Going home

Our reporting – from Lebanon to Eritrea to Yemen – looks at people’s decisions to return home, and efforts to rebuild their lives. Many refugees are coming under increasing pressure to go back whether it’s safe or not. The UN insists that refugees should not be forced back to danger, but the notion of “voluntary” return loses meaning when the alternative is arrest and imprisonment, like migrants stuck in Libya or undocumented Afghans in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States have stepped up efforts to make deportation of people without status faster and more efficient. 

Globally, a shrinking proportion of refugees are able to go back to their countries, as conflicts stretch on and many countries remain volatile long after a crisis. “It’s going to take years, generations even, to rebuild Sirte and Libya into a place where its people can have their basic needs met, and live in safety and freedom,” high school student Asel Alaghori wrote when she went back to Libya from Canada, horrified at the death and destruction in her home country. “My future is elsewhere,” she wrote. 

It takes time for countries emerging from crisis to rebuild homes, economies, and the social fabric. Until a country is ready to absorb the exiled community, sending people home prematurely can create more instability. Returnees may face retribution, like in Syria, or destitution, like in Afghanistan, or ostracism, like in Sierra Leone. When they cannot make a life back home, many people contemplate leaving again. 

At a glance: The challenges of return

  • Too early: Refugee populations – from Burundians in Tanzania to South Sudanese in Uganda – can feel pressured to return home before it is safe to do so.
  • The lack of assistance: When people return home to countries recovering from conflict, they often lack access to basic services or mental healthcare
  • The financial deficit: More than 3.8 million Afghans have returned to the country over the last five years. A World Bank study found returnees were worse off financially than refugees who stayed in Pakistan and Afghans who never left. 
  • Dealing with the stigma: For many returnees, home communities and even family members can shun them, especially as many borrow or sell familial possessions to finance their trips.
  • Justice first: Hundreds of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have joined strikes and petitions calling for international justice, proper protection of their data, and for rejecting plans to send them home.

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