Policy conceptions of home and contemporary solutions to displacement

International policies that address population displacement have developed in tandem with last century’s rise of national frameworks of belonging and homeland, often couched in terms of citizenship, in which people are believed to belong to one place, one nation state. The international political and legal structures in place to address displacement and the plight of displaced people are thus built around concepts such as ‘return’,‘repatriation’ and ‘country of origin’, to put people back into place. These legal terms signal a shared understanding of how the international community deals with the problem of people ‘out of place’ (Malkki 1992).The terms have been presented across several compendia prepared by the key actors involved in supporting refugee repatriation or, if a return to a country of origin proves impossible, local integration in the country that had granted asylum or resettlement in a third country. Despite the acknowledgement of their weaknesses, these are well-recognized and commonly accepted terms, framed as the ‘durable solutions’ to displacement: ‘durable’ because they address a humanitarian need, should not require revisiting and, by implication, represent an end to displacement.

The discourse around the durable solutions may, however, be seen in stark contrast to the circumstances of the contemporary era in which long-term displacement for both refugees and IDPs has become the norm. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that in the 32 long-term situations of displacement ‘of concern,’ people had been displaced for an average of 26 years (UNHCR 2015). Prevailing approaches to solving refugee crises — the three ‘durable solutions’ — have largely failed to produce a meaningful end to displaced people’s predicament (Brun and Fabos 2017). Moreover, the current policies for long-term refugee situations contribute to the dominant narrative that displaced people are either ‘stuck’ in limbo and passive, or on the move and threatening.The implied solution to this double bind is for refugees to‘go home’.

If there is a contemporary discourse that ‘going home’ is the best solution for refugees, the concept of home itself is notably undefined. The first edition of the International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology, published in 1989,’’ offers terms related to housing, shelter, settlements, relations with host communities and family, in which specific definitions including home birth and home economics can be found, but home itself does not appear as a unique thesaurus class. In 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) formulated a master glossary of terms to guide consistency in policy and practice. The term ‘home’ was not part of that glossary, either. Neither does the second edition of the International Organisation for Migration’s Glossary on Migration, published in 2011, include ‘home’ as an entry, nor does the UNESCO Handbook of Selected Terms and Concepts for People on the Move (2008). Discussing this matter with some of those involved in formulating the glossary, it is clear that home as a term of policy use was never added to the thesaurus; it is too complex and has too many meanings, while simultaneously so commonplace as to seem unnecessary to include. Despite a surge in research on home and forced migration since the early 2000s, the word is still, to a large extent, taken for granted in policy.

The concept’s taken-for-grantedness influences policy in particular ways. An analysis of key humanitarian law and refugee protection instruments, such as the 1951 Geneva Convention, shows that the terminology around asylum, protection and return of refugees is clearly laid out, yet ‘home’ remains undefined and the implication of the geographic home-place around which refugees’ flight, loss and displacement centres remains unspecified. The meaning of home that emerges from our analysis is a ‘flat’ home, a home that is synonymous with the nation state: an understanding that does not capture the multiple scales and dimensions of home. Home is related to a location; it is either where someone originated from or where they have become integrated or naturalized. It thus refers to a particular scale: the nation state. Additionally, it is an understanding of home without a temporal dimension, and is a static and bounded notion of home.

Largely missing from the policy discourse is what forced migrants themselves do. People living in long-term displacement must create and re-create home on a daily basis, while developing strategies for the future and maintaining connections to their previous lives. The majority of policy documents are devoid of any acknowledgement of refugee agency, and do not refer to homemaking as a process that takes place at several levels. In a sense, the refugee ‘predicament’ is rather a predicament for the international community to deal with the elephant in the room, namely the inadequacy of the current geopolitical model — where home is relegated to bounded, static and unidimensional nation-state territories for the majority of mobile people.4 This predicament drives the long-term encampment, warehousing or permanent temporariness of refugees and IDPs (Brun and Fabos 2017).

The analysis presented here challenges the ways in which nation states and the‘inter-national’ community employ encampment, minimum standards and ‘don’t die survival’ (Cindy Horst, in Hyndman and Giles 2011) to address unending displacement. Essentialist and static notions of home continue to fix forced migrants in both place and time, depriving them of agency and the opportunities to move on and make homes in displacement. A feminist approach to the agentive work of making home helps us to unpack the gendered aspects of control inherent in policies that derive from such a static understanding of home.

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