Challenging Return as the Preferred Solution to Internal Displacement

Increased attention to the plight of returnees is highly necessary to promote renewed insights and challenge the dominant discourse on return as the ‘preferred durable solution’.

Bangui - Forced displacement is undoubtedly a life-changing event. While the often-traumatic experience of displacement cannot be undone, the possibility to return to locations of origin in a safe, dignified and sustainable manner can bring hope and alleviate suffering after displacement.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), along with governments and other international organizations, supports three traditional durable solutions for internally displaced persons – which comprise voluntary return and reintegration, local integration and resettlement or settlement elsewhere.

Voluntary return to locations of origin is widely portrayed by the humanitarian community and governments alike as the ‘preferred’ durable solution to forced displacement.

However, the reality often illustrates the great complexity of the return process. Return movements go hand in hand with a wide variety of psychosocial and economic challenges that can have important implications for post-conflict reconciliation and community recovery.

Numerous returnees struggle to achieve any durable solution and even after return, the vulnerabilities they faced while living in displacement continue to persist. The return process does not end in the act of arriving back home, but ultimately implies yet another complicated and lengthy adaptation and reintegration process. 

A comprehensive approach and new understandings of displacement are needed to replace overly narrow interpretations of return as a durable solution to forced displacement. National governments, the humanitarian community and development actors play a crucial role in developing new ways of understanding return as a solution to forced displacement. Therefore, it is essential to allow the highly complex dynamics of the return process enter ongoing debates and to agree on collective outcomes based on context-specific approaches and creative alternatives to traditional concepts.

A more holistic and inclusive approach to return and reintegration could be one such alternative. The return of displaced populations cannot be understood as assisting returnees in areas ‘where they belong’.

What it means to return ‘home’ – and ensuring people’s rights to do so – remains largely under-examined, and tend to be far more complex than the traditional definition of durable solutions implies. The return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees to locations of origin is not a natural or logical outcome in most post-conflict situations, nor does it have to mark a moment in time where mobility ends.

The assistance and protection of returnees is rather approached as a concept that is not reducible to categories of populations or geographical locations. The humanitarian fixation to transform the returnee population into residents is falsely assuming that uprooted individuals need to be restored in their soil of origin for the return movement to be successful. This idea precludes potential coping strategies and solutions that diverge from the standard durable solutions framework such as pendular movements between locations of origin and locations of displacement, or labour migration.

The use of established definitions to identify groups of displacement-affected individuals is undoubtedly useful to track populations and quantify movements.

However, in terms of durable solutions, the adoption of such instrumental language often consolidates identities and camouflages the blurred distinctions and common vulnerabilities between the individuals behind those labels. Returnees, members of host communities and resident populations often share similar needs. In order to enhance social cohesion, solutions are found in comprehensive development policies and inclusive community-centered approaches.

Rather than the connection with territorial space, the notion of home is marked by the social dynamic between an individual and their environment. This environment may be defined by security, participation, meaningful lives, livelihoods and sense of belonging. It is an on-going process, nurtured by identity that combines understandings of the past, experiences of the present and prospects of the future.

In order to establish conditions to restore the notion of home and efficiently protect and assist the returnee population, measuring the indicators defining the concept of home at the community level is of crucial importance.

Therefore, in different contexts such as Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic, IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) is increasingly shifting its attention to the plight of returnees and is redefining its assessment tools in order to respond effectively to the humanitarian and development needs in areas of high return. This will allow IOM and partners to assess the quality of return movements, plan resources and operations, and design coherent interventions linking humanitarian, recovery and stabilization activities.

Moving forward, interventions and policies should be increasingly cautious of overly narrow interpretations of return as a durable solution and allow variations and modifications based on a combination of context-specific indicators. This can be achieved by a conversation on return movements that ensures active participation of both displaced populations and host communities and is based on the understanding that the status quo ante is rarely, if never, recreated.

This article was written by Kristof Orlans of IOM's Displacement Tracking Matrix 


Bradley, M (2013). Rethinking Return: Defining Success in Refugee Repatriation
Bradley, M (2018). During solutions and the right of return for IDPs: Evolving interpretations
Harild, N., Christensen, A. and Zetter, R (2015). Sustainable refugee return: Triggers, constraints, and lessons on addressing the development challenges of forced displacement

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