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Managing return

Managing return

UNHCR’s ‘4Rs’ approach (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation, reconstruction)

UNHCR’s approach to return is set out in its Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern, and focuses on four key phases of the return process: repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction. UNHCR’s activities during a repatriation operation are guided by their international legal obligations, the terms of tripartite agreements, and the procedures set out in the Handbook for Voluntary Repatriation, as well as the more recent Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities. Large-scale repatriations typically take place in fragile post-conflict conditions. Designed as an ‘integrated approach’ to such situations, the 4Rs framework aims to ‘bring together humanitarian and development actors, create a conducive environment in countries of origin to prevent the recurrence of mass outflows and facilitate sustainable repatriation and reintegration’ (UNHCR 2004: v). This approach recognises that successful return is much more than a question of transportation and humanitarian assistance. According to current thinking amongst humanitarian practitioners, sustainable return requires a coordinated transition from humanitarian assistance to long-term development that benefits not only returnees but also other community members in return areas.

UNHCR’s implementation of the 4Rs approach and earlier repatriation models has hardly, if ever, been smooth. Several insightful evaluative studies of recent repatriation operations have been completed by UNHCR’s Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, as well as by independent researchers and NGOs.

Lippman, B. and Malik, S. (2004) ‘The 4Rs: The way ahead?’, Forced Migration Review 21
Uehling, G. (2004) ‘Translating the 4Rs into an operational tool’, Forced Migration Review 21
UNHCR (2003) Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern, Geneva, UNHCR
UNHCR (1996) Handbook for Voluntary Repatriation, Geneva, UNHCR Department of International Protection
UNHCR (2004) Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities, Geneva, UNHCR
Worby, P. (2000) Refugee Return and Reintegration in Guatemala: Lessons Learned by UNHCR, 1987-1999, Geneva, UNHCR

Dissemination of information, logistics and monitoring

Large-scale assisted return movements are complex logistical feats that often take place alongside ‘spontaneous’ or unassisted return migration. Displaced persons’ decision-making regarding return depends on the dissemination of detailed information on the conditions prospective returnees can expect to find in their home communities. This information is often distributed through UNHCR, the IOM, NGOs or displaced persons’ organisations. Ideally, the organisations with responsibility for facilitating the process register those who wish to return, affirming that this choice has been undertaken voluntarily. Arrangements are then made for transportation, border crossing and, if possible, family reunification in the country of origin. In many cases returnees are provided with an initial cash grant to facilitate their immediate resettlement. Alternatively, they may be provided with kits containing basic subsistence items, tools and seeds, or access to work programmes. Monitoring conditions in areas of return is often a daunting undertaking given the scale of many contemporary return movements. However, monitoring is essential to ensuring protection and identifying and responding to breakdowns in the provision of support to return areas. Groups such as the Fleet Forum and the Fritz Institute are working to foster a more efficient, professional approach to the logistical challenges associated with providing assistance to the displaced, including during return operations.

Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP)
Di Mezza, S. (2005) ‘Information, counselling and legal assistance for returning Sudanese IDPs’, Forced Migration Review 24, p. 40
Fleet Forum
FMR (2003) ‘Delivering the goods: Rethinking humanitarian logistics’, Forced Migration Review 18, September.
Fritz Institute
International Centre for Migration Policy Development (Repatriation Information Centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Institutional arrangements for the cooperative management of return

Similarly to the emergency phase of a humanitarian disaster, hundreds of institutions and agencies may be involved in facilitating and monitoring the return process. These actors include national and local governments, UN agencies, donors, local and international NGOs, peacekeepers and displaced persons’ organisations. The sustainability of the return process depends on the establishment of security and the transition from emergency relief to long-term development—tasks which no one agency alone is equipped to carry out. Lack of coordination and communication between these actors often leads to the inefficient distribution of limited resources and the paralysis of national institutions intended to uphold the rights of returnees. Approaches to the challenge of coordination have evolved in recent years. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) now takes a lead role in promoting inter-agency cooperation during emergencies as well as during return operations. Building on its long experience of facilitating refugee repatriation, UNHCR has accepted responsibility for the protection of IDPs, including during the return process, as part of the UN’s ‘collaborative approach’ to IDP assistance. Donors may also promote coordination by designating responsibility for supporting the return process to a lead domestic agency. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Institutional Policy on Internally Displaced Persons affirms that USAID is the primary US agency with responsibility for internal displacement, including the return process.

An extensive amount of research and evaluation is carried out by advocacy groups and the evaluation branches of humanitarian organisations on effective institutional arrangements for supporting the displaced. Although much of this research may easily become dated as new policy arrangements are introduced, it plays a significant role in identifying the persistent obstacles to effective coordination and assessing efforts to overcome these obstacles. Research on inter-agency cooperation and coordination typically focuses on the emergency phase of a humanitarian crisis, or analyses a forced migration emergency in its entirety, from initial displacement to the return and reintegration of refugees and IDPs. Future research might question whether the return process presents any unique challenges to cooperation and coordination efforts, and suggest how these might be overcome.

McNamara, D. (2005) ‘Who Does What’, Forced Migration Review-IDP Supplement
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
OCHA Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division
USAID (2004) USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy, Washington DC: USAID.

Participation of displaced persons in planning and managing return

Although return movements are often large-scale, logistically complex operations involving the migration of thousands of people in impoverished circumstances, the displaced are much more than the recipients of aid in this process. First and foremost, under the principle of voluntary repatriation, the displaced participate in the return process as decision-makers. Decisions about return are made on the basis of information on conditions in return areas distributed through humanitarian organisations and through formal and informal channels within displaced communities. Organisations such as UNHCR and the IOM may operate ‘look and see’ schemes through which representatives of displaced families or communities may visit their homes to assess whether conditions are acceptable for the return of the larger group.

Although rare in practice, the displaced may also play an active role in negotiating the terms of their return and creating conditions conducive to repatriation. Indeed, for many displaced communities, planning for and making decisions about return is intertwined with their active engagement in peace processes. For example, Guatemalan refugees in Mexico organised themselves into Permanent Commissions which, with the support of the international community, became influential actors in the national peace process. The Permanent Commissions engaged directly with the Guatemalan government to negotiate the conditions of their repatriation, including amnesties, development assistance and the restoration of lost land. Small groups of IDPs within Guatemala bonded together to form Communities of Peoples in Resistance, which also negotiated the terms of their return with the government.

The active participation of refugees and IDPs in peacebuilding and return processes may be both controversial and costly. For example, many Georgian IDPs have found that they are easily manipulated unless they organize into groups to voice their interests and concerns in the peace process. As a result, they have established influential grassroots groups such as the IDP Women’s Association, Imedi-Women for Peace, and Fund Sukhumi. At the same time, however, certain self-appointed IDP leaders have incited violence and raised false hopes of imminent return, which has detracted from the struggling Georgian-Abkhazian peace process (Hansen 1999). In Guatemala as well as in countries such as Colombia, displaced activists have been threatened, ‘disappeared’ or killed as a result of their advocacy. However, after the National Council of Displaced Guatemalans (CONDEG) was created, the threats to grassroots IDP groups diminished, demonstrating that in certain circumstances, political organisation can be used both to promote peaceful return and to increase security for the displaced.

Many of the studies carried out on the participation of refugees and IDPs in decision-making on return focus on the organisational and decision-making strategies employed by particular groups of displaced persons, such as women, children and indigenous returnees. These disaggregated analyses have contributed to the development of a more nuanced understanding of the particular concerns faced by different groups. However, there is still a dearth of information on the decision-making processes employed by displaced persons who return to their homes spontaneously. A clearer impression of the factors influencing spontaneous return in comparison to participation in an organised repatriation movement may in turn help researchers to understand how well spontaneous returnees fare in comparison to assisted returnees, and why.

Barnes, C. (ed.) (2000) ‘Owning the Process: Public Participation in Peacemaking’, Accord: An international review of peace initiatives 13
De Rivero, J. (2001) ‘Reinventing Communities: The Resettlement of Guatemalan Refugees’, Forced Migration Review 11
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (1994) Special Report on the Human Rights Situation in the so-called “Communities of Peoples in Resistance” in Guatemala, Washington, D.C., Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Inter Pares (2003) ‘Building the Road Home,’ Inter Pares Bulletin 25(4)
Kharashvili, J. Women Work for Peace in Georgia, Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE)
Lippman, B. and Rogge, J. (2004) ‘Making return and reintegration sustainable, transparent and participatory’, Forced Migration Review 21
Ouko, M. (2004) ‘From warriors to peacemakers: People-to-people peacemaking in southern Sudan’, Forced Migration Review 21: 28-29
Refugees International (2003) ‘Angola: Spontaneous Returnees in Danger of Being Marginalized’
Riess, S. (2000) ‘Return is Struggle, Not Resignation: Lessons from the Repatriation of Guatemalan Refugees from Mexico’, UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No. 21.
Women Waging Peace
Women Waging Peace (2004) ‘Recommendations for Peace in Sudan: Women Making the Difference’, from Women Waging Peace Conference, Washington, D.C., 15 October 2004.

Addressing the vulnerabilities of women, children, elderly and disabled returnees

The return process can heighten the vulnerability of groups already at risk of exploitation or marginalisation, such as women, children, the elderly and the disabled. Members of vulnerable groups may be sidelined during a family or community’s decision-making process on return. Family members may be separated from one another during the journey home, and women and children may be at particular risk of sexual exploitation en route and in unstable return communities. Furthermore, women’s claims to property rights may not be respected during the restitution process or when land is reallocated in return areas. While displaced, many refugee and IDP women take on new and challenging roles as heads of households, camp leaders and organisers in the struggle for return. For example, Guatemalan refugee women in Mexico organised themselves into advocacy groups and were instrumental in pressuring the Guatemalan government to negotiate the 1994 Accord on the Resettlement of the Populations Uprooted by the Armed Conflict. However, upon return many of the women were pressured to relinquish their positions of leadership in the community and return to traditional gender roles. Ensuring that return is an enabling rather than disempowering process for potentially vulnerable groups such as women and children is a persistent challenge for the displaced as well as for the humanitarian practitioners who work with them.

Although the gap between policy and practice is often wide, the vast majority of organisations working with returnees have institutional policies designed to mitigate the vulnerabilities of groups such as women, children and the elderly. The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response address the needs and rights of vulnerable groups when implementing humanitarian assistance programs. Various political bodies have also called for greater attention to the concerns of marginalised groups in the return process. For instance, the groundbreaking Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security calls on all actors involved in negotiating and implementing peace agreements to adopt a gender perspective that addresses ‘the special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction’ (UN 2000). The adoption of Resolution 1325 prompted the development of an extensive series of research initiatives on not only mitigating the vulnerabilities of women and children, but also on the role women play as peacebuilders and leaders in the return and reconstruction process.

FMR (2002) ‘Older Displaced People: At the back of the queue?’, Forced Migration Review 14, July.
Kvinna till Kvinna
Rehn, E. and Sirleaf, E.J. (2002) Women War Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment, New York, UNIFEM.
Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict
UNIFEM Portal on Women, Peace and Security
Wareham, R. and Quick, D. (2001) ‘Problems or partners? Working with women to rebuild the Balkans’, Forced Migration Review 11: 16-17. See
Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children

Return of failed asylum seekers

The above sections focus on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, principally within the developing world. However, since the 1990s, return programmes for failed asylum seekers have emerged as an important element of migration management systems, particularly in the European Union. These programmes are part of the shift in the international refugee regime towards temporary protection, and are especially significant in light of the policy decisions made by the British, Danish and other European Union governments to move away from granting citizenship to refugees, which implies that protection for refugees is temporary, and that return is both preferred and inevitable. Key examples of EU returns programmes for failed asylum seekers include the UK’s voluntary return programmes, and those initiated by the Scandinavian governments. The return of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected in the European Union has garnered critical attention from a wide range of academics and, especially, NGO advocates. Much of the debate focuses on the establishment of criteria for the safe return of failed asylum seekers, a subject addressed by a coalition of NGOs led by organisations including Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

Advisory Committee on Aliens’ Affairs (ACVZ) (Netherlands) (2004) Return of Illegal Migrants and Failed Asylum Seekers: International Aspects, The Hague, ACV,79,0,0,1,0.
Advisory Committee on Aliens’ Affairs (ACVZ) (Netherlands) (2005) Return of Failed Asylum Seekers, The Hague, ACV
Amnesty International EU Office
Amnesty International-EU et al (2005) Common Principles on Removal of Irregular Migrants and Rejected Asylum Seekers
ECRE (2003) ECRE Position on Return, Brussels, ECRE
ECRE (2005) The Return of Asylum Seekers Whose Applications Have Been Rejected in Europe, Brussels, ECRE
Gibney, M.J. and Hanson, R. (2003) Deportation and the Liberal State: The Forcible Return of Asylum Seekers and Unlawful Migrants in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, Geneva, UNHCR, New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper Number 77.
Human Rights Watch-Documents on Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers in Europe and Central Asia
Human Rights Watch (2002) Treating ‘Illegals’ Legally: Commentary Regarding the European Commission Green Paper on a Community Return Policy on Illegal Residents, Brussels, Human Rights Watch
International Centre for Migration Policy Development ICMPD
UK Home Office-Immigration and Nationality Directorate
Last updated Aug 17, 2011