The Statute of UNHCR charges the High Commissioner for Refugees with the task of pursuing durable solutions to the problem of refugees: voluntary repatriation, local integration, and resettlement. Voluntary repatriation is generally considered to be the preferred one. UNHCR takes it, in accordance with this assignment, to mean the return of refugees rather than former refugees, that is, those who lost their refugee status because the circumstances in connection with which they had been recognized as refugees have ceased to exist. In short, UNHCR’s point of departure is promoting and encouraging the return of those who are by definition unrepatriable with the argument that this timing allows it to extend protection and assistance to the refugees before they formally cease to be refugees. In practice – both that of UNHCR and States – this point of departure appears prone to compromising the rights of refugees. It is therefore questioned by means of taking recourse to the repatriation practice of UNHCR’s immediate predecessors. On the basis of past practice, an alternative understanding of voluntary repatriation is offered that does not involve the return of those who are entitled to protection in exile, safeguards their rights, and is nonetheless in accordance with the Statute of UNHCR and the obligations of States under the relevant instruments.
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