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Voluntary Repatriation

22-05-2002 Statement

ICRC statement to the UNHCR Global Consultations on International Protection, fourth meeting, Geneva, 22-24 May 2002

Mr Chairman,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like once again to congratulate UNHCR’s Department of International Protection for its outstanding work in organising these consultations and for the thorough background document it has produced to guide our discussions today. The ICRC welcomes this opportunity to make a few comments on the subject of voluntary repatriation.

While the ICRC does not generally engage in operations for the repatriation of refugees, the issue remains of considerable concern to it.

It is probable that an important number of refugees will be returning to a country which has experienced armed conflict.  It is also very probable that the ICRC will have been present in that country during the conflict.  Thanks to the in-depth knowledge that it will have acquired the ICRC can analyse the situation on the ground and make recommendations to ensure that refugees return home in safety and dignity.  While it does not give safety clearance for particular returns, on several occasions in the past the ICRC has warned against the risk of hasty repatriations.

The ICRC considers that states and organisations involved in repatriation must carefully ensure that the timing and conditions for refugee return are right before engaging in or encouraging such operations.  A few strictly humanitarian principles can provide guidance for assessing the advisability of returns of refugees who have fled armed conflict.

As stated in the background paper, safety considerations are paramount.  The ICRC would go further than UNHCR and say that return should only take place once conflict, violence and intimidation are at an end.

In addition to assessing the overall safety in the country of return, attention must also be paid to the specific safety of the returning population – particularly if they are an ethnic minority.  It must be ensured that they will be safe and will not suffer discrimination.  While there may be a cessation of hostilities in the country as a whole, the returning members of ethnic minorities may remain at risk and their repatriation may give an impetus to the renewal of violence.

Numerous other aspects of the situation in the country of return may seriously affect returnees.  They include the destruction of basic infrastructures, the existence of unexploded ordinance - which not only puts the returnees at immediate risk but can also render farming impossible – diseases and the precariousness of the food situation more generally.

Under no circumstances should be refugees be encouraged or compelled to move into areas where their health and safety are at risk.

Thank you Mr Chairman.