Sometimes refugees do go home. As the world total of refugees continues to rise, and now stands at 10 to 12 million, several hundred thousand African refugees have gone home within the past two years - a marked increase over previous years. And more are on their way.
An easing of violence or famine in their home areas is the key to their return, says Roger Winter, director of the United States Committee for Refugees, a private group in Washington.
In Africa, Ugandans are heading home on foot, bicycle, and by truck, after living in neighboring countries while their homeland was torn apart by civil war. Some have been in exile for a year; some for 10 years.
Despite the ongoing civil war, Ethiopians who escaped the violence and the 1984-85 famine are going home, lured by rains and good harvests. Chadians who also fled famine and civil war began returning home last year, though the number returning has dropped with a recent increase in fighting in the north.
In Central America, several hundred refugees have gone back to their homes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
By returning, these refugees illustrate that ``the draw of their own land, their own country is strong,'' says Winter. In many instances, they are going back to countries still experiencing various levels of military conflict, where cities, villages, and croplands have been devastated and few public services are available.
The UNHCR tries to help refugees make a new start when they return home, including monitoring how their government treats them once they have arrived. It regards refugees as persons who have a ``well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.'' In the case of many African famine victims the UNHCR made an exception, because they were endangered by famine and civil war.
Estimates vary greatly regarding both the number of refugees in the world and the number going home, say UN and US officials and private specialists.
``The [number of] people who are coming out [fleeing their home countries] is bigger than the [number] going home,'' says Antoine Noel, an Ethiopian who is the top representative of the UNHCR in the US. But he estimates the number going home each year has been increasing. During the last couple of years Uganda, Ethiopia, and Chad have had more returnees than any other countries.
Uganda. Some 300,000 Ugandan refugees have returned home, most of them in 1985 and 1986. Some 175,000 remain in neighboring Sudan and Zaire, according to the US Committee for Refugees. The ``bulk'' of those still outside Uganda are expected to return, despite ongoing fighting in the northern regions, Winter says.
An official at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva says he expects about 100,000 to return to Uganda from Sudan this year. One State Department official says the temptation to stay in some regions of southern Sudan is great for the Ugandan refugees because there they have farms and peace.
Ethiopia. Some 50,000 refugees have returned to the contested area of Eritrea during the past two years, according to Tesfa Seyoum, executive director of the Eritrean Relief Committee in New York. He estimates another 50,000 are likely to return from Sudan this year.
Some 155,000 refugees returned to the contested area of Tigre (also spelled Tigray) in 1985 and '86. Another 30,000 are returning now, says Gayle Smith, coordinator of the Washington-based Relief Society of Tigray. The Ethiopian government has refused to help resettle refugees returning to guerrilla-held areas, she says.
A small number of refugees have begun returning to Ethiopia from Somalia, according to the UNHCR's Noel.
Chad. Some 122,000 Chadians have returned within the past year from the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Cameroon. Another 50,000 are expected to do the same in 1987, according to a US State Department official. Northern Chad is partially under rebel and Libyan control. The refugees, says the official, are returning to southern Chad where things are calmer.