(Re)integration failures: lessons from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria

In Za'atari camp, Alaa’ teaches women, girls and boys mosaic-making skills, a tradition brought with her from Syria In Za'atari camp, Alaa’ teaches women, girls and boys mosaic-making skills, a tradition brought with her from Syria © UN Women/Christopher Herwig

This article is a brief presentation of a report by the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee and Norwegian Refugee Council 

Since the 1951 Refugee Convention, discussions around return and (re)integration have intensified, culminating in the agreement of a further set of principles outlined in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), a global framework for responsibility-sharing between States. But conditions for return remain, in most cases, questionable, and little emphasis is placed on what happens post-return. The European response to the refugee influx in 2016 triggered a shift in state response to refugees’ needs on a global scale, and intensified the negative narrative surrounding refugees and migrants, directly causing an increase in the number of involuntary returns, often to countries where conflict patterns are still recurrent and thus potentially in breach of the principle of non-refoulement. 

In this report, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), with the collaboration of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), aims to provide a roadmap to address the gap that remains between the processes linking return and sustainable (re)integration. The research team interviewed over 100 key informants on return trends and integration dynamics, with a focus on refugee movements and returnee populations’ integration within urban areas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

Oftentimes, decisions surrounding who qualifies for assistance as a refugee returnee, and the timing of such returns, are instrumentalised by political interest and linked to fluctuating economic and security situations in host countries. Yet, evidence shows that prematurely induced returns result in higher exposure to risks for returnee populations, such as cycles of displacement and exile, thus creating the necessity for further humanitarian aid. Not only, in some countries such as Iran, Lebanon and Pakistan, a gap in registration due to weak status determination systems has resulted in populations of undocumented refugees, ineligible to receive any assistance whatsoever. This highlights how critical the definition of returnee is in the development of return operations and in determining that return and (re)integration processes are conducted in a way that is voluntary, informed, safe and dignified.

The research also shows that a successful sustainable reintegration operation tends to begin with the condition of life in the host country. This has obvious implications for the timing of reintegration efforts and for the responsibility of host countries. Refugees in countries of asylum highlight the negative and undignified hosting situation as a driver for return, leaving many of them stuck between camp-life in a host country with a dim hope of unlikely resettlement, and returning to a country of origin still grappling with the devastating effects of conflict. Greater commitment from host States is necessary to draw a link between better hosting and better (re)integration, with particular emphasis on offering opportunities for refugees to acquire skills that may be relevant upon their return. Technical and vocational training (TVET) programmes offered to refugees in Afghanistan and Somalia, are some examples of how host countries can enable displaced communities to work, access education and develop skills which will make it easier for them to re-enter the workforce in their country of return.

Refugees often return to fragile cities unable to host them. This is especially true in return settings which have seen extensive damage to their infrastructure and basic services due to heavy fighting and weak governance. In Kabul, Afghanistan, large-scale repatriation operation in 2005 in areas with inadequate access to basic services and livelihoods has resulted in the encampment of large numbers of returnees on the margins of urban life. The same is expected to happen in Syria. And the informal settlements housing IDPs are seldom integrated in rebuilding and urban planning decisions. To overcome these weaknesses, one approach used in Kismayo, Somalia’s third largest city, aims to strengthen social accountability through the establishment of community action plans (CAPs) formulated by a cross-section of residents including returnees and IDPs to articulate their priorities and direct local governments through reconstruction and development planning activities.

The evidence points towards a serious lack of engagement across different aspects of decision-making and regulation surrounding (re)integration in most return settings. Permanent camp-life. Involuntary returns. Weak status determination systems leaving thousands of undocumented returnees ineligible to receive assistance post-return. Lack of reliable and unbiased information to ensure a return decision is a safe one. These are all but a few implications of political interest as a key determinant in activities surrounding hosting refugees and enabling their return, with little to no focus on what happens post-return. This has resulted in a short-term vision of (re)integration, one where replacing camp-life in the country of asylum with camp-life back home is the norm. Lessons learned from what has worked and what hasn’t, also thanks to accounts from refugee returnees, demonstrate that sustainable and safe (re)integration is achievable with engagement from all stakeholders, beginning with the delinking of activities from a migration-management agenda for their integration into long-term, national responsibilities.


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Author: Giulia Ferrara 

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