The Plight of Refugees: Deporting Refugees from Safe Countries

Refugees are typically faced with stark choices: flee their country of residence and live in political and economic limbo in a transitional country or refugee camp, or perhaps find security a future in a country that enables resettlement.

As I write in my book, Population Geography: Tools and Issues,

Once refugees are outside their home country, the international community is faced with three broad alternatives in assisting the refugee population, including voluntary repatriation, settlement in the  country of first asylum, or resettlement in a third country. Of these, voluntary return to the home country is the ideal solution, particularly for the refugee. It is perhaps also the most difficult of the three alternatives, since a minimum requirement for return is the resolution of the problem that created the refugee flow in the first place. Additional material and financial support for the refugees may also be needed until they can reestablish their livelihoods after their return. Voluntary repatriations are difficult, with the return of Afghanis following the overthrow of the Taliban government being heavily dependent on assistance from nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, donations and support from other nations, and the continued presence of security forces.

But what happens when refugees are told to return home, despite on-going threats to their security, safety and livelihoods, and despite having a life in their country of settlement? An Op-Ed article published in the New York Times (see below) presents the case of a well-settled Afghan refugee living in Stuttgart Germany for some 6 years. Fleeing the violence of his home country, he travelled the now well-worn path that so many refugees from Afghanistan have taken in order to reach Germany. Once in Stuttgart, he found a job, learned German, and planned for a future. That was, of course, until he was ordered to leave the country.

Although the number of individuals deported from Germany and elsewhere in Europe is relatively small, their deportation raises a number of issues and questions. First, Germany has been widely recognized for its acceptance of over one million refugees in 2015. But, many European governments are actively trying to discourage migration, and the forced removal of some is much less recognized. Second, the deportation blurs the distinction between an economic refugee – which the UN Convention does not recognize, and legitimate refugees that are fleeing violence and persecution in their home country. Who decides on the label, and ultimately the implications of that label? Third, part of the pretext for returning individuals is that there are ‘safe spaces’ in Afghanistan. Such a claim is largely hollow: At best, they exist because of extraordinary security measures on the part of NATO or the Afghan government. At worst, control of space easily and quickly shifts between government and the Taliban, such that space that is ‘safe’ one day is not the next. Recent suicide bombings in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan, point to the on-going security threats in an area that is supposed to be highly secured. Fourth, the op-ed also points to a different and problematic angle – the commodification of refugees, with the Afghan government receiving money from the European Union as refugees are deported. Refugees are now cash incentives for their sending governments.

Further Reading:

Emran Ferozjune, Forced Home to a War Zone. The New York Times, 7 June 2017.

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