Return or not to return? That is the question. In most cases, refugees as well as migrants have on the horizon the idea of return. Some scholars have called the wish to return ‘return illusion’, others ‘ideology of return’ but most, ‘myth of return’. Migration studies have shown that migration is often initially perceived as temporary and more so when it is involuntary. Both ideology and myth of return are dynamic concepts that can regress, evolve, or become static. Yet, there is a danger in politicising the myth of return. Besides, studies on return migration and voluntary repatriation have shown that motives and structural factors impelling to return ‘home’ are quite various. The former is usually discussed under the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ theory (1) and the latter within the ‘durable solutions’ paradigm, that is, third country resettlement, local integration and voluntary repatriation.
As the boundaries between what has been termed ‘voluntary’ (mainly migrant workers) or ‘involuntary’ (refugees) migration has now been blurred, I will simply term the experience of going back to the country of origin with the intention to resettle permanently, ‘international return’. At present, the distinction between the violation of political, civil, economic and human rights is difficult to elucidate not only between different categories of migrants but also for individual experiences. Also, both refugee and migrant are considered temporary statuses. An added reason for not differentiating this experience is that currently both refugees’ and migrants’ return can be mandated either by the refugee or migrant regime and that includes host/receiving states. After all, since the end of the Second World War, both regimes have been ‘artificially separated’ (2) and indeed, return whenever feasible, has been [promoted as] the better solution for both regimes. This has been more so during the last decade and particularly at times of crisis where the permanent settlement of migrants and refugees has been discouraged and return encouraged. More recently, an increasing ‘securitization of migration’ and concomitant fortressing of frontiers have blurred even further the voluntary/involuntary distinction. In this scenario, return has been promoted, facilitated and forcibly implemented. The latter include involuntary repatriations, deportations and induced removals, that is, when little choice is involved.
When looking at return in this scenario we have to ask two fundamental questions: first, what makes return possible and sustainable? and second, what makes it impossible? If we want to avoid transitory/failed and complicated returns to countries of origin still in political conflict and/or with political, social and economic instability that would lead to further displacement and re-migration, these questions deserve an answer. To do so, I therefore argue that contemporary experiences of blurred migration allows for the travel of concepts and principles from the field of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration Studies to Migration Studies. (3) After all, these forms of knowledge constitute a ‘Matryoshka’, that is to say they are nested like a Russian doll within each other. (4)
Hence, before any actual international return takes place at least two key pre-requisites should be firmly in place. These are: voluntariness and safety. An added factor is that of economic livelihood sustainability in the country of origin to which migrants are returning.
Voluntariness refers to the free choice of the individual who, according to his/her assessment will judge when and where to return. In this evaluation both the situation in the country of origin and of residence should be considered. This means that any form of coercion (overt/covert) militates against voluntariness. Because refugees are more protected (5) than any other migrants this does not mean that they have not been forcibly returned to their countries of origin. Migrants who face forcible return/deportation to home countries experiencing quasi-emergency situations and/or lack of fundamental changes in the political and socio-economic conditions that led to emigration, will both face serious (re)integration problems and will end up with unsustainable return. Therefore, any liberal democracy that respects the free choice of individuals, should also respect migrant’s voluntariness to return.
The second pre-requisite to a much-needed sustainability is safety. Safety refers to physical security and the safeguarding of economic livelihoods and living conditions (access to wage employment, infrastructure and state provision of education and health), as well as respect for universal human rights. In a climate of disrespect for the rights of migrants in the ‘global north’, migrants are becoming more and more vulnerable. Racial prejudice and discrimination combined with the politicisation of the migration issue, are becoming ‘push’ factors. Yet, what is not considered at the time of ‘just wanting others deported’, is the lack of understanding of what this entails for those affected. In an increasingly undifferentiated migration scenario, fear of violence, persecution and lack of economic livelihoods on return will militate against safety and effective and sustainable livelihood. Hence, if returnees are not able to secure enough means to gain a living beyond basic needs, that is, without external assistance, the prospect of poverty and instability will make their return unsustainable. Finally, transnationalism (including remittances) does not guarantee either the economic livelihood (re)integration nor the absolute sustainability of return. Only voluntariness, safety and livelihood opportunities will.
(1) For a general discussion of return migration see R. King ‘Generalizations from the History of Return Migration’ in B. Ghosh (ed.) (2000) Return Migration. Journey of Hope or Despair? Geneva: IOM. Pp:7-45
(2) R. Karatani, ‘How History Separated Refugee and Migrant Regimes: In Search of Their Institutional Origins’ International Journal of Refugee Law, Volume 17, No3 September 2005. See also A. Gradin ‘Statement’ International Migration Volume 23, Number 1, pages 17-19. March 1985.
(3) Although some of these concepts have been used in the context of orderly return migration management by B. Ghosh (2000) Managing Migration. Time for a New International Regime? Oxford University Press, this argument is not posed.
(4) Van Hear (2011:12) argues that Forced Migration Studies can be seen as ‘nested’ like a matryoshka, or Russian doll within Migration Studies and Refugee Studies are in turn ‘nested’ within Forced Migration Studies. See N. Van Hear ‘Forcing the issue: Migration Crises and the Uneasy Dialogue between Refugee Research and Policy’ Journal of Refugee Studies 25(1) pp. 2-24, October 2011.
(5) Refugees are protected by the principle of non-refoulement which is associated with the refugee definition and enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 33) and in varying forms in a number of other instruments.