Introduction and contextualisation
Imagine having to leave your home country because a conflict broke out. Imagine re-settling in a foreign country. And finally, imagine returning back home once the conflict is over. This is what happens everyday to thousands of refugees leaving and then returning to their countries after a war. To give you an idea of the extent of the issue, the UNHRC estimates that over the past decade up to 15 million refugees have returned to their home countries as a result of the end of a conflict. Many are the challenges that refugees have to go through as a consequence of wars breaking out, but among the others, resettling in their home countries is a tough one.
National governments and institutions have taken initiatives in order to make reintegration in post-conflict societies easier to achieve. Since the early 1990s the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) launched a series of projects aimed at adopting innovative methods to provide refugees with the means for a safe and successful reintegration. The UN effort was enhanced by cooperation with leading institutions like the World Bank to cover financial issues, as well as by a cooperation with local authorities of the communities where resettlement takes place. However, whatever external help there may be in place, resettlement and return remain today highly problematic.
Voluntary or induced return?
One first fundamental issue regards whether refugees are voluntarily choosing to return to their home country, or whether they are being, though perhaps not directly, forced to return. While it is widely believed that reintegration in home societies represents an ideal and preferred choice for refugees, reality seems to show us a more mixed situation. As a matter of fact, the number of induced returns is higher than one might expect. The strong incentive towards reintegration often comes from countries hosting war refugees, which tend to see welcoming these individuals as a mere economic burden, and as a consequence tend to incentivise the return of refugees in their original communities. International institutions also contribute to spreading the idea that returning home is the single most recurrent sentiment among war refugees. Indeed, in an interview in 2017 the Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the UNHCR stated that she had not met a single refugee who did not desire to move back home once the war affecting their home country was over.
While there are certainly many refugees who wish to return home, many others prefer remaining in host countries for a number of reasons. These can be the fact they they found a job or they built meaningful relationships with someone in the new country. It could also be because the trauma of having left a country during a war stops them from wanting to go back. Whatever the reason, the issue of forced migration seems to remain a big one for refugees, as it shows that their personal agency is often overridden by third parties.
Practical obstacles to reintegration
Beyond the issue of whether return was voluntary or forced, refugees encounter both practical and social obstacles to their reintegration in post conflict societies. On a practical level, when returning home refugees experience at least two sets of challenges. First, it has been found that returning refugees experience difficulties in moving back into their original houses. In the lack of a clear rule of law, refugees have no legal coverage to a right to claim back their houses, which, during the conflicts, often get used for war-related purposes or are occupied by new households. Refugees therefore struggle to find a place to settle in, often because the inability to claim back their homes is not even accompanied by any monetary compensation. The issue of property rights intensifies if returning refugees are women. The intersectionality between gender-based discrimination and the lack of housing rights means that refugee women have virtually no chance to either claim back their homes or purchase a new one.
A second practical challenge that returning refugees face is the residue of anti-person landmines on the territory where reintegration and resettlement should take place. As a matter of fact, the presence of land mines represents an obstacle to the reconstruction of a financially independent life in refugees’ home countries. This because anti-person mines prevent refugees from the chance to carry out jobs working in the fields or initiating small businesses because of the fear of life loss. In turn, this translates into the inability of becoming financially independent, a precondition of successful reintegration.
Social obstacles to reintegration
On a social level, the main struggle returning refugees have to face is that of social acceptance from the share of the population that did not leave the country during the conflict. The displacement of large parts of population as a consequence of the war, even when fleeing the country was not a choice but a necessity, can create the basis for future hostilities that often emerge when refugees return home. A sense of betrayal and abandonment of the native land is often a recurrent sentiment among those who did not leave the country during war.
Examples of this issue are post-conflict societies of Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Sudan. When in the 1990s hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the war, the environment in which they had to resettle was far from welcoming. People who had not fled the country were singing songs about the betrayal of the refugees who left. ‘When it was difficult, you left Sarajevo’ says the song. Similarly, after the proclamation of independence in 2011, large numbers of South Sudan refugees returned to what they previously called home to discover that they were no longer welcomed in their native land. Hostilities between who had stayed and who had left erupted and lacerated societies even after the war was over. What these two examples show is the social side of the integration struggle that returning refugees often have to face. On top of the practical obstacles, refugees’ risk of being letting out of societies when trying to resettle. This not only can translate into isolation and margination, but it has the potential of alimenting social conflicts that could erupt into new wars.
In conclusion, reintegration in post-conflict societies represents a big challenge for refugees. Despite the existing UNCHR and governmental initiatives to improve reintegration, many are the challenges that returning refugees still have to face. While only part of them have to go through the struggle of being forced to return to their home countries, all of them have to experience practical and social challenges related to reintegration. Obstacles to housing, obtaining financial independence as a result of the inability to work the land, or start businesses because of the presence of landmines make practical integration hard to achieve. On the other hand, the existence of competing identities within societies between those who left and those who stayed make social acceptance a hard goal to obtain in post-conflict communities.
Silvia is a second year History and International Relations student 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.