Debunking misconceptions about return migration

Written by Katie Kuschminder on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

Every day thousands of people return to their home countries and communities after having migrated to another country or city. While much has been written about migration and integration processes, far less light has been shed on what happens when migrants return home, and attempt to reintegrate into society. In this piece, I will point out three common misconceptions which can cloud the conversation on return migration.

For over two decades, research has sought to argue that return migration is not necessarily the same as ‘going home’, or returning to one’s own ‘culture’. In fact, my research has shown that going home and trying to reintegrate can be more difficult than integrating into a new country.

Above all else this is because, over time, things change in the origin country. A migrant who left India a decade ago is unlikely to find the country exactly as they remember it upon their return. It is therefore not uncommon for returnees to undergo a ‘double re-adaptation’. Not only do they have to re-acquaint themselves with the new reality of their home country, they also must square that new reality with the picture of the country that they had kept in their mind. This is particularly relevant for individuals returning to post-conflict countries, and will almost certainly be the case for many Syrians at some point in the future.


There are several misconceptions about return migration that must be dispelled, argues Katie Kuschminder.

Furthermore, returnees frequently find themselves frozen out of the cultures which they had been a part of before migrating. In Ethiopia, for example, migrants that have come back and lived in the country for a decade are still referred to as ‘diaspora’, and considered foreigners. This brings us to a second misconception: that reintegration is solely the responsibility of the returnee.

Return migrants are commonly expected to take it upon themselves to ‘fit back in’. This is something of a one-way process, wherein the responsibility to learn the local lingo and adapt to local customs rests solely on the returnees’ shoulders. Yet, when we consider the processes by which migrants integrate into host communities, it is clear that integration is a two-way process between the host community and the migrant, where both need to give and take, to accept and learn from each other.

Why, then, do we expect the return migrant to bear the brunt of responsibility? Reintegration needs to be re-conceptualized as a two-way process between the return migrant and receiving society. How can a returnee be solely responsible for reintegrating into a community if they are discriminated against or disrespected for being a returnee? For example, in Afghanistan, migrants returning from the US are commonly labeled ‘dog-washers’, regardless of their status or position. Such forms of discrimination need to be recognized by the receiving country, which also has a responsibility to welcome and support returnees in their reintegration processes.

A final misconception is that returning migrants are guaranteed to be important resources for development in their own countries. I do agree that return migrants can be vital sources of knowledge transfer, capacity development, and may bring about some social change in the home country. However, their potential to enact catalytic change should not be overestimated or taken for granted.

Moreover, the heterogeneity of return migrants, and their capacities upon return, must be acknowledged. It is inappropriate, for example, to expect returnees who have been denied asylum to be agents of development and change, as is the case with assisted voluntary return policies in some European countries. To contribute to development, returnees must have acquired new skills and ideas in the country they migrated to and be able to overcome cultural barriers, so that they can frame ideas such as equality, human rights, or democracy in a way that is relevant to locals. Secondly, they must be in positions of relative power, so as to have the greatest impact.

Return migration and reintegration is a broad field, which requires targeted policies for different groups of return migrants in different countries. Policymakers in receiving countries and international organisations need to understand these unique needs and target policy and programming effectively to meet the needs of different types of return migrants. Expectations also need to be adjusted: return migrants cannot be viewed as a panacea for development. For policies to more effectively target and meet returnees’ needs, it is vital that we increase our understanding of return and reintegration processes.

Katie Kuschminder is a Research Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre’s Global Governance Programme, funded by a Rubicon Grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. Katie’s research is in the field of international migration, with a current focus on irregular, transit and return migration.

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