Repatriation and ‘Home’ for Refugees

Repatriation is often portrayed as the end of the refugee journey—the natural outcome for those who have longed to return home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, describes voluntary repatriation as the ‘strongest hope’ for refugees searching for ‘an end to exile’ and as the ‘durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees’. We assume that refugees want to return to their pre-flight homes, communities, and lives. Yet a refugee’s conception of home and belonging may change with time, and is influenced by her experiences in new physical, social, and political settings.[1] Individual and collective identities often evolve as refugees learn skills in other countries and build new communities.[2]

The language we use to describe refugee return obscures our understanding of what happens after return. Terms like ‘exile’, ‘homecoming’ and ‘restoring roots’ suggest that refugees have natural or organic ties to their birthplace—bonds that are restored upon repatriation when the refugee reenters her community of origin.[3] Our emphasis on ‘home’ also assumes that life post-repatriation in a person’s country of origin is preferable to a life abroad.

Returning refugees often face a host of problems when reintegrating into their countries and communities of origin. The traumatizing events that led to a refugee’s flight may have changed her relationship with her country or community of origin, especially in conflicts where psychological warfare and terror are used to demoralize populations.[4] The alienation from a previous community or country often begins even before the refugee ever took flight. In fact, alienation is often the cause of flight.[5]

Returning refugees may struggle to negotiate reentry into a community that has undergone major political, economic, or other transformations. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the ethnic makeup of entire territories was completely transformed by the war, many returning refugees found that their properties had been destroyed, meaning ‘home’ no longer existed.[6]

For others, return may lead to a loss of social and political capital gained while abroad. While living in refugee camps in southern Mexico through the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous Guatemalan refugee women founded a feminist organization, Mamá Maquín, which ran internationally funded programs on women’s health, literacy, and women’s rights.   Women participated in decision making around camp governance, but they were ultimately excluded from the commissions that negotiated with the Guatemalan government on the terms of refugee repatriation. Many men assumed that women would return to their traditional roles within communities and retreat from the political sphere upon repatriation. For many Guatemalan women, repatriation led to a loss of the political and social gains they made while in Mexico.[7]

On numerous occasions refugees have protested against or expressed concern about so-called voluntary repatriation schemes. In the Buduburam Camp in Ghana, a group of refugee women initiated a five-month protest in 2008 to demand that UNHCR reopen its resettlement program and offer greater assistance to those refugees repatriating to Liberia. The protests ended when Ghanaian police arrested over 600 women and children and placed them in a detention camp. The Liberian Foreign Minister intervened only to negotiate an even more unfavorable repatriation agreement between Ghana, Liberia, and UNHCR.[8]

Sudanese refugees in Chad recently expressed their concerns about the repatriation scheme that UNHCR is discussing with the governments of Chad and Sudan. The refugees claim that the situation in Darfur is more dangerous than when they left.[9] Similarly, Rwandan refugees in Uganda criticized the High Commissioner’s 2012 recommendation that countries hosting Rwandan refugees begin repatriation programs. Refugees argued that they remain at risk of persecution by the autocratic Rwandan government.[10]

Yet the international community and UNHCR continue to place almost singular focus on refugee repatriation as the solution for the world’s refugees. Why? Put plainly, local integration and resettlement to a third country are not viable options for most of the world’s refugees due the restrictive immigration policies of many countries. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees resettle abroad. UNHCR cannot meet refugees’ demands to resettle.

Idealized conceptions of life after repatriation help to justify repatriation as the preferred solution for refugees. Repatriation becomes the way for fulfilling refugees’ desires to return ‘home’. Fully admitting that reintegration is not a natural outcome of repatriation and that many refugees want the option to resettle would also require the admission that repatriation is not always the best option for refugees.


[1] Tania Ghanem, ‘When Forced Migrants Return “Home”: The Psychosocial Difficulties Returnees Encounter in the Reintegration Process’ (2003) Working Paper No. 16, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University.

[2] Laura Hammond, ‘Examining the Discourse of Repatriation: Towards a More Proactive Theory of Return Migration’ in Khalid Koser and Richard Black (eds) The End of the Refugee Cycle?: Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction (Berghahn Books 1999) 228-229.

[3] ibid.

[4] Ghanem (n 1) 22-23.

[5] ibid.

[6] Huma Haider, ‘The Politicisation of Humanitarian Assistance: Refugee and IDP Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (6 April 2010) J of Humanitarian Assistance <;.

[7] Patricia Pessar, ‘Women’s Political Consciousness and Empowerment in Local, National, and Transnational Contexts: Guatemalan Refugees and Returnees’ (2001) 7(4) Identities 461.

[8] Elizabeth Holzer, ‘What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp’ (2013) Law & Society Review 837.

[9] AllAfrica, ‘Sudan Refugees in Chad Refuse Voluntary Return’ (22 May 2015) <;.

[10] IRIN, ‘Uganda: Rwandan Refugees Still Reluctant to Repatriate’ (14 March 2012) < repatriate>



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