National and international programmes to return refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes after conflict frequently leave far too many without viable futures. Using Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Burundi as case studies, this paper argues that the effects of protracted conflict and displacement mean that, for many, returning home is not a viable solution. Greater flexibility in determining the best solutions and more investment in alternative and longer-term forms of reintegration are needed.
Repatriation programmes are often inadequate for three reasons. These are: 1) a common but flawed assumption that the need to create a future for returnees is satisfied by restoring them to their former lives; 2) a lack of long-term engagement; and 3) a misplaced focus on rural integration when many refugees and IDPs are returning to urban areas.
The same themes arise when refugees and IDPs have been away from their places of origin for long periods: the places they were forced to flee have been transformed, in security, property allocation, economic viability, governance and services. For IDPs and numerous refugees, the decision to return is tied to whether or not they consider it possible to survive economically over the long term.
More broadly, the question of restoring livelihoods is linked to both security conditions and development strategies:
- Tensions over property are common. Many people displaced by conflict lose their property or control of it through appropriation by others. In rural areas, documentation of ownership has often either never existed or been lost.
- Owning a home can define stability for people who have lost theirs. However, donors question the wisdom of providing direct housing, preferring to provide subsidies or cash grants that allow returnees to determine how and where they want to live.
- Social services have assumed growing importance for refugee and IDP populations. Returnees do not want to lose the access to education and healthcare that they had as refugees and urbanised IDPs.
While providing durable integration for returnees will be costly, it will yield better and more lasting results than perpetual humanitarian assistance. Recommendations include the following:
- Subsistence farmers who flee often acquire broader horizons and new skills as a result of their refugee and IDP experiences. Such returnees will probably accept alternative locations if conditions are favourable and if they are treated justly and receive compensation for their loss.
- Returnees’ priorities differ, and creativity and flexibility are needed in return programmes. For returnees to make informed choices, it is important that they receive assistance for long enough to determine which of the choices will work best.
- To some degree, women have adapted well to new lives. They have been eager to ensure that their children are better educated and safe. Assistance agencies should not only highlight the victimisation of women, but also invest in their resilience.
- Instead of restoring returnees to former rural lives, international agencies should focus on establishing reasonable urban lifestyles, which may prove more cost-effective, durable, and acceptable to beneficiaries.
- National planners should also consider further investment in regional development in areas where the refugees and IDPs originated. In this scenario, returnees could make use of acquired skills, rather than subsistence agriculture.