (2022-23)

This annual series of in-person talks and Q&A, followed by drinks and discussion, the seminars (except in March) take place at IALS, Charles Clore House, 17 Russell Sq, London WC1B 5DR.

“Is Voluntary Repatriation Still the Preferred Durable Solution – and If So, Preferred by Whom?”

Katie Tong – Independent Humanitarian Consultant

Increasingly protracted crises have made it difficult for many refugees to envision repatriation as a feasible or desirable option. In this ever more complex environment, voluntary repatriation and reintegration support require a level of adaptiveness to context which UNHCR’s set approaches do not readily provide. As a result, facilitated returns have become the default model for UNHCR’s repatriation operations, whilst promoted returns are rarely used now. At the same time, significant obstacles to local integration in countries of asylum mean that voluntariness from a refugee perspective appears merely as a set of imperfect options in an environment of constrained choice. In this regard, the tension between UNHCR’s role in repatriation as part of a political process of transition and its protection objective of ensuring that refugee returns are voluntary, safe and dignified hampers an operational understanding of voluntariness that fully captures the complexity of choices made by returnees and the constraints that come to bear on these decisions.

Long-term reintegration support to repatriating refugees also presents significant challenges, which UNHCR has been slow to address. Although success in reintegration is widely understood to be at the core of voluntary returns as a durable solution, UNHCR programme practice and resource allocation continue to favour repatriation support over reintegration programming. However, there is evidence that system-wide cooperation in reintegration programming produces better results when based on mixed approaches that cover both returned refugees and internally displaced persons as well as host communities. Conversely, a more narrow status-based approach to reintegration may hamper broad-based cooperation and constrain the value added to joint interventions by each participant. As such, opportunities to improve the sustainability of returns – necessarily the primary goal of voluntary repatriation – lie primarily in better and more broad-based partnerships and coordination across mixed caseloads of returnees.

This presentation draws on an evaluation of UNHCR’s repatriation programmes and activities in six countries across the period 2015–2021, on which the speaker was lead author.

Katie Tong has worked as a consultant since 2014, after 12 years working with different NGOs in both humanitarian response and international development, with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender-based violence. She has undertaken a number of consultancies for organisation including Plan International, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNHCR and WFP.