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  • Rory O'Keeffe

The system isn't working: debt, poverty and coercion forces refugees back to the unsafe places t

At Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, an increasing number of people are being forced to return to Somalia even as the war they fled there continues, because of debt.

The global aid system is failing to deliver for refugees, and as noted here previously, this has forced organisations including the World Food Programme to slash the services – including food – they can give to people living in refugee camps.

At Dadaab, the result was that many people had to get food from Kenyan businesspeople, on credit.

One woman at the camp, Khairo Hassan was forced to run up debt of around $400 so she could feed her children and herself. She earns just $3 per month.

Facing threats from those she owed money to, she turned to the only source of money available – the UN’s relocation programme, under which she would be paid to go back to Somalia. She has handed over the cash to her creditors, and must now go back, under a ‘voluntary’ scheme she does not want to be a part of.

Although voluntary repatriation programmes often have the best of intentions (some certainly do not, however), in practice there is almost never such a thing as a ‘voluntary’ scheme.

The most common way to convince people to go home is to bribe them to do so – providing cash to help them ‘re-start’ their lives.

But other tactics include pressuring people to return, as is alleged to be happening to Burundian refugees in Tanzania (IOM runs that scheme, but the Tanzanian government is accused of pressuring people to leave), declaring people ‘illegal’, removing services from them, making it difficult for them to settle (such as by making it extremely difficult to gain employment) or formulating policies so that it is almost impossible for people to stay.

In Bangladesh, the government’s deal with Myanmar/Burma to start repatriating Rohingya who ‘volunteer’ to return on 23 January – almost universally opposed by refugees, aid organisations and observers alike – runs a very clear risk of the latter, in a rather insidious way.

Because, as previously noted, the official line of the Myanmar/Burma government is that no Rohingyan needs to fear returning ‘unless they are a terrorist’.

The problem is not only that an enormous number of the 640,000 Rohingyan people who have fled Myanmar/Burma since 25 August will be afraid to return, as they ran to escape murder, rape and torture, as well as the burning of their homes, by an army which is not only the nation’s official military, but also runs the nation (a nation which refuses to recognise Rohingyan people as citizens), but that exactly that statement could then be used to label anyone who does not return, as a criminal and terrorist. In this way, returning stops being voluntary, and starts to appear more forced.

There are of course success stories, and there is no way that the UN is withholding food from refugees to force them into debt (though given that the world has never produced too little food for everyone on Earth to eat a healthy, balanced diet, the international community is effectively withholding food from refugees), but ‘voluntary repatriation’ is a concept laden with difficulties – central to them is that it is most often not voluntary at all.

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