It’s encouraging to see that John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, understands one of the most fundamental principles of dealing with situations of mass displacement: that returns must be voluntary. If returns are forced, it means that people don’t yet feel safe returning to their homes, and the resettlement can effectively act as renewed displacement.

Discussing Pakistan’s plan to begin returns for some of the more than two million displaced by last month’s army offensive, Holmes was adamant:

“We have been clear to the government, and the humanitarian community has in general, that this has got to be voluntary and the government say they accept that.

“Obviously they want to encourage people to go back, but we need to be very careful that it is a proper process, that it is voluntary, that the conditions are right when they get there, the basic services as well as security,” he said.

The only awkward part was his admission that he is — understandably — “a bit uncomfortable” with the fact that the same army that conducted the military operation will also be leading the return program.

And in case anyone thought that returning two million people to their homes was going to be easy — it’s also going to cost billions of dollars in reconstruction. In two months, donors have met less than half of the UN’s rather modest appeal for $542 million.

(image from flickr user Al Jazeera English under a Creative Commons license)

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