What to Do When Refugees Refuse to Go Home

The town of Fugnido could be any settlement in western Ethiopia. Smoke from outdoor cooking fires rises over clusters of mud-and-grass huts, while shoppers gather in a small outdoor market to buy onions and dried fish. But unlike most settlements in this corner of the world, it has schools, a health clinic, and clean drinking water—not to mention well-maintained roads, soccer fields, and basketball courts. Women hold half the seats in the local government, which is carefully balanced between the town's main ethnic groups. Citizens are even provided with a monthly food ration, free of charge.

It is, of course, not a town at all but a United Nations refugee camp. And the Sudanese refugees here think that it is a nice place to live—or at least much better than the areas of south Sudan they fled during the horrific 21-year civil war between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. A large share have been here for as long 16 years. And even though many of their home regions are now peaceful and habitable, they have no intention of returning to Sudan. Would you?

The 20,000 people of Fugnido are just a slice of the 8 million long-term refugees around the globe—defined as those who have fled conflicts that began 10 or more years ago. Some long-term refugees, like the families of Palestinians who fled the lands that would become Israel in the 1940s, will likely never return. Others, such as Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan and Iran in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion, have seen new wars replace old ones. But others—particularly those from poor countries like Burundi, Angola, and southern Sudan—have lived to see peace back home and stayed in U.N.-funded camps anyway, because their economic prospects are better as refugees than at home as farmers. Refugees develop what aid groups call "dependency syndrome."

"My life is good in Ethiopia, so I really don't want to leave," says Michael Push, a 45-year-old Nuer man, who fled Sudan's Jonglei state in the 1990s to Fugnido and now manages his own herd of 20 cattle. "When I came here, I did not have a single cow, but now I am a wealthy man."

Despite a peace agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army nearly five years ago, Fugnido's population has declined by only about a quarter in large part because refugees have become accustomed to life in the camp. "The biggest issue is dependency," says Abiy Girma, a U.N. field officer at Fugnido. "They're not going home because south Sudan is poor ... Fugnido is like heaven for them."

In 2006 after the peace accords were signed, most camp residents were anxious to return to Sudan. But the onset of rainy season halted the effort after only about 5,000 had been bused and flown to their home villages. By the end of the rains, many of the repatriated refugees had made their way back to Fugnido with stories about the hardships of starting life anew in an impoverished land without free schools, clinics, and food. Houses had to be rebuilt, fields reclaimed and planted, lives rebuilt.

"Previously, all Sudanese people living in Fugnido were eager to return," says Deng Both, the chairman of the camp's refugee committee. That figure is just 4 percent today, according to the latest camp survey, he adds.

The problem of long-term refugees is a new one. From World War II until the 1980s and 1990s, most refugees were either absorbed into neighboring countries or taken as immigrants by wealthy nations far from the conflict, as happened with so-called "boat people" from Southeast Asia in the 1970s. But then as refugee numbers from poor countries in Africa and elsewhere grew, industrialized countries began slashing the number of refugees they would accept.

Meanwhile, African nations that once welcomed refugees during independence struggles against colonial powers grew much less hospitable to those forced from their homes by seemingly intractable intra-African wars. That left the United Nations refugee agency as a sort of state of last resort, giving shelter to people that couldn't or wouldn't return to their countries and that no one else wanted. "All of a sudden you had people hosted in refugee camps as a temporary solution until they can go home," says Sasha Chanoff, director of Mapendo, a Boston-based group that works with refugees. "But then the temporary solution is extended and extended." People didn't used to languish in refugee camps the way they do now. (All but one WWII refugee camp was closed by 1952.)

To be sure, refugee camps—which are vital to protecting civilians fleeing war—are mostly unpleasant places to the eyes of outsiders. The world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, in northern Kenya, houses nearly 300,000 Somalis on land meant for 90,000. And in the case of Fugnido, intransigent refugees are also a testament to the failure of south Sudan's autonomous government, established as part of a 2005 peace agreement with Khartoum, to rebuild its war-torn land. (The government cut its education budget by 25 percent over the last three years even as enrollment tripled.) It's easy to see why these camps are necessary.

Yet the long-term existence of big refugee camps—particularly in very poor countries—creates a moral hazard. A place that provides even just the essentials for a stable life is, quite simply, a better place to live than one that sends people scurrying away. Meanwhile, locals living near a camp may resent the benefits refugees receive and try to fake refugee status themselves. At Fugnido, camp staff report that because of a drought this year, Ethiopian Nuer and Anuaks—cousins of the Sudanese groups in the camp—are showing up at the camp in hopes of getting rations.

Aid agencies are conscious of so-called dependency syndrome. For Darfuris in camps in Chad, the British aid group CORD builds temporary schools for refugees that are only meant to last two years. It's an effort to send the signal that people shouldn't make long-term plans in Chad—even at the risk of having to rebuild the schools over and over again. Ultimately, aid agencies may slowly begin cutting refugee benefits and increasing incentives—by providing tools, blankets, or cash—to those willing to go home, as they've done to Angolans in Zambia.

It's not an easy task, especially when refugees have nothing but bad memories of their home country. Akweri Adhum, 45, fled Jonglei in 1993 after Arab militias attacked her village, killed her husband (and others), and cut off women's breasts. She walked eight days to Ethiopia with a small group, surviving only on wild fruit. Some died of starvation along the way. "Nobody was buried, we were too weak," she says. "I will not go back. It's too difficult."