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The Darfur Refugees’ Plight

Anna Praz

1. Introduction

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1A decade after the inception of the 2003-2004 Darfur crisis, and despite signed peace declarations and efforts deployed to facilitate voluntary return, eastern Chad still hosts about 300,000 refugees from Darfur. These refugees are reluctant to return to the homelands from which they were violently uprooted. The reasons for this reluctance are largely overlooked, as is the case for much of what has been happening inside Darfur since 2008. Since then, the global focus has shifted to the North/South divide and to other crises, and information channels inside Sudan have been restrained as key humanitarian actors have been expelled while those who remain strive to report objectively. Meanwhile, Darfur’s refugees and IDPs are struggling to survive and be remembered. They remain victims of what some have called “one the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, whose intractability has caused increasing international fatigue. With access to Darfur difficult at the present time, the east Chadian border zones offer a temporary opportunity to glimpse a partial picture of the pressure and struggles suffered by the displaced of Darfur.

2The aim of this study is to identify the refugees’ perspective of the Sudan-led repatriation agenda in the broader context of peace-making in Sudan and its recent rapprochement with Chad. It is the fruit of two field missions to eastern Chad: the first enabled observation of the context of their protracted displacement; the second provided an opportunity to collect a survey sample and to engage directly with Darfurian refugees, humanitarian workers and the military-political apparatus in the country.

3Structurally, the ePaper firstly presents the context of the current humanitarian crisis in Sudan/Chad, and then locates the research question in the relevant return-migration and peace-building literature, expanding on the links between peace-building and repatriation, and on the micro-level determinants involved in the refugees’ decisions to return. Subsequently, the empirical investigation discusses the circumstances in which the current displacement occurred, and describes field areas and methods of enquiry. The findings are then presented, analyzed and tested against the assumptions and hypotheses gleaned from the literature. The ePaper concludes with a review of the research framework used, and some implications for global policy.

1.1 Case choice and approach used

  • 1 De Waal, “How Mass Atrocities End”, seminar held by the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, (...)

4The incentive to pursue this research track stems from an opportunity provided by CARE International in Chad to offer firsthand support to the humanitarian operations in three Darfur refugee camps in northeastern Chad. The camp experience made me increasingly aware of the gravity and protracted nature of the displacement situation of Darfurians, and of the hopeless prospects of refugees who could not envision any short-term solutions to their plight despite a general claim that peace had been “settled” in Darfur. In the fall of 2011, I identified the Darfur issue as being pivotal in helping to answer the broader question of “how do mass atrocities end?”1 Do mass atrocities end when conflict-deaths dwindle and peace agreements are signed? How do the inter-generational impacts of conflict, such as prolonged victimization, persistence of impunity and protracted displacement fit into this notion of ending? Against this background, I hypothesized that voluntary return could be an important benchmark in determining that peace had been attained. In reality, there is often a significant disconnect between negotiated peace, security on the ground and the perception of both by the returnee. However, as a starting point for exploring these factors, I posed the following macro-research question:

5“Why, in the aftermath of a formal peace settlement, is voluntary repatriation to Darfur limited or non-existent?”

6On the basis of the opportunity/cost theory that views refugees as rational actors, I assumed that their decision to return would balance a number of push and pull factors associated with leaving the camps. Building upon observations from my first field mission, I limited this analysis to three main factors: economic ties, social ties and the perception of physical security on the ground. I posited that, in order to understand refugees’ final decisions about return, these factors should be examined comparatively, looking at their situation in the camps and in their previous homeland (section 3.3). In the field, these components were measured mostly through qualitative observations and data gathering. The methods used include structured questionnaires distributed to individual refugees, focus groups guided by open-ended questions and semi-structured individual interviews with refugees, humanitarian workers and socio-political actors (section 4.3).

7As further developed in section 4.1, the research tries to apply scientific methods, with assumptions being deduced from the existing literature on return-migration and used as filters for analysis in the empirical investigation. The approach to the study is critical, i.e. interested in understanding the phenomenon in its social and political context, and focuses on the micro-level – the refugees as individual decision-makers – whilst trying to take into account the political, social and economic structures in which their decisions take place. It also relies on the assumption that phenomena such as the meaning of “peace”, “identity” and “home” are interpreted subjectively and are continuously constructed by social actors, in this case the refugees themselves (section 6.1).

8Being conducted in a humanitarian setting, this study was confronted with all the challenges associated with research on forced migration and its ethics. Firstly, the need to obtain the formal consent of the respondents and to preserve the confidentiality of the information, which was often highly politically sensitive (Jacobsen and Landau 2003). In the case study, some of the refugees interviewed requested that their names be withheld. Secondly, “the problem of reaction to, and re-assessing the initial categorization of, an outsider” (Goodhand 2000) was partially mitigated through pre-interview presentations of the research, transparent communication, building relationships with the camp authorities and socializing in order to build mutual trust. Information was generally “triangulated” (Olsen 2004) in the context of focus groups and multiple interviews. Finally, in the effort to meet another essential imperative, the research question and analysis hope to shed light on the impasse that refugees and humanitarian workers are currently struggling with. Assuming that this exercise has not added to the pain suffered by those interviewed, it is hoped that their testimonies will draw greater attention to this longstanding and almost forgotten plight.

1.2 Definitions

  • 2 Armed conflict, violence, persecution and fear are central to the definition of being “displaced”, (...)
  • 3 The Principle of Non-Refoulement, enshrined in art. 33 of the Convention, reflects the commitment o (...)
  • 4 This right is enshrined in numerous legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil a (...)

9Recurrent terms used in this ePaper merit an initial definition. The first to be defined is the term “refugee”, conceptually characterized in art. 1 of the 1951 refugee Convention as an individual “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted (…), being outside the country of his former habitual residence”, and unable or unwilling to return to it in reason of such fear (…).” The 1989 OAU convention goes beyond the criterion of persecution, adding that the term refugee “shall apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country” (OAU 1989, art. 1(2))2. In the context of this study, I will label as “refugees” those who received refugee status from the UNHCR, while “persons in refugee-like situations” represent other individuals displaced across the borders who do not possess a refugee card. Similarly, the term “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) will be used to indicate “persons who have been forced (…) to leave or to flee their homes (…) to avoid effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights and natural or man-made disasters (…) and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” as defined by the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. As per the 1951 Convention, the UNHCR is charged with a core protection function towards these populations to ensure basic human rights, provide assistance, minimize the threat of violence, prevent refoulement and seek durable solutions (UNHCR 2001) 3. “Voluntary return” or “repatriation” will be used interchangeably to indicate one such durable solution. Although no universal definition presently exists, these terms describe a durable solution by which refugees re-avail themselves of the nationality and protection of their country of origin - be the return spontaneous, facilitated or promoted. In order to be promoted, the UNHCR needs to assess that sufficient changes having taken place in the country of origin which enable a return in “safety and dignity”, free from the fear of persecution that caused flight (UNHCR 1996, 6-8). Decisions to return should be made without any pressure, and are exercised by the refugees on the basis of their right to freely leave and freely return to their own country (UN 1948, art. 13(2)).4 The voluntary nature of the decision has to entail a free choice from within the country of asylum and should imply “an absence of any physical, psychological, or material pressure” (UNHCR 1996, 10). Other durable solutions; including local integration and resettlement, will also be touched on briefly. The former involves the acquisition of the nationality and rights of the refugee’s country of asylum, while the latter involves the relocation of the refugee to a third country through assistance and rights acquisition.

  • 5 At the end of 2010, it was estimated that 7.2 million refugees were caught up in 29 PRSs around the (...)

10One of the keys to understanding the Darfur crisis is the concept of “protracted refugee situation” (PRS). This may be described as a situation in which refugees are trapped for several years in alien territories “in a longstanding and intractable state of limbo” and “without any immediate prospect or durable solution to their plight” (Crisp 2003, 1). These situations usually stem from a political impasse, protracted social conflict or inaction in the country of origin and/or of asylum. They are fraught with all the risks and deprivations that come with protracted displacement, such as insecure locations, harsh climatic conditions, limited rights and freedoms and often the un-fulfillment of social, economic and psychological needs. Numerically, PRSs are defined as situations in which “at least 25,000 refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for five years or longer in a given asylum country”.5 The next section will describe how the Darfur refugee situation in eastern Chad can fit this definition based on the broader political and social context that triggered the crisis. Finally, another concept that requires mention is peace-building”, which, according to the UN includes “all support actions which strengthen and solidify peace to avoid relapse into conflict” (UN Agenda for Peace 1992, 21). Although not central to the analysis of the case, it will be used to interpret some of its findings.

11Since repatriation cannot be disconnected from sustainable peace and peace processes, a review of the theory will expand on these linkages in support of the research question posed.


1 De Waal, “How Mass Atrocities End”, seminar held by the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, Medford, November 18 2011.

2 Armed conflict, violence, persecution and fear are central to the definition of being “displaced”, and are the main triggers of a displaced person’s entitlement to receive international protection. At the end of 2010 the UNHCR counted 43.7 million displaced persons fleeing conflict of which about 15.4 million were refugees and 25.7 million IDPs; 1.3 million “people of concern” did not fall into either of the previous categories (UNHCR 2011, 5).

3 The Principle of Non-Refoulement, enshrined in art. 33 of the Convention, reflects the commitment of the contracting parties not to “expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This principle basically prohibits involuntary repatriation by the host country, with the exception of refugees who have reasonable grounds to be regarded “as a danger to the security of that country” (Art. 33).

4 This right is enshrined in numerous legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 12(4)), the International Convention on Racial Discrimination (art. 5d(ii)), and other regional treaties. It is also a customary right which stems from the domestic law of states (Phuong 2005).

5 At the end of 2010, it was estimated that 7.2 million refugees were caught up in 29 PRSs around the world (UNHCR 2011, 15).

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