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Refugees, repatriation and liberal citizenship

Long, Katy (2011) Refugees, repatriation and liberal citizenship. History of European Ideas, 37 (2). pp. 232-241. ISSN 0191-6599

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Identification Number: 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2010.10.016


This article considers the meanings attached to refugeehood, repatriation and liberal citizenship in the twentieth century. Refugees are those who have been unjustly expelled from their political community. Their physical displacement is above all symbolic of a deeper political separation from the state and the citizenry. ‘Solving’ refugees’ exile is therefore not a question of halting refugees’ flight and reversing their movement, but requires political action restoring citizenship. All three ‘durable solutions’ developed by the international community in the twentieth century – repatriation, resettlement and local integration – are intended to restore a refugee's access to citizenship, and through citizenship the protection and expression of their fundamental human rights. Yet repatriation poses particular challenges for liberal political thought. The logic of repatriation reinforces the organization of political space into bounded nation–state territories. However, it is the exclusionary consequences of national controls over political membership – and through this of access to citizenship rights – that prompt mass refugee flows. Can a framework for repatriation be developed which balances national state order and liberal citizenship rights? This article argues that using the social contract model to consider the different obligations and pacts between citizens, societies and states can provide a theoretical framework through which the liberal idea of citizenship and national controls on membership can be reconciled. Historical evidence suggests that the connections in practice between ideas of citizenship and repatriation have been far more complex. In particular, debate between Western liberal and Soviet authoritarian/collectivist understandings of the relationship between citizen and state played a key role in shaping the refugee protection regime that emerged after World War II and remains in place today. Repatriation – or more accurately liberal resistance to non-voluntary refugee repatriation – became an important tool of Cold War politics and retains an important value for states interested in projecting and reaffirming the primacy of liberal citizenship values. Yet the contradictions in post-Cold War operational use of repatriation to ‘solve’ displacement, and a growing reliance on ‘state-building’ exercises to validate refugees’ returns demonstrates that tension remains between national state interests and the universal distribution of liberal rights, as is particularly evident when considering Western donor states’ contemporary policies on refugees and asylum. For both intellectual and humanitarian reasons there is therefore an urgent need for the political theory underpinning refugee protection to be closely examined, in order that citizenship can be placed at the centre of refugees’ ‘solutions’.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2011 Elsevier
Divisions: International Development
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Sets: Departments > International Development
Date Deposited: 05 Mar 2012 11:02
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2020 02:48

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