Rohingya refugees shout slogans against repatriation to Myanmar at the Unchiprang camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh last month. (Dar Yasin/AP)

We cannot go back,” declared Mohammad Ilyas, a refugee from Myanmar living in Bangladesh. Yet Ilyas is also uncertain whether he can remain: Like the roughly 1 million other Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, he cannot work or provide education for his children.

In an ideal world, refugees like Ilyas would be resettled to a third safe country, but few countries are willing to accept the Rohingya. As a result, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) announced last month that it is prepared to help Rohingya refugees visit Myanmar to consider returning home, or “repatriating.” Eventually, UNHCR could provide transport and aid for refugees permanently repatriating, as it did for Rohingya refugees in the 1990s.

UNHCR emphasizes that returns must be voluntary and safe. But refugees may choose to return solely because life in Bangladesh has become unbearable — and they have no other alternative.

UNHCR faces an ethical dilemma that my research has identified and attempted to resolve. I call it the Consent Dilemma: On the one hand, if UNHCR helps refugees repatriate, many will return who have no reasonable alternative, and so perhaps their choices are involuntary. If UNHCR has failed to obtain refugees’ voluntary consent, it may be acting unethically in helping them return. On the other hand, if UNHCR is fairly certain refugees will remain detained and destitute in Bangladesh, helping with return may seem the best option.

My research on the Consent Dilemma

My research consisted of examining how prevalent this dilemma is globally, whether it could be easily avoided and how it might be resolved.

To understand how prevalent the dilemma is globally, between 2008 and 2015, I conducted interviews with 16 organizations’ staff members who had been involved in repatriation in the Middle East, East Africa and Southeast Asia. I asked them to describe why refugees chose to repatriate and looked at organizational reports describing repatriation. They made clear that versions of the Consent Dilemma were common.

For example, in the 1980s, UNHCR helped Ethiopians return home from Djibouti, which many refugees felt compelled to do because Djiboutian authorities had stopped delivering food aid. In the early 2000s, UNHCR helped Afghan refugees return home from Pakistan, after Pakistani authorities threatened to throw them in prison if they stayed.

In the 2010s, it helped Somali refugees return home from Kenya, after Kenyan authorities threatened them with deportation to Somalia if they stayed. In the many cases like these, it is not clear whether UNHCR acted ethically because the refugees had little choice but to return to the unsafe conditions they had fled.

Can the dilemma be avoided?

Between 2010 and 2016, I considered whether organizations might avoid this dilemma. To do this, I observed a single case of repatriation from Israel. An international nongovernmental organization had been helping a small number of South Sudanese refugees in Jerusalem return home. Although these refugees had very few rights in Israel, the NGO carefully interviewed each refugee and refused to help those who indicated they were returning home under compulsion, not by choice. In total, it assisted roughly 900 refugees’ returns between 2010 and 2013, claiming all had returned voluntarily.

To see whether this was true, I traveled to South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya between 2012 and 2018 and conducted 128 in-depth interviews with returnees. The majority who had returned before 2011 did so voluntarily, they made clear. But after 2011, the NGO changed its policies — and helped repatriate refugees who were being detained or were destitute because they couldn’t legally work. Alek, a mother of two, described this period in her life:

Every day [in Israel] started with a mess. You go outside, and they tell you, “Go back to your country! Why are you here? Your country has money! Go home!” In June, they took my husband’s visa and said, “We will not give you a new visa.” We were left without work for two months. I said, “What? What will I do?” So I thought, “I will say thank you to God that we are healthy and go back.”

In other words, despite the NGO’s efforts, it faced the same Consent Dilemma as UNHCR did. Its pre-2011 policy avoided forced returns. But after 2011, it helped refugees like Alek who felt they had no choice but to return home.

Which policy was ethically acceptable — the first, or both?

A potential solution

The final stage of my research attempted to resolve the dilemma, examining whether refugees can give valid consent for returning if they will face detention and destitution in remaining.

In many parts of life, people can give valid consent even if their only alternatives are harmful. A patient can consent to surgery even if the alternative is death.

Here’s a more complicated example. Imagine someone threatens to shoot you unless you consent to lend me your watch. If I can’t stop the aggressor’s actions, and you consent, I should probably borrow your watch. Your involuntary consent makes my borrowing ethical because there is little else I can do. But if there is something I can do — if I can tell the aggressor to put her gun down and she will — I should do that first. In other words, your consent is valid to the extent that I try to stop the coercion.

Similarly, perhaps refugees can give valid consent if their choice is coerced — so long as organizations first try to end the coercion. In the past, some organizations have done exactly that. In the 1990s, NGOs working with Kurdish refugees from Iraq lobbied the Turkish government to grant those refugees asylum. Only after this failed did those organizations help the refugees return to Iraq. Similarly, NGOs in Israel apparently tried to improve conditions for refugees before helping them return. And UNHCR claims to be working hard to improve conditions for refugees in Bangladesh. Perhaps it will help with repatriation only if this fails.

Mollie Gerver (@MollieGerver) is an assistant professor at the University of Essex and author of The Ethics and Practice of Refugee Repatriation (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).