The most recent exodus of Rohingya asylum-seekers from Myanmar, fleeing fierce conflict in Rakhine state, has captured headlines around the world. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 11,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh on October 10 alone, following brutal attacks that another top UN official has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
But despite the groundswell of international concern — and well-documented accounts of ongoing violence — some states are already trying to persuade the refugees to go home. The Guardian revealed last month, for instance, that the Australian government has offered up to A$25,000 to Rohingya refugees in its detention facility on Manus Island, if they agree to return to Myanmar.
Offering payment for repatriation, even in the face of continuing persecution, is nothing new. Norway took up the practice of paying asylum seekers to return to the Middle East at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, when 220,000 people had already been killed and 12.8 million were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Denmark, on the other hand, recently boosted a long-standing program to offer £12,000 to migrants and refugees who “cannot or do not want to integrate into Danish society.” Between 1997 and 2007, over 2,500 refugees are thought to have been part of this scheme, returning to countries such as Iraq, Somalia, and Lebanon.
To the savvy bureaucrat, paying refugees to return may seem a logical solution to the resource pressures created by asylum. Financial incentives are, after all, already used to encourage immigration for economic and demographic reasons, and promoting repatriation follows the same logic. Beyond resource considerations, however, the practice also allows states to “manage” mass influx and stave off popular backlash. It also does not contravene any existing guidelines. According to Article 1C of the 1951 Refugee Convention — the centerpiece of international asylum law — an individual no longer holds refugee status if she has “voluntarily re-established herself in the country which she left”: if a refugee chooses to return, in other words, her host bears no further obligations toward her.
These defenses, however, make light of the refugees’ plight. Firstly, paying refugees to return amounts to using their destitution against them. Asylum-seekers in Denmark, for instance — where basic utilities cost 50 percent more than in the United States – receive just 50.31 DKK (around $8) per day. This allowance is only issued if they are above 18, and agree to forgo free meals at the state-run asylum centers: the “privilege” of staying at one of these entails a cut to the daily allowance. To an individual in these circumstances, repatriation with a monetary incentive is far more likely to be seen as a route out of hardship than a genuine choice. This is even more glaring in Australia, where offshore detention facilities are themselves rife with extreme human rights abuses and suicide.
Secondly, paying refugees to undertake the dangerous — and potentially irreversible — decision to return often involves exploiting a lack of reliable information about their countries of origin. While refugees may receive piecemeal updates through family networks or state authorities, it is often impossible to gain a clear or objective assessment of whether it is indeed safe to return, especially with the deliberate spread of false information by various parties. For the Rohingya, in particular, the fact that Myanmar has only recently (and selectively) lifted its ban on international news coverage in Rakhine state means that even the most well-informed observers are unable to entirely separate fact from fiction. Financial incentives for repatriation exploit this uncertainty, and put lives at risk.
Finally, while paying refugees to return might not breach the letter of international law, the practice is surely antithetical to the Convention in spirit. As the UNHCR has forcefully argued, the principle of non-refoulement — namely, that an individual may not be returned to a country where she fears persecution — is the “most essential component” of refugee protection. Financial incentives may alleviate the costs of repatriation, and persuade some asylum-seekers to forgo their claims, but ultimately do nothing to address the fear of persecution. A host state’s basic obligation is to provide a safe haven, and the offer of cash is not only a pale substitute but an irresponsible breach.
Providing asylum may be costly to the host community, but to the refugee it has no price. It is unethical to assign a crude monetary value to the fundamental conditions of physical safety and freedom from persecution, which many asylum-seekers risk their lives daily to enjoy. It is even more unconscionable that refugees are forced to choose between their basic rights and a path out of poverty in their host country. While financial incentives might factor legitimately into other migrants’ conditions, we must not forget that refugees simply do not have the luxury of choice.
Unfortunately, the practice of paying refugees to return can take on many guises — not all of which involve cash handouts. Host states may entice refugees with false promises, or simply worsen conditions in asylum such that refugees will prefer repatriation over staying put. As Kirsten McConnachie demonstrates in Governing Refugees, aid has been withdrawn from Karen refugee camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border to “encourage” asylum-seekers to move on from the settlements, or back into conflict and uncertainty. Likewise, Ugandan officials have been urged by their Rwandan counterparts to prohibit Rwandan refugees from cultivating maize and beans, “as a way of encouraging repatriation.” Such cynical tactics rely on the same dynamics as financial incentives: they exploit destitution and misinformation, while failing to protect vulnerable individuals from persecution — in some cases deliberately returning them into the hands of their persecutors.
The policy landscape is especially fraught because creating unfair incentives for repatriation has, in one form or another, been widely practiced — with the UN’s tacit (and occasionally outright) approval — since the 1970s. Katy Long points out that this is precisely what happened to the Rohingya in 1978, who were then fleeing an earlier cycle of persecution. At the time, the resource-strapped Bangladeshi government deliberately withdrew food rations from refugee camps, causing up to 10,000 deaths from malnutrition, and “effectively starving [the Rohingya] into accepting repatriation.” Over the resignation of its own chief nutritionist, the UNHCR sanctioned the plan, and oversaw the return of the Rohingya to renewed persecution in Myanmar.
As we confront new crises of persecution and displacement — and as the reserve of global goodwill begins to run dry — it is ever more necessary to reject blunt compromises to refugee protection, while choosing meaningful policies of safe and voluntary return. Some scholars have called for renewed emphasis on the value of dignity in repatriation, while others, like Mollie Gerver, have proposed frameworks that require any policy of repatriation to be voluntary, reversible, informed, and respectful. In practice, these might involve facilitating “go and see” visits, providing access to accurate and objective information about countries of origin, and abiding by international standards for access to food, education, employment, and other material conditions for those awaiting an asylum decision. On a larger scale, these also require a concerted effort on the part of the international community to support safe and stable conditions for sustainable repatriation.
At heart, payment to return reflects the current global attitude toward refugees: that they are better out of sight and out of mind. Australia’s attempt to persuade Rohingya to return shows that, instead of offering them a safe haven, they will attempt to repatriate asylum-seekers in any way that they can, while treading the fine line of international law. Such a policy fails to center the interests of refugees, putting them in direct danger of violence and at risk of secondary movement. Instead, policies of return must focus on autonomy. Allowing individuals to make their own decisions of when they repatriate, without fear of destitution and with access to all available information. Only when the choices and voices of refugees themselves are central to our international policy can we begin to hope of acting in their interests.
Theophilus Kwek has recently completed a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University, and is based in Singapore as a writer and researcher. He previously served as publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.
Rebecca Buxton has recently completed an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. She is now working as a Parliamentary Researcher in the House of Commons.