In-depth: The Long Journey Home: an IRIN In-Depth on the challenge of refugee return and reintegration

AFRICA: Refugee Return and Reintegration. How Good Is Home?

Photo: IRIN
An estimated 3.5 million afghan refugees have returned home since 2001, only to face the challenge of rebuilding their lives and country
NAIROBI, 1 February 2005 (IRIN) - (February 2005) In the hearts and minds of uprooted people, the power and mystique of the word 'home' inspire the greatest efforts to return. However, there are times when the reality of home and the initial euphoria of going back sour and turn to frustration as families struggle to reintegrate into societies ravaged by war and social dislocation.

They might even have to retrace their steps. An aid worker managing a reception centre in Angola - Martin Catongo - told IRIN, "Some of the returnees may have to go back to Zambia because they won't be supplied with food and they won't have enough to eat. There is a risk that they will become refugees again - not because of war, but because of hunger".

In most cases returnees do not have the choice of becoming refugees again, and for economic and political reasons have to survive and rebuild their lives in their homeland - whatever its condition.

IRIN's new Web Special on Return and Reintegration outlines the difficulties facing millions of uprooted people worldwide as they return home.

Uprooted Millions

In most cases people flee because of conflict and severe social disruption. Those who survive the violence and upheaval have been ripped from their homes and forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Most refugees find asylum in a country as poor as the one they left, whose communities struggle to absorb the burden that destitute incoming populations place on them. Once in their country of asylum, most refugees are entirely dependent on external assistance.

For those uprooted from their homes but who do not cross their national borders - internally displaced persons (IDPs) - assistance is more ambiguous. IDPs fall between the cracks of international law and are not protected and assisted under the original mandate of the office for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council estimated in 2004 that there are currently over 25 million internally displaced people in the world - more than double the number of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Tsunami victims have also recently been displaced but despite their number they do not alter the overall ration of refugees to IDPs.

Dennis McNamara, head of the UN's Internal Displacement Division (IDD), told IRIN they thought the real number was higher. "Globally, we estimate approximately 25 million IDPs have been created from conflict and violence, and probably another 25 to 30 million through natural disasters, including the current tsunami."

The numbers of refugees and IDPs repeatedly being created by political violence and armed conflict, and the extent to which they remain dependent on assistance before and after returning home, are of grave humanitarian concern.

According to the UNHCR, the average duration of a major refugee situation increased from nine years in 1993 to 17 years in 2003. The agency describes the consequences of these protracted refugee situations as "wasted lives, squandered resources and future problems, in terms of potential security risks".

The sheer number of refugees and IDPs in the global sea of uprooted people is as sobering as the movements and dispersal of these populations are complex. Collecting data on refugees and IDPs is as statistically difficult as it is political. Unresolved discussions concerning the actual definition of IDPs mean different agencies arrive at different totals, while the definition of refugees is clearer. Currently, UNHCR has identified approximately 9.7 million refugees, according to its published reports of September 2004.


Landmines are a major impediment to the return of refugees to post-conflict areas like Angola.
Credit: JB Russell/PANOS
A new era of return?

With refugee statistics indicating widespread repatriation and a reduction in the global refugee population for two consecutive years, international organisations are applauding a turning of the tide and a new era of return. Around the world, and particularly in Africa, millions of refugees and internally displaced people are going home; but they return to very uncertain futures.

When discussing refugee return in Burundi, the Chief of Staff in the Ministry of Reinsertion and Reinstallation of the Displaced told IRIN "repatriation is a process every Burundian supports, which is to say that refugees who return are warmly greeted". Even if this is the case in Burundi, it is not true for other countries, where returnees, already hampered by a serious lack of resources and options, face enormous difficulties in obtaining land and access to services. Acceptance by local communities is often complicated by prejudice and jealousy.

In March 2004 a United Nations-sponsored international conference in Geneva met to discuss how to provide a sustainable and durable homecoming for the millions of refugees returning in what was heralded as an "unprecedented number" of new repatriation situations, created by the cessation of conflict in different parts of Africa. Elsewhere, especially in Afghanistan, favourable conditions for return have allowed 3.5 million refugees in that country alone to go home since 2001.

According to the UNHCR's categories of people 'of concern' - and therefore eligible for assistance - the number of uprooted persons fell by 17 percent to 17.1 million in 2003. This is the lowest figure in a decade, and reflects not only increased international efforts to find solutions for uprooted people, but also an end to some of the world's longest conflicts.

The downward trend continued in 2004. With the signing of a peace agreement for south Sudan and the continued flow of returnees in Angola and Afghanistan, refugee-focused agencies are predicting that the numbers for 2005 could be equally good.

UNHCR is still negotiating the assistance of IDPs. As long as they remain within their country's borders they are not refugees, and therefore not officially afforded the same protection or assistance that refugees are entitled to. Nevertheless, UNHCR said it had assisted approximately 4.4 million of the estimated of 25 million IDPs worldwide during 2004. This January Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told IRIN, "I won't say that UNHCR, with fewer refugees, should simply take care of IDP questions … we are assisting about five million IDPs now. I imagine we could do more, gradually, in terms of IDPs ..."

Although more than 550 refugee-focused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other partner agencies assist UNHCR in fulfilling its mandate, it remains the guardian of the refugee convention (1951), and the driving force in developing international refugee law and operational policy.

Those working to assist refugees have been wrestling for over a decade with the question of where the responsibilities of the UNHCR and its partners stop in relation to ensuring a safe, dignified return for refugees. How good is home to return to when conditions there may be neither safe nor dignified, and how responsible are those facilitating and encouraging repatriation for improving those conditions?


Afghans, as many returnees around the world, often face insecurity and uncertainty upon returning home.
Credit: IRIN
Many displacement analysts welcome the recent trend in refugee figures, but their optimism is tempered by the still high overall numbers of uprooted people. Ken Bacon, director of Refugees International, feels that many of the changes are occurring as much by chance than specific design. He argues that political changes in Afghanistan would "not have happened without [the attacks on the US of] 9/11". In the case of Angola, Bacon thinks it was "almost accidental" that the leader of UNITA, the Angolan rebel group, was killed and in the subsequent implosion of the rebel movement, peace was secured. He pointed out to IRIN that "there is no magic formula or tool kit. The international community haven't given the European Union, the US or the UN a blueprint on how to make sure people - refugees and IDPs - return."

Almost all refugees flee from the "flames of war", as Lubbers recently described the chaos that creates refugees. In most cases, their flight takes them to countries of asylum as poor as the one they left, where they immediately become dependent on international assistance in the bleak environments of refugee camps. When the political and security situation eventually allows them to return home, they normally encounter ruined property and infrastructure, with a severe lack of health, sanitation and education services. Without livestock, tools or seeds, and reduced employment options, they immediately fall into a cycle of debilitating poverty. Their governments, already hard pressed to meet many of the basic needs of their populations, have limited ability and often little interest in giving hundreds of thousand of returnees special treatment.

Whether from northern Sri Lanka, western Afghanistan, southern Sudan, eastern Angola or northern Liberia, returning refugees list the same deprivations and frustrations. However difficult camp life was in their country of asylum, they were not prepared for the conditions they faced on return: destitution and landlessness and, all too frequently, physical insecurity from a hostile local community, continued internal conflicts and increased lawlessness. In many areas there is also a high threat of uncleared landmines.

Returnees often go back to find the very conditions that spawned conflict in the first place, and observers are increasingly seeing the need for reintegration and rehabilitation in returnee areas as crucial interventions for building peace and preventing further conflict.

According to Bacon of Refugees International, the need to assist returnees is both urgent and practical. "Not only is it humanitarian but it's cost-efficient when you think of the destruction and endless crises and costs that arise from conflict." He cites World Bank studies that have shown that it is far cheaper to help refugees rebuild their lives than to abandon them in a situation that may well result in instability and renewed conflict.

The assistance impasse

For years those involved in assisting refugees to return have recognised that their responsibility has to go beyond facilitating their journey home. Refugee agencies continually advocate for the support of returnees and are engaged in numerous short- and medium-term programmes to support returnee families as they reintegrate. But the support of returnees, and the rationale and expectations that accompany it, reach an inevitable impasse in terms of what they are able to realistically achieve. A reality gap can be created quickly as rhetoric is easier than hard result on the ground.

In most countries, what the returnees need is exactly what the rest of the population lacks. There is generally a widespread need for the rehabilitation and recovery of a war-shattered economy, an eviscerated infrastructure and core community services - nothing less than development and prosperity.

This is the vision of all humanitarian and development work, and the elusive objective of governments and aid agencies. By calling for maximum support to returning refugees, the UNHCR and other agencies are effectively requesting a commitment to transformation that is huge is scope and beyond the responsibility of refugee agencies alone.


Northern Ugandans IDPs have been resettled to government-controlled camps, sometimes forcibly, in the face of the ongoing civil conflict.
Credit: IRIN
Wider co-operation for wider ambitions

Parts of West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) illustrate starkly the difficulties of maintaining stable post-conflict situations, with displaced and demobilised people returning home to devastation and an absence of hope for reconstruction and recovery.

The driving forces behind international initiatives to find durable and sustainable solutions for uprooted persons are not only the humanitarian imperative but also the risk of a cycle of displacement after return. The UNHCR has taken a lead in developing comprehensive plans of action (known as CPAs) for specific refugee situations, to ensure that the sociopolitical and economic aspects of each situation are examined as solutions are sought.

The programme profiles and budgets of UNHCR, and numerous international non-government agencies, illustrate that experts recognise the crucial importance of investing in local areas if stability is to be given a chance. The '4 Rs' programme (Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) developed by UNHCR seeks to ensure durable solutions by tying its work closely to that of other major international agencies (World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, UN country teams and others), allowing an integrated strategy.

This relatively new collaborative approach is underway in Sierra Leone, Eritrea and northwest Somalia, and will soon be operational in Angola and Liberia. It remains to be seen whether this will solve the long-term needs of millions of refugees and IDPs as they try to rebuild their lives.

Windows of opportunity may be opening for some of the millions of uprooted, displaced people, affording them the chance to return home. Many of those fortunate enough to be considering return will be soon asking, 'How good is home?' as they struggle to survive and prosper.

This web special has gathered reports from around the world, to illustrate the challenges facing both returnees and those trying to help them. The interviews and feature articles highlight the endeavours of individuals in countries such as Pakistan, Liberia, Angola and Lebanon, the DRC, Iraq and many other nations, where the choices are limited, conditions are bleak, and the process of returning home does not always have a happy ending.

It also seeks to emphasise the importance of clearly defining the needs of IDPs, and recognise their long-neglected status in terms of legal protection and assistance.
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 Documentary: The Long Journey Home: Angola's Refugee Return (15:25 min)
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