Voluntary repatriation' and the case of Afghanistan: A critical examination

from Refugee Studies Centre
Published on 31 Jan 2008

Starting in 2002, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has facilitated one of the largest and most rapidly organised voluntary repatriation movements of refugees in modern history (1) (UNHCR 2006a: 144). To date, UNHCR estimates to have assisted 3.7 million Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan, 2.9 million from Pakistan, 800,000 from Iran, and 14,000 from non-neighbouring states (UNHCR 2007: 3). During the first month of this operation (March 2002) alone, 130,000 Afghans returned with UNHCR assistance and in April this number nearly doubled (Lumpp et al. 2004: 150). 'Within another month, the volume of the return movement had reached unprecedented and unexpected levels with a peak of over 377,000 returning Afghans in May 2002' (ibid.). This trend and pace of return continued throughout 2002, resulting in the repatriation of over two million Afghan refugees from the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan that year. In the following years, repatriation continued at a slower pace with figures passing the half-million mark each year (UNHCR 2006a: 144).

UNHCR and the international community were highly satisfied, even enthusiastic about the sheer numbers of Afghans opting to return. UNHCR referred to the large numbers as 'triumphs' (UNHCR 2005: 5) and to the repatriation programme as a 'remarkable operation' which provided for a 'solution to what had seemed an intractable refugee situation' (UNHCR 2006a: 144). The case of voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan began to represent successful reconstruction, development and political progress within Afghanistan and its region.

However, a few months into the repatriation programme, increasing ambiguity set in regarding the reality of this 'success story' in the field. Given Afghanistan's history of more than 25 years of war and violence, the country was characterised by extreme levels of insecurity as well as economic, political and social instability. As a result, many refugees who returned to Afghanistan found it difficult to survive in their home areas and were having to consider returning to the country of asylum or becoming internally displaced (Turton and Marsden 2002: 5).

Therefore, given the prevailing UNHCR rhetoric of voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan as a 'success story' on the one hand and the often highly unsatisfactory reality of return on the other hand, questions of agency emerge within the practice of voluntary repatriation: Would refugees voluntarily decide to return to such poor conditions? To what extent and in which ways are refugees involved as stakeholders in these processes, especially in the case of Afghanistan? Who ultimately decides about voluntary repatriation, refugees or other actors?

In this paper I will examine the dimensions of choice and agency for refugees in 'voluntary repatriation' in the case of Afghanistan. Specifically focusing on the voluntary aspect of 'voluntary' repatriation, I will explore its validity, meaning and practice in relation to legal and political dynamics. This analysis will provide the foundation for a wider discussion of voluntariness in the context of repatriation to Afghanistan.

In the first part of this paper, I seek to place the concept of voluntary repatriation within a legal and normative framework in order to show its comparatively weak foundation in international law. I will argue that this weakness allows for a highly indeterminate and elusive interpretation of standards of voluntary repatriation within UNHCR practice. The importance placed upon voluntariness as an essential requirement for voluntary repatriation has in fact steadily declined over time.

In the second part of this paper, I discuss the geopolitical framework within which voluntary repatriation became the preferred durable solution to the 'global refugee crisis' from the perspective of states and UNHCR. In addition, I explore regional political dynamics in order to better explain the political interests involved in the repatriation of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan. I show how these interests have shaped the timing, conditions, and pace of this voluntary repatriation operation, largely ignoring the refugees' own interests.

In the third part, finally, I focus my analysis on the extent of 'voluntariness' of refugees in the case of voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan. I argue that UNHCR as well as host countries have employed measures and practices that have largely 'induced' the return of Afghan refugees, rather than having allowed them to decide according to their own free will. I further demonstrate how the voluntary decision-making of refugees as a requirement for voluntary repatriation has been incorporated into UNHCR practice in order to suit the agency's institutional practice, thereby limiting refugees' free choices and options regarding repatriation.

The analysis of this paper draws primarily on academic literature from various disciplinary perspectives. In addition, I have incorporated NGO reports, news reports, as well as a vast array of UNHCR documentation. There are, however, considerable limitations to the scope of research based predominantly on secondary sources when examining a practical case study. In this paper I attempt to place the interests of refugees at the centre of my argument and, yet, their individual views and experiences are not incorporated as I have not undertaken research in the field. To compensate for this shortcoming, I have included extracts from interviews of returnees conducted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressing views on their experiences of return to Afghanistan.


(1) The only exception being the return of nearly 10 million people to the new state of Bangladesh after the Indo-Pakistan war in 1972 (Turton and Marsden 2002: 5).