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You are here: Home Research Resources Expert Guides Return of Forced Migrants Introduction



Voluntary repatriation, resettlement and local integration are the three ‘durable solutions’ to refugee crises recognised under international law, and facilitated by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Repatriating refugees and asylum seekers return from their country of asylum to their country of origin, either to their original communities or elsewhere. In-country return is also one of the key means for resolving internal displacement situations. Return migration may be permanent or short term, such as in the case of displaced persons who revisit their homes to assess the viability of returning with their families. Under international law and the norms espoused by organisations such as UNHCR, return must be voluntary in character and must take place ‘in conditions of safety and dignity’. Voluntary return should only be undertaken where there has been a fundamental change in the circumstances causing displacement. For instance, a peace agreement may have been signed, or an abusive regime replaced with a new government that protects the rights of its citizens. However, if the injustices at the root of forced displacement are not successfully redressed, repatriating refugees may easily become internally displaced persons (IDPs).

United Nations member states and UNHCR have long regarded return as the ‘preferred’ solution to refugees’ plight, and declared the 1990s the Decade of Repatriation (for e.g. Takahashi 1997). In many cases, refugees themselves also favour repatriation as the solution to their displacement, yet repatriation has only recently been actively pursued as the principle durable solution for refugees. After World War II, UNHCR’s precursor, the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) did not encourage the repatriation of displaced persons to communist countries where they could be persecuted as traitors. During the Cold War, the use of repatriation as a durable solution was limited as millions of refugees who ‘voted with their feet’ against repression and conflict in communist-aligned countries were offered permanent resettlement in the West. Permanent resettlement was offered principally to those refugees who were able to seek asylum in the West, but many refugees were also resettled from regions such as Southeast Asia.

Once the Cold War ended, the political utility of offering permanent resettlement to refugees diminished. At the same time, local integration opportunities waned as the developing countries hosting the majority of the world’s refugees adopted increasingly restrictive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers, in part as a protest against inadequate progress in establishing ‘burden sharing’ mechanisms between the global North and South, and in reaction to the continued militarization of refugee populations. Faced with the prospect of the indefinite ‘warehousing’ of millions of refugees in often impoverished and isolated camps, international efforts shifted to promoting the return of refugees and IDPs. In the last three years alone, more than 5 million refugees have returned to their countries of origin in 27 large-scale repatriation programmes. Major destination countries include Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Iraq , Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Somalia. These and other repatriation programmes have not been unproblematic: while many scholars, practitioners and policymakers argue that return is a fundamental right of forced migrants, others see the new focus on return as an erosion of refugee rights and question the voluntariness of many repatriation movements.

This guide is not intended to provide a comprehensive discussion of return in all its facets. Rather, it aims to set out some of the core principles and issues surrounding the return of refugees and IDPs, and highlight the challenges associated with making return a safe, dignified and sustainable process. It also addresses some of the issues raised by the return of failed asylum seekers. The guide seeks to help the reader navigate the extensive literature on return, and identify areas where additional research is required. The guide is open to revision and any recommendations for additional literature or websites will be warmly welcomed.

UNHCR, Refugees by Numbers 2005

Key actors

In addition to states of origin, states of asylum and displaced persons themselves, key actors in the return process include UN agencies, other regional and international organisations, donors, peacekeepers and NGOs in countries of asylum as well as in countries of origin. Although many displaced persons return ‘spontaneously’, that is, outside of an organized return process and without targeted assistance from governments or humanitarian agencies, UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) often take the lead in facilitating large-scale return movements, working in cooperation with national governments. UNHCR and the IOM may also be involved in monitoring and providing initial support to returnees and their communities. However, a much wider array of political, legal and development institutions must cooperate in order to make return processes sustainable. In addition to those organisations that provide direct assistance to returnees, a number of advocacy and research groups report on the conditions facing returnees, and develop policy recommendations for governments, the United Nations and NGOs.

African Union
Amnesty International
Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugees’ Rights
Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement
Global IDP Project
Human Rights Watch
International Committee of the Red Cross
International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights—Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons
Oxfam International
Refugees International
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)
Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children

Studying return movements

Researchers have approached the questions surrounding return from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, including law, economics, politics, psychology, anthropology, geography and sociology. A substantial proportion of the literature on return has been developed by anthropologists concerned with perceptions of return and homeland within exiled communities, and how these perceptions contrast with the actual experience of return. Various scholars have employed a regional approach, addressing the particular obstacles posed by return to and within areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the literature on return is case-specific and examines contemporary or historical return movements. However, there is also a substantial body of literature intended to advocate and plan for an eventual return of the Palestinian refugees. Equally, a portion of the literature on the Palestinian refugee situation does not advance the case for return, out of concern that many Palestinians may not return by choice, but may be forced out of their host countries.

Many studies on return have been conducted by advocacy or humanitarian organisations, with a view to improving policymaking on return. In this vein, the comparative study of return processes is increasingly used to identify and evaluate practices that may help or hinder the homecoming of forced migrants. There is also a growing body of critical literature on the role of UNHCR and national governments in developing and implementing policies on return. With respect to repatriation to countries such as East Timor and Afghanistan, scholars are questioning the timing and motivation behind these operations, as well as the volunariness of the process.

While research on return has often concentrated on the macro-level perspectives of the national governments and international organisations involved in the facilitation of large-scale repatriation movements, it is increasingly recognized that more research is needed that examines the perspectives of returnees themselves, the gender dimensions of return, and the impact of return on communities or origin, as well as on vacated host communities. Field studies on return often examine only a short portion of the return process; future research on return may benefit from a longer-term perspective on the process.

American University in Cairo Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program
Centre for Refugee Studies, York University
Forced Migration Studies Program, University of the Witwatersrand
Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK (ICAR)
Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University
International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM)
International Development Research Centre-Peace Conflict and Development Program
Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Palestinian Refugee Research Net (PRRN)
Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
Last updated Aug 17, 2011