Jessie Thomson is senior director of program innovation and strategic partnerships at CARE Canada. She is also a member of the World Refugee Council.
Ask refugees the world over what they want, and many will quickly reply they just wish to return home.
Of course, home is not meant as the burning, miserable place they fled violence and certain death. But rather, it's a period of time where they could live their lives in peace.
This realization is heard in the sad sigh from Syria's refugees wondering what may remain years after they left. Or those living in Kenya, born in Dadaab refugee camp, whose homeland Somalia is a story told by others.
Over the past three months, violence in Myanmar has uprooted thousands of people who have crossed the country's border in search of asylum. Such a surge would test the capacity of any state, let alone Bangladesh, which already has high levels of poverty.
So it was greeted as a positive development that the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar had come to an agreement to allow those who have fled to soon return.
Globally, the average refugee can spend more than two decades in exile. The reasons vary by circumstance but are united by the fact that too often there is no simple solution that will allow people to return home.
In some situations, such as that of Bhutanese refugees in the 1990s, their country of origin was adamant they did not have the right to return. Meanwhile, ongoing violence in their homeland continues to prevent Afghan, Syrian, and South Sudanese refugees from heading back. Books have filled shelves about Palestinian refugees and the challenges of their situation.
The new agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar is indeed a big step forward towards more durable solutions. However, the danger lies in the details of a hasty return. Given the extreme levels of violence refugees have experienced, returning in the near future will be extremely challenging. Families remain traumatized. Many of their villages are now ash.
While the desire remains for a swift end to this crisis, the reality is that these people will continue to need safe haven. The international community, including Canada, must also do what it can to help.
The Canadian government has responded to this crisis both with humanitarian support and diplomatic efforts. This must be sustained.
Regarding the latter, a few key points need to be emphasized. First, any return should be voluntary and made on the informed decision of the refugee alone and not against their will. Second, people need to be treated with dignity, such that they have homes and not camps to return to, access to basic services and livelihoods, and the full realization of rights. Finally, the international community must also ensure that their return is sustainable. If you encourage people to go home too fast, they'll just flee again and end up back where they started.
Support for refugees in Bangladesh and those who voluntarily return must take into consideration the specific needs of men, women, boys and girls. Due to violence and trauma, women may be less willing to return than men, and the decision to return should be individual and not necessarily made by the head of a household.
Whether we're talking about the current Myanmar situation or crises that have lasted for decades, there does need to be recognition that some people may never wish to go home due to the severity of the persecution they suffered. Lasting solutions such as local integration and resettlement must be on the table as well.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has recognized this and shown a welcoming attitude towards refugees, particularly those fleeing Syria.
The troubles that led to a sudden surge of refugees in Bangladesh have deep roots. Canadian officials will need to prepare for a long and difficult path before families who faced unspeakable violence can safely have a place to call home.