The term repatriation refers to the return of individuals, human remains, cultural property, or other artifacts to their homelands or to their original owners. Repatriation applies to such processes as the return of the bodies of foreign soldiers after a war; the restoration of Native American artifacts from museums to their proper burial places; or the replacement or reimbursement of currency, art, and other items of worth to Holocaust survivors. Repatriation of refugees, displaced persons, and migrants involves the deportation of a populace from a country of residence and their resettlement in their country of origin. This may be a voluntary return or a forced return migration. In the United States, mass repatriation has occurred with Mexican migrants, especially during economic downturns. Internationally, repatriation has become the de facto policy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its approach to the issue of refugees and displaced persons.
U.S. Repatriation of Mexican Migrants
There are several periods of mass deportation and repatriation in U.S. history, most notably the repatriation of Mexican migrants in the 1930s. During the peak years of the Great Depression, the Hoover administrations adopted the policy of “American jobs for ‘real’ Americans.” By means of social and political pressure, harassment, raids, and roundups, nearly one-third of the Mexican population in the United States was repatriated. Those repatriated included Mexican nationals as well as U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Trainloads of returnees were left in unfamiliar towns in Mexico with little or no economic means. In 2005, California passed the Apology
Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program. While offering no reparations for the loss of properties, the divisions in families, and the death of an untold number in transit, the bill did offer an official acknowledgment of the harm caused by the policies of the 1930s.
Deportations and repatriation of Mexicans continue today. Since 2004, the United States has repatriated more than 14,000 Mexican nationals annually under a homeland security program aimed at limiting undocumented Mexican migration. This effort to reduce the number of illegal border crossings offers migrants the option of “interior” repatriation to their hometowns rather than apprehension and release at the border. These repatriations include flights from the United States to Mexico City or Guadalajara or bus transportation to the hometown of the migrant. In 2004, the program cost the U.S. government more than $15.4 million and has been criticized as largely ineffective in curbing undocumented migration.
Global Refugee Repatriation
During the past 15 years, the UNHCR has successfully assisted in the return of millions of refugees to their countries of origin. Largely displaced during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as a result of civil wars, conflicts, and natural calamities in the global South, the refugee and asylee population peaked in the 1990s. Driven by political pressure of Northern countries, the policy of the UNHCR toward refugees has been that the optimal, “durable” solution is repatriation rather than asylum.
Former UN high commissioner for refugees Sadako Ogata referred to the 1990s as the “decade of repatriation.” Mass repatriation of refugee Afghans, Bosnians, Cambodians, Croatian Serbs, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Guatemalans, Mozambicans, Palestinians, and Russians were documented during this period. In all, there were nearly 15 million estimated returnees during the 1990s, as compared to fewer than 4 million from the period 1975 to 1989. This policy of return and resettlement continues today, with between 1 and 2 million refugees repatriated each year since 2000. The majority of returnees in the past 5 years have been Afghans, displaced during the long civil war in which more than 20 percent of the population fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Since 2001, more than 4.6 million Afghans have returned with UNHCR backing. As a result of the policy of repatriation and continued resettlement efforts, the world’s refugee population dropped from its peak of nearly 17.8 million in 1993 to just over 8.3 million in 2006.
According to the UNHCR, return to the home country—even in situations in which the cause of the original flight may still be a factor—has been “voluntary” for the refugee. Yet, debate continues over whether the policy of repatriation has left the returnees without means in what remain as hostile countries to them. As with the mass deportation of Mexican migrants from the United States to Mexico in the 1930s, repatriation has involved resettlement to areas of the home country that are not considered “home” to the refugees. This internal displacement, as well as the varying amounts of assistance and monitoring provided by the UNHCR, has led to continued issues of economic and social disadvantages for some returnees and has severely limited the reintegration of repatriates in their homelands.
As a result of the documentation of problems in earlier repatriation and reintegration of refugees, the UNHCR initiated the “4Rs” approach in 2002. In collaboration with the UN Development Programme and the World Bank, the approach called for refugee repatriation and reintegration, followed by rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country. While repatriation and reintegration efforts have been ongoing since the 1990s, officials recognize that, without the rehabilitation or restoration of the social and economic infrastructure, reintegration efforts would fail. Moreover, without support, the establishment of political order and economic institutions to maintain a long-term sustainable development would not be possible.
- Black, Richard and Khalid Koser. 1999. The End of the Refugee Cycle?: Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction. Providence, RI: Berghahn.
- Block, Melissa. 2006. “Remembering California’s ‘Repatriation Program.'” National Public Radio. Broadcast, January 2. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5079627).
- Guerin-Gonzales, Camille. 1994. Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2004. “Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities.” Reintegration and Local Settlement Section, Division of Operational Support, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.unhcr.org/partners/guides/411786694/handbook-repatriation-reintegration-activities-emcomplete-handbookem.html).
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2006. “2005 Global Refugee Trends Statistical Overview of Populations of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, Stateless Persons, and Other Persons of Concern to UNHCR.” Field Information and Coordination Support Section, Division of Operational Services, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/4486ceb12/2005-global-refugee-trends-statistical-overview-populations-refugees-asylum.html).
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