The Politics of Return

One of the thorniest post-war questions undergoes new analysis

Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan have impeccable humanitarian credentials. Adelman founded the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, where there is now a lecture series named after him, and Barkan runs a human rights institute at Columbia University in New York. The fact that their book, No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation, is highly critical of other human rights advocates is typical of the contemporary literature on humanitarianism, which resembles the World Wrestling Federation at its height. Just as André the Giant and Hulk Hogan might be friends one week, only to bloody each other in a steel cage match the next, it is now quite normal for human rights defenders to issue brutally honest critiques of organizations with which they otherwise agree and are happy to count as allies.

Adelman and Barkan demonstrate the bare-knuckle humanitarian approach by scoring some tidy hits against Amnesty International and other non-government organizations whose concern for refugees they otherwise share. According to Adelman and Barkan, whether displaced refugees ever go home depends crucially on the ethnic make-up of the country of return. Refugee and human rights organizations overlook this, to the point that their interventions in many crises are unrealistic and counterproductive.

The authors make their case by examining a dozen refugee crises, from familiar conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda to forgotten emergencies in Burma and Eritrea. A typical case is provided by the Lhotshampa people, leading contenders for the title of most obscure victims of persecution. In 1989 and 1990 they were subject to mass expulsion from Bhutan, a remote mountain kingdom in Asia that few westerners could locate. A third of the Bhutanese population was ethnically cleansed but the world took no notice, and the Lhotshampas have been trapped in camps in Nepal ever since.

In Bhutan the Lhotshampas were a cultural minority, Hindus of Nepalese descent in a predominantly Buddhist country. Nepal, for its part, refused to integrate them, despite their Nepali ­language and heritage. Fifteen rounds of talks between Bhutan and Nepal did nothing to break an impasse that eventually saw more than 100,000 people warehoused in camps that have spawned devastating levels of disease, malnutrition and sexual assault. Only in 2006 did Nepal allow the United Nations to begin resettling 70,000 Lhotshampas in western countries, including Canada, where over 2,600 of a planned 5,000 have landed.

In Adelman and Barkan’s telling, crucial to understanding the Lhotshampas’ situation is their minority status in Bhutan. It is not unusual for refugee populations to return home when they are members of the majority in the country of return. But when the would-be returnees are not in the majority, and the conflict they fled had an ethnic component, the animosity that originally forced them to run usually lingers long after the fighting lulls, making the dominant population unwilling to accept them.

This lesson is often lost on refugee and human rights advocates. In Nepal the South Asian Forum for Human Rights, a consortium of human rights NGOs, stubbornly pushed repatriation as a solution, long after it was obvious that Bhutan’s intransigence made that impossible. Among the refugees themselves, some factions were so committed to return that they waged an intimidation campaign against those pushing for resettlement abroad.

All of the refugee populations Adelman and Barkan examine are minorities. In each case, the lesson of the Lhotshampas applies. “Refugees and displaced persons who are minorities and are products of ethnic conflict do not, in practice, enjoy any right of return,” they write. “Furthermore, when the right of return is adapted as a slogan or a principle to govern policy, the result appears to prolong misery for the refugees.”

No Return, No Refuge is especially concerned with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinians have experienced the longest exile of any refugee group in the world, but their push for a separate state is often thought to put them in a unique category. Adelman and Barkan’s concern with a right of return has obvious bearing on the Middle East. After their early chapters debunking such a right, the reader braces for an anti-Palestinian polemic. What they actually argue is more interesting and nuanced.

Adelman and Barkan have been influenced by the so-called New Historians, Israeli academics who have challenged Israel’s understanding of its origin. Where the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 was once celebrated as an inspiring national epic, Benny Morris and other New Historians have presented evidence from Israeli archives for a far more measured view, particularly as it concerns the displacement of the Palestinians.

Adelman and Barkan follow Morris in recounting grim Israeli policies during and after 1948, ranging from the destruction of Arab villages to the passage of the Absentees’ Property Law, which legalized the confiscation of Palestinian property on a national scale (“it might well have been named the law of no return”). In terms of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the authors write that “Palestinians have been the greater victims of the clash between the two national movements.”

Adelman and Barkan’s original twist is to extend the historical revisionism to the Palestinian right of return, critically examining some of the myths that have also sprung up around it (albeit using interpretive and analytic tools rather than archival research). Palestinian hardliners claim that the right of return denotes a right to return to the particular homes Palestinian families lost in 1948 and, furthermore, that this claim is one Palestinians have made continuously since 1948, when United Nations Resolution 194 recognized such a right.

But Adelman and Barkan note that the right of return has actually evolved historically and been subject to different interpretations. In the early years of the conflict, seeking international recognition of a right of return was subsumed under the more immediate goal of vanquishing Israel through military victory. After Israel’s triumph in the Third Arab-Israeli War (or Six-Day War) in 1967 made it clear that such a victory was unlikely, Palestinian leaders began to make their case by reference to international law. By the late 1980s, Resolution 194 was widely cited as the basis of a right to return, even though it does not specifically mention such a right, which only became explicit in later UN resolutions of the 1960s and ’70s.1 “Though it took forty years for the right of return based on Resolution 194 to become a focus for Palestinian demands and justifications,” say Adelman and Barkan, “the position has become eternal in public memory.”

Some Palestinian families still have the iron keys to the homes they lost in 1948. For them, the right of return does symbolize the right of return to their old houses. But Adelman and Barkan chart the rise of a second understanding of the right of return, one that now finds wide support among more pragmatic Palestinian intellectuals and political leaders.

A key figure in this regard is Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi, who teaches in the same Columbia graduate school as Barkan. He became a talking point during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign when it emerged that he had been a friend of Barack Obama when they both taught at the University of Chicago. Obama had to fend off accusations from Fox News and Sarah Palin that his foreign policy would be influenced by a dangerous extremist.

In reality Khalidi is a respected scholar, one whom Adelman and Barkan credit with reformulating the right of return to involve return not to Palestinian homes, but to a Palestinian homeland. Among other considerations favouring this approach is that many Palestinian homes from 1948 have been destroyed, and emphasizing the significance of those that remain gives Israel an incentive to demolish them. During the 1990s Khalidi made it respectable to think of the right of return as a general claim to self-determination, the same view Palestinian leaders were brought to in pursuing the peace process. According to the authors, “Khalidi’s position has since become the primary position in the various peace negotiations.”

In the Palestinian case Adelman and Barkan recommend a mixture of compensation and return. Occupants of Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon should be returned primarily to the Palestinian territory, with only a symbolic repatriation, less than 100,000 people, to Israel itself. In other conflicts, the authors suggest NGOs and refugee leaders should be equally open to pragmatic solutions involving compensation, local integration or resettlement, rather than always prioritizing a right to return. Insisting on such a right subjects minority refugees to “the twilight zone of implausible rights that exist primarily as rites,” arcane gestures that at best have no effect, and at worst prolong their suffering.

Adelman and Barkan’s well-researched book is thoughtful and provocative. Its chief merit is to deepen our understanding of the special challenges facing minority returns. There is a tendency to conceive of refugees as an undifferentiated mass. This book clarifies the overlooked dynamics of minority displacement with vivid force, like a black and white film that bursts into colour.

The authors are persuasive that minority returns face huge difficulties. But are they correct that in such cases invoking a right of return amounts to an empty “rite,” as their recurring analogy suggests? Their evidence supports a slightly different view.

The authors successfully debunk the claim, put out by various NGOs and international agencies, that the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict was a great minority repatriation success story. Many Muslims and other ex-Yugoslavs did return home. Yet in regions where they were in the minority, it was usually only long enough to sell their reclaimed or rebuilt property before moving to an area where they were in the majority. The outcome was really one of property restitution, rather than minority return.

But is that so bad? Being recognized as a title holder would transform the life of a Lhotshampa or Palestinian. If the international push after Bosnia was for return, yet a different positive outcome happened, it does not seem grounds to dismiss the right of return as an esoteric ritual. That Bosnia was the first time a right of return was ever written into a peace accord suggests we are still in the early days of fostering minority return.

As No Return, No Refuge went to press the Palestinian Papers appeared. Al-Jazeera, functioning as a Middle Eastern WikiLeaks, released thousands of documents from twelve years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The papers revealed that while Palestinian negotiators certainly wanted a Palestinian state, they had abandoned the dream of a mass return to Israel and accepted the staggered repatriation of only 100,000 refugees. Some Palestinians reacted with shock and outrage to these revelations, which suggests that a commitment to what Adelman and Barkan term “absolute return” remains alive.

But the fact that the official Palestinian position was already so pragmatic makes one wonder if the authors do not exaggerate the negative import of the absolute view. If it played no role in a decade of peace talks, as Adelman and Barkan admit, it is not clear how the Palestinian material fits with their theme of the right of return distracting from pragmatic resolutions to refugee crises.

When national movements issue slogans or demands, those demands can have value even when they are crudely made and do not achieve their ostensible goal. A slogan being simple and easy to repeat permits its adoption on a mass scale, which in some contexts is valuable in itself. In the case of the Palestinians, they were once considered simply “Arabs.” An enduring insistence on a right of return is one of the things that has given them a profile as a separate people with a legitimate grievance. Street-level calls for a right of return, although simplistic, have prevented the Palestinian emergency from being forgotten the way many others have, and have arguably created leverage for Palestinian pragmatists by positioning them as moderates—leverage that, despite recent setbacks, now sees the conflict with Israel closer to resolution than it was in the aftermath of 1967.

As in Bosnia, such a result does not seem to justify dismissing the right of return as a pointless occult rite. A better analogy might be to an attempt to summon the spirit of Zeus that causes Odin to appear instead. Not quite what was intended, but an impressive outcome nonetheless.


  1. The section of Resolution 194 dealing with refugees resolves that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to the property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”