When Refugees Want to Go Home

SADAKO OGATA, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, was last week named as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She will face the daunting problem of finding the resources and the means to care for and resettle the world's refugees. In Central America, she will find a ray of hope - 'emigr'es are showing their determination to return home. This trend was highlighted at a conference held this month under the auspices of Georgetown University's Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Affairs. The Center's Hemispheric Migration Project has undertaken the difficult task of gathering accurate data on migrant movements, concentrating especially on those who have fled Nicaragua and Guatemala. A precise statistical picture is hard to obtain; many refugees are not documented; many are not in camps. Agencies may not know when they decide to go home across a porous border.

Nevertheless, scholars studying the attitudes and initiatives of the migrants have perceived a pattern of conditions under which people choose voluntarily to return to their villages. They have concluded that, in contrast to the assumption in Washington that Central Americans fleeing war and insurrection want to go north, many prefer to go home.

The studies suggest that ``spontaneous repatriation'' may occur at one of several stages in the migration of a refugee. Those who flee their native areas, whether from fear of violence or to avoid the military draft or taxes, may move to a neighboring country or to a safer area within their own country. Some of these people will decide within a short time that, caught up in the panic of the moment, they may have exaggerated the danger and that they can return safely to their homes.

Thoughts of returning home may also occur when the country to which they have fled seeks to set up refugee camps. Some decide that conditions at home, as difficult as they may be, are preferable to the confining life of a camp. Others, once in a refugee center, leave when they feel alienated as new communities form within the camp. As news flows back via the grapevine from those who have returned that conditions are bearable, more decide to repatriate.

A further moment that stimulates repatriation occurs when a host country decides to move refugee camps away from a border area. Such moves suggest to some a permanence of their status they do not like; they will follow others back to their home villages.

As a result, especially after the Central American peace process began, Salvadorans are returning from Honduras, Guatemalans from Mexico, and Nicaraguans from Honduras and Costa Rica.

In returning, however, they face difficult obstacles. If refugees return to a village under government control, they are viewed with suspicion; their flight stamped them as someone potentially disloyal.

If their villages are still within an insurgency area, the returnees may still not be free of pressures from the resistance.

Once at home, refugees are likely to face serious impediments in restarting their normal lives. Their lands and homes may have been occupied by others. The infrastructure that might provide the credit and the supplies necessary for agriculture may be destroyed or lacking. They will be in competition with those who stayed behind or with other returnees. But studies suggest that, despite these obstacles, the desire of many to regain familiar surroundings and to control their own lives is great enough to risk the dangers of spontaneous repatriation.

The lessening of international and regional tensions is permitting the return of refugees elsewhere in the world, as well. An estimated 200,000 have returned to Mozambique; more than 40,000 have gone back to Namibia. Even in troubled Afghanistan, more than 100,000 displaced people are estimated to have gone back to their villages.

These movements, however, are but a trickle compared to the estimated 15 million refugees still registered in the world. Although the end of the cold war may have made it more possible to go home, the ensuing unrest may mean more refugees. In addition, lessened concern over the East-West aspects of issues has meant a lessening, as well, of the international interest in the plight of refugees. Areas of hope exist, but the new UN High Commissioner still faces a desperate human problem and a daunting task.

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