Sustainable refugee return: triggers, constraints and lessons on addressing the development challenges of forced displacement

Niels Harild, Asger Christensen, Roger Zetter


What are the conditions that influence decisions by refugees in protracted displacement on returning home? The study illustrates the complex contexts within which refugee return, and international assistance with refugee return and reintegration, take place. It argues that the overarching framework envisaged by the UNHCR has not been fully realised, and that there needs to be better consideration of the development dimension of displacement and of refugees’ concerns and coping strategies to facilitate sustainable refugee return.

The study aims to inform World Bank country and regional strategies and operations on how to address forced displacement. The analysis draws on existing literature on refugee decision-making and examines eight country return cases ( Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Cambodia, Iraq, Liberia and South Sudan). It offers both policy and more specific operational recommendations.


  • Staggered or cyclical return is widespread. Often displaced families or whole communities divide themselves up before return, sending some members of the family or community to explore conditions, establish entitlements, and forge or explore the basis for a permanent return in the country or area of origin. Mobility and circular migration are key livelihood strategies that contribute to sustainable solutions and reconstruction, and often draw on transnational networks which predate conflict and displacement.
  • Women may face particular displacement and return challenges as they generally have fewer opportunities and resources, lower status, and less power and influence than men.
  • There are four key conditions that may encourage refugees return: security, access to adequate services, housing, and livelihood opportunities. Protracted displacement situations are unlikely to be resolved through voluntary repatriation without these conditions in place. For refugees from rural areas, the ability to reclaim their land or obtain access to land elsewhere is central to their prospects of re-establishing livelihoods.
  • Integration takes place (a) where return is impossible in the short or long term, (b) where protracted exile diminishes the impetus for return, or (c) where return is possible but less preferable due to socio-economic conditions in host countries (the case with many Afghan and South Sudanese refugees).
  • Local integration does not necessarily work against the decision of refugees to repatriate. Opportunities for integration – education, employment, training – in the host country strengthen the ability of refugees to adapt, contribute to family wellbeing in the medium term and facilitates a family’s return when they deem that conditions in the country of origin are conducive. Further, country-level conditions such as ethnic discrimination and conflict may hinder return and successful re-integration.
  • Increasing urbanisation is a feature of contemporary forced displacement situations. More than half the world’s refugees and IDPs now live in urban areas. In both host countries and countries of origin these high rates represent protracted or permanent settlement; although many refugees are originally from rural areas they do not return to these same areas and instead choose to stay in urban areas with the expectation of better security, access to services and economic opportunities.


Return is often considered the optimal solution by both host countries and the international community. However, this study shows how return has mostly been partial, and reintegration raises lots of issues.

  • Sustainable return needs to take place within an overarching framework of institutional collaboration between humanitarian, development, government and private sector actors. Incentives for more comprehensive return are dependent on the extent to which international actors succeed in supporting the creation of conditions in host countries that meet refugee priorities.
  • Regional approaches that include IDPs and refugees in protracted displacement, as well as their host communities should be paralleled with a recognition of the importance of understanding the dynamics of displacement and return at the micro-level.
  • Response to emergencies needs to anticipate the likely protracted nature of forced displacement to ensure that both immediate burdens and longer term needs of the displaced and their host communities are addressed.
  • Displaced peoples need to have freedom to participate in the labour market and economy of the host country in order to reduce their dependency on long-term aid and to improve chances of integration and return.
  • Responses to vulnerabilities in urban areas need to be undertaken within a long-term development framework that addresses the needs of both displaced and the non-displaced urban poor.




Harild, N.; Christensen, A.; & Zetter, R. (2015). Sustainable refugee return: triggers, constraints and lessons on addressing the development challenges of forced displacement. Washington DC: World Bank.