The end of the Cold War opened the way for the possible repatriation of millions of refugees. It also presented the international community with a new challenge: to ensure that refugee repatriation be a safe, constructive process that enables returnees (refugees who have repatriated) to rebuild their lives while contributing to peace and stability in their home countries.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata Proclaimed the 1990s as the “decade of repatriation.” Just three years into the decade, most officially recognized South African, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, and Cambodian refugees have repatriated, as have many Eritreans, Ethiopians, Burundis, and Sri Lankans. The repatriation of one of the world’s largest refugee population is well underway: more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees returned home in 1992. Guatemalan refugees began their collective return in January 1993, and there is some potential for Mozambicans, the world’s third largest refugee group, to repatriate in the foreseeable future.
However, the single largest refugee population, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees, Palestinians are the largest refugee population in the world. One in four refugees worldwide is Palestinian. More than fifty years after their displacement and expulsion, Palestinian refugees continue to demand implementation of their right of return. Israel refuses to allow refugees to return to their homes and lands, which have been confiscated under legislation that aims to maintain Israel as an exclusive Jewish state with Palestinian refugee property held in perpetuity by the Jewish people.
While the international community has affirmed the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and considers repatriation as the favored option for durable solutions to refugee flows, international efforts to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue have focused on resettlement outside of Israel, an option rejected by Palestinian refugees.
In such cases, the international community should use careful but forceful diplomacy, reminding the government of its commitments and responsibilities under domestic and international law.
If the country is poor, perhaps severely overcrowded, its own people in desperate need, and its environment being decimated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the situation is complicated. Although the international community may be picking up much of the tab for the refugees’ care and maintenance, the host government may argue that the cost-financial, political, and otherwise-to the country and its people is far higher than others recognize.
However, this argument does not hold for the return of Palestinian refugees. Over 80% of Palestinian refugees live within 100 km of their place of origin inside historic Palestine. In some cases, as in Jerusalem or inside Israel with internally displaced persons, Palestinian refugees live within walking distance of their original homes and lands but are not permitted to return. While Israel continues to oppose the return of Palestinian refugees in order to maintain a Jewish state, based on a Jewish demographic majority and a system of legalized privileges for Jewish citizens of the state, the return of Palestinian refugees is practical if examined in the light of the relative spatial distribution of Jews and Palestinians in Israel.
According to research done by Salman Abu Sitta, 68% of the Jewish population of Israel resides in 8 regions in the center of the country and around Haifa, with a surface area of 1,683 sq. km. This area (A) is almost identical in its surface area and its location to the area and location of Jewish-owned lands in 1948. In other words, the settlement habits of Jews in Israel have not change substantially during the past fifty years.
An additional ten percent of the Jewish population resides in 5 districts adjacent to Area (A) with a surface area of 1,318 sq. km. This area (B) is almost equal to the area of the lands of Palestinians who remained in the new state of Israel in 1948, even though they are not necessarily residing in the same place in this area. Seventy-eight percent of the Jewish population of Israel thus resides in Areas (A) and (B), with a surface area of fifteen percent of Israel.
The remaining twenty-two percent of the Jewish population reside in Area (C) with a surface area of 17,325 sq. km. This area is equal, in its surface area and location, to the area and location of Palestinian refugee lands. Of this twenty-two percent, nineteen percent reside in several cities and the remaining three percent reside in the countryside. In other words, some 160,000 Jews reside on land that is the property of millions of Palestinian refugees, many of who are packed into camps only a few kilometers away on the other side of the border of the state of Israel.
Governments of refugees’ countries of origin must also work to resolve the situation that caused the refugees to flee, or that prevents them from repatriating; and the international community must encourage, facilitate, and ultimately press those concerned to work towards that end.
While the international community is not able to dictate a solution to the root cause of a refugee group’s flight, there is much it can do to help bring one about. If there is conflict in the refugees’ home country, it can seek to mediate. If a government is persecuting a minority group or the citizenry at large, it can be condemned–privately, publicly, and in international fora such as the UN Human Rights Commission, Security Council, and General Assembly. If condemnation has little effect, it can be targeted with sanctions, formal or informal.
If a government refusal to guarantee the safety of returning refugees, or to allow international monitoring in the areas of return (as is the case with Palestinian refugees) prevents refugees from going home, the international community should pressure it to modify that position. Such actions by a government prolong the international community’s responsibility for the refugees, and also cost it money. What is required to make any of these actions effective is the political will to carry them out.
The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).