For many of the millions forced to flee, returning home concludes an often traumatic time in exile. It may happen months, years or even decades after they left – and sometimes not at all.
A returnee is a former refugee or internally displaced person who returns to their country or area of origin, whether spontaneously or in an organized manner.
Refugee returns | 1992-2018
During 2018, the number of refugees who returned to their countries of origin stood at 593,800. This constitutes a decline compared with 667,400 in 2017, especially given that the refugee population has continued to increase. Thus, this figure represents a further decline as a proportion of the global refugee population voluntary repatriation remains the durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees and requires appropriate measures to ensure that any choice is voluntary, free from coercion, and based on objective information with conditions allowing safe and dignified returns. Over the years, UNHCR worked with States to facilitate numerous voluntary repatriation programmes that enabled millions of refugees to return home, assisted with small-scale and individual repatriations, and contributed to the reintegration of returnees to ensure that their return was a sustainable solution.
Refugee returns as a proportion of the overall refugee population | 1992-2018
In 2018, UNHCR observed a number of self- organized returns, sometimes under pressure, to areas where circumstances were partially improving but where peace and security were not fully established. Such challenging situations often are not conducive to a safe and dignified repatriation. For returns to be sustainable, it is critical that they do not take place precipitously or prematurely in the absence of conditions for sustainable reintegration. Although UNHCR does not promote returns to countries of origin in such circumstances, the Office nevertheless recognizes the right of all individuals to return voluntarily to their country of origin and monitors the progress of returns while also advocating for improved conditions.
Refugees returned to 37 countries of origin from 62 former countries of asylum during 2018, as reported by UNHCR offices and after reconciliation of departure and arrival figures. it should be noted that countries of origin reported only arrivals of returning refugees with no distinction between those who returned through organized voluntary repatriation, through self-organized returns or in conditions not conducive for sustainable return in safety and dignity. Thus the reported statistics refer to returns of all types and not necessarily to voluntary repatriation, and the data have not necessarily been verified by UNHCR in all cases.
Returns to Syria constituted the largest such number in 2018, with 210,900 refugees returning, mostly reported from Turkey (177,300).34 Much smaller numbers were reported from Lebanon (14,500), Iraq (10,800), Jordan (8,100) and Egypt (300). UNHCR’s position vis-à-vis returns to Syria throughout 2018 and up to present has been that there are not sufficient guarantees or conditions in place to facilitate large-scale repatriation in safety and dignity. Significant risks remain for civilians across the country and premature return could have a negative impact on refugees and, if significant in scale, could further destabilize the region.
UNHCR neither promoted nor facilitated refugee returns to Syria in 2018. However, many self- organized returns or returns organized by host countries or other actors occurred and returnees were assisted through ongoing humanitarian programmes.35 A Return Perception and intentions Survey conducted among Syrian refugees in 2018 found that 76 per cent of Syrian refugees hoped to return to Syria one day, a significant increase from the 51 per cent reported in 2017. Although most surveyed refugees aspired to go home, only a few saw return as a near-term possibility within a 12-month period. indeed, 85 per cent of respondents stated they did not have intentions to return to Syria in the next 12 months, while 11 per cent were undecided, and 4 per cent intended to return.
The second largest number of refugee returns in 2018 was reported by South Sudan, with 136,200. The largest number returned from Uganda (83,600), followed by Ethiopia (40,200), Sudan (5,200), Kenya (4,600), CAR (2,100) and DRC (400). As in the case of Syria, UNHCR did not facilitate or promote refugee returns to South Sudan in 2018. For those refugees who returned in circumstances that were challenging or not conducive to a safe and dignified return, UNHCR sought to monitor and assist the situations of returned refugees and IDPs within the country.
During 2018, some 87,500 refugees returned to Somalia, the vast majority from Kenya (82,800) and with smaller numbers from Yemen (3,400) and Djibouti (800). Burundi reported the return of 45,500 refugees, 98 per cent of whom came back from Tanzania. There were 35,200 returnees to CAR, mostly from Cameroon (17,100), Chad (10,100), DRC (4,300) and Congo (3,500). Other countries with significant numbers of returnees were Colombia (23,900), Afghanistan (16,200), Mozambique (8,800), Mali (6,700), DRC (6,600) and Chad (6,400).
In terms of return movements by country of asylum, Turkey reported the largest number of departures, all to Syria (177,300). There were 83,600 refugees who repatriated from Uganda, nearly all of whom returned to South Sudan. Other countries reporting large numbers of departures were Tanzania (44,800, all to Burundi), Ethiopia (40,200 to South Sudan), Venezuela (23,900, all to Colombia), Cameroon (17,100, nearly all to CAR), Lebanon (14,500, all to Syria), Pakistan (14,000, nearly all to Afghanistan), Chad (11,800, with 10,000 to CAR and smaller numbers to Sudan), Iraq (10,800, all to Syria) and Sudan (10,100, mainly to Chad and South Sudan).
SOURCES: IOM, UNHCR