Five years ago refugees were fleeing Ethiopia by the thousands. Of the 1 million that eventually fled, some 30,000 - a small number compared with those who fled to Somalia and Sudan - ended up in the tiny fledgling nation of Djibouti. The refugees fled for many reasons, but probably the majority left during the course of the Ogaden war of 1977-78. Still others fled the effects of an ensuing drought, which further ravaged the Ethiopian landscape.
Times have changed since then: The war is over, the rains have returned, and the refugees are beginning to go home. Indeed, on Sept. 19, 170 Djibouti refugees matter-of-factly boarded trains near Ali Sabieh camp and began the journey to reception centers in Adigala, Ethiopia, from which they will be dispersed to various resettlement areas in and around their previous homelands. In recent weeks over 1,000 returned to other reception areas in Ethiopia, while hundreds of other registrees wait under a repatriation program that is gathering momentum.
The significance of this latest event should not go unnoticed. It marks the first formal repatriation of Ethiopian refugees conducted under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the agreement of both the sending and receiving states - in this case Djibouti and Ethiopia, respectively.
The agreement anticipates the eventual voluntary repatriation of as many as 25,000 of Djibouti's roughly 30,000 refugees over a period of one year. No one can predict how many refugees will actually return. But there are good reasons for mild optimism despite skepticism in many quarters that the repatriation effort will fail.
Whether one is optimistic or skeptical about the prospects for this program depends in large part on the interpretation of the motives of the various governments, the UNHCR, and the refugees themselves.
In the case of Djibouti, its reasons for support of a repatriation are obvious. It is an impoverished country of roughly half a million people with an unemployment rate of between 40 and 50 percent and very little room in which to accommodate resettlement of more than 30,000 refugees. For Djibouti, repatriation is the preferred solution - an end it pursued overzealously in February of 1982 when it used force to expel refugees. Under the new program, and with closer scrutiny by the UNHCR, forcible expulsion of refugees is unlikely to be repeated.
Ethiopia, as the receiving state, has numerous reasons to promote a successful repatriation program as well. First, it gives the country an opportunity to improve its international image. Returning refugees bolster the notion that Ethiopia is a stable country. Repatriation also provides an opportunity to secure badly needed resources for refugee rehabilitation which could easily have beneficial implications for rural development.
The donor community and the UNHCR have an interest in reducing the care and maintenance costs that might in the absence of repatriation act as an indefinite drain on international resources. The UNHCR will maintain its support for Djibouti refugees at a level equal to previous years in case repatriation should lag. This also avoids the appearance that the refugees are being starved out of the camps and thereby forced to opt for repatriation.
As for some of the refugees themselves, repatriation may be an attractive alternative to the nearly total dependency they have known in the refugee camps. To build confidence that refugees are indeed returning to a safe environment, UNHCR, Ethiopia, and Djibouti encouraged those in Djibouti to select a delegation of 40 from among their number to tour various areas in Ethiopia. The delegation was impressed with the positive climate that exists in Ethiopia for their return, and passed along the word to their fellow refugees.
Still, repatriation effort should be monitored closely by the international community. The recent returnees to Adigala could hardly realize that they might represent a key to the resolution of the refugee problem that has for too long plagued the Horn of Africa. The million refugees that yet remain outside Ethiopia's borders will certainly not all be candidates for immediate or eventual voluntary repatriation, but the experience of Djibouti suggests that this option should be explored along with the options of local settlement in the country of first asylum and third-country resettlement. In the meantime, let us at least hope that the returnees from Djibouti represent a harbinger of better days ahead in the region.