Selected Article


Is there a right to return ?


Nowadays, the main humanitarian organizations in charge of refugees, notably the UNHCR, are part of a large return movement helping refugees and displaced persons to go back to their prewar homes, whether in Africa, Afghanistan or the Balkans. Great difficulties are encountered in the return of minority groups, ranging from basic material problems to conflicts with a sometimes hostile majority. Whereas most (international) actors of this return process and many returnees tend to see it as a fulfillment of what is right and just and a peaceful erasing of ethnic cleansing, there are also many refugees and returnees who are quite reluctant to go back to a place where they would belong to a minority, preferring to settle elsewhere while benefiting from a right to asylum or resettlement. The issue of return intertwines many conflicting viewpoints and heterogeneous factors (economic, temporal, etc.) and is loaded with political implications. Beyond this obvious "politicization," however, what are the theoretical grounds that we could bring to bear to clarify this conflict of judgments about the right to and rightness of return? Do the divergent points of view on the issue reflect conflicting conceptions of identity: international humanitarian organizations being, as some argue, implicitly dependant on a substantialist view of identity tied to origin, whereas refugees have ended up constructing a more "narrative" form of identity, including the dimensions of time, change and exile? Should a return or resettlement right be granted on the basis of free choice and individual rights (property, for instance) or according to a right to live with the majority? Is there such a thing as a specific right to return? Or, instead of being derived from a global theory of identity, should such a right rather be analyzed as being made up of more basic and common rights as the right to property, to security, to freedom of movement, etc.? In that case, would the issue of the rightness of return simply come down to conditions of justice and a bundle of rights that may or may not obtain?