There’s no place like home: Refugee experiences of returning home in post-conflict societies
Home looks different to everyone. It could be a physical location or space where you feel most comfortable, or it might be less tangible, maybe a group of people who allow you to be yourself. Officially, home is defined as ‘a refuge, a sanctuary; a place or region to which one naturally belongs or where one feels at ease’. This may be what immediately comes to mind for many readers, yet it contains multiple assumptions which become complicated in the context of migration.
The idea of home assumes that there exists a place, physically or otherwise, which one is ‘naturally’ part of, a place which is both safe and free of judgement. For a refugee returning to their country of origin following violent conflict, this is often not the case. Conflict, in its various forms, often radically changes a place and the communities within it. In other words, it can sometimes mean that ‘home’ becomes more difficult.
In official government strategies and plans made by international organisations like the United Nations, repatriation, also known as the return of refugees, is often regarded as the desired goal once violence ends. Returning refugees are seen to help re-build a country, re-establish order and help to reintegrate communities and individuals on the path to recovery. As academic Roger Zetter notes however, these terms all start with ‘Re’, reflecting the assumption that migration is a circular process. It is assumed that someone might be forced to leave due to violence but that the act of them returning is some sort of endpoint, they are now home. It assumes that there is something for them to come home to, which in many instances, is no longer the case.
As you may already be starting to see, ‘home’ is in fact a very loaded term. It often comes from a place of privilege, where safety and security are assumed. The effect of refugees returning to their countries of origin is actually an under-researched field, but studies that have been carried out tend to highlight the complex difficulties many people face.
Returning to Burundi
Burundi, in east-central Africa, is an example of the difficulties that refugees face in post-conflict settings. One of the smallest countries on the continent, it gained independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1962, but has since seen widespread conflict between two ethnic groups, known as the Hutu’s (who are in the majority) and the Tutsi’s (the minority but historically have controlled much of the country). This ethnic division erupted into war in the 1990s, a conflict which killed an estimated 300,000 and spilled over into neighbouring countries such as Rwanda. The majority of refugees who were forced to settle in refugee camps both internally and in other countries like Tanzania were Hutu, only starting to return home in 2002.
Burundi was the subject of a recent migration study by Stephanie Schwartz who looked at the ways in which these returning refugees impacted the post-conflict environment and efforts to create long-term peace.
Ownership of land was a particularly contentious issue. In Burundi, ancestral land is central to both identity and to livelihoods, with 90% of Burundians relying on agricultural land for a living. As you can imagine, war wreaks havoc with claims over whose land is whose. In fact, it is thought that around 50% of land ownership is currently contested in the country. It is important to note that Burundi is not only small, but is also very densely populated, with about 400 people per square kilometre, making land even more of a prized possession.
These conflicts over land are key for discussions about homecoming. Rather than coming home to settle easily back into the rhythm of everyday life, moving back into their houses and re-building communities, refugees often faced hostility and issues over what land was even theirs to begin with. The peace agreement designed to help rebuild the country after war had ambitious aims for land reform and managing conflicts that might arise, however it has been largely unsuccessful.
Many Burundians are therefore faced with an impossible choice. Do they flee their homes to avoid being caught up in widespread violence but risk losing their land and homes, or do they stay and maintain their claim on their homeland but risk being killed in the process?
The very fact that these returning refugees have nowhere to call home, continues to put the country at risk of further violent outbreaks. An expert at Search for Common Ground, a peacebuilding organization, described how rumours of returning Tutsi refugees being housed temporarily on government-owned land sparked violence, which in turn prompted further mass migration.
Home, as mentioned at the start, doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to a physical space. So, if Burundian refugees don’t have specific land that they can call home, could they still find a sense of community where they feel they ‘naturally belong’ or where they ‘feel at ease’? Unfortunately, conflict can sometimes mean that divisions in communities become increasingly tense.
Schwartz noticed that there were more widespread “migration-based divisions” within communities, with tensions between those who fled the country during times of conflict, and those who remained. Years after refugees had returned, they were often still referred to as Abahunguste or ‘those who came back’, with social segregation still very obvious. An example of community exclusion was the custom for communities to visit the house of a family who has lost a relative, yet when a refugee returnee died, in many cases only other returnees would come and mourn.
As well as this, despite sharing a common language, Kurundi, refugees who returned after a substantial period in other countries were often singled out as having different accents, or for speaking Swahili. Their actions also marked them as ‘different’, like riding bicycles or carrying their babies ‘like Tanzanians’.
What we can see is that conflict can both harden existing divisions and, in many cases, create new, migration-based tensions within communities. The Refugee Convention is clear in its definition of refugee status as only temporary, as soon as the country of origin is seen as safe enough to provide protection, a refugee is expected to return. However, the Burundi case is just one example of how returning home is not always as easy as it sounds. Having ‘roots’ in a country doesn’t automatically mean it is still regarded as a safe place or that a person feels that they belong.
The fact that many struggle to find a feeling of home when they return is not to say that refugees can’t find belonging anywhere. It is often highlighted how refugees in camps or in temporary locations adapt to their surroundings, using things like food, art and music to create new communities and forge social bonds despite their physical dislocation. But what is important for people to realise is that refugees returning to their country of origin, their assumed ‘home’, is often not a simple process and is certainly not a quick fix.
Recent figures suggest that the proportion of returning refuges is declining compared to the rising total of refugees worldwide, with 317,200 returning in 2019 compared with 667,400 in 2017. It is therefore more important than ever to widen our understanding of what ‘home’ really means, especially to those who have been forced to flee in the face of violence.
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Kirstin is a Master's student in Conflict, Security & Development at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.