With the world’s attention focused on the carnage in Israel and Gaza, there is an urgent need to protect civilians at risk of further forced displacement or mass expulsion. Unfortunately, others are seeing an opportunity to take or escalate drastic measures such as mass refugee expulsions against unwanted groups in their own countries.
The risk to longstanding refugee populations in protracted exile looks especially dire. The warning signs are clear in four places, though this by no means is an exhaustive list.
First, in Pakistan, the Interior Ministry announced on Oct. 3 that all unregistered Afghans, including many who have lived there for years, had to leave the country by Nov. 1. Broad calls by Pakistani officials for mass deportation coincided with an increase in harassment, assault, and arbitrary detention of Afghans. The deadline for “voluntary” return having passed last week, Pakistani police are now going house to house, rounding up Afghans and beginning to deport them in the thousands.
About 1.7 million Afghans live in Pakistan without legal status, in addition to some 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees. Although many of the unregistered fled after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, they are not recognized as refugees for the simple reason that they have not been allowed to register.
Second, in Turkey, on multiple occasions, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed his desire to resettle more than a million Syrian refugees into a Turkish-occupied so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria. As Human Rights Watch has found, this area is far from safe, and returns to these and other parts of Syria remain dangerous to refugees who fled the conflict there.
Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees of any country, but it is currently deporting large numbers of Afghans and Syrians and violently pushing back asylum seekers and migrants on its borders with Syria and Iran.
Third, in the Dominican Republic, the authorities closed the border with Haiti on Sept. 14 in a dispute over the construction of a canal, although there are many indications that the dispute is wider than water resources. Prior to the border closure, the Dominican Republic had been constructing a 118-mile wall on the border. It has increased expulsion of Haitians, surpassing 97,000 since the beginning of the year, as Haiti has experienced a dramatic escalation in killings, rapes and kidnappings.
Fourth, in Lebanon, host to the largest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world, the government has in recent months targeted thousands of Syrians who lack legal status for deportation. We have found that many of those previously returned experienced detention, torture, and forced conscription. Lebanon has banned the UN refugee agency from registering Syrian refugees, and currently only 17 percent of Syrian refugees hold legal residency.
The international community can help protect these refugees and others.
First, donor governments should provide generous and timely humanitarian assistance to support refugees in their countries of first arrival. Appeals from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, are only 36 percent funded this year. If host governments think they will be left paying the bills, they will be more likely to close camps and begin forced returns.
Second, other countries should offer refugee resettlement and additional programs to take in refugees and help relieve pressures on host governments. Resettlement is unlikely to make a dent in strictly numerical terms, but it can be a lifesaver for vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children and people with disabilities. It can also be a lifesaver for marginalized groups, such as sexual, religious and ethnic minorities, as well as women’s rights activists, who are often both persecuted in their home countries and vilified in countries of first asylum, even in the very refugee camps where they seek safety.
Third, even as governments, humanitarians, and the private sector work together to provide financial assistance and resettlement support, they should address the root causes of forced displacement in the countries of origin. This is a long-term proposition, but until drivers of forced migration such as inequality, human rights abuses, poor governance, conflict, corruption, and climate change are addressed, refugees will not be able to go home, and more will follow them out.
Finally, the media, governments, the UN and nongovernmental organizations like mine must closely monitor collective expulsions or repatriation programs that purport to be voluntary but are, in fact, coercive.
The last hope for refugees faced with forced return is that the world will care enough to shame the governments that would expel them. Countries that care should help maintain the refugee system that has been in place since the end of the Second World War, under the principle that refugees should never be forcibly returned to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.