Policy Brief on the Impact of Refugee Returns on Peace and Security in Africa

Published: 15 Dec 2020


After decades of conflict and violence, the Great Lakes region of Africa remains one of the areas of the world most affected by forced displacement. Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), Burundi and South Sudan are among the global top ten countries of origin of refugees, but every country in the region has produced refugees, often for several decades. In addition, most countries in the Great Lakes region are not only countries of origin, but also host large refugee populations. Throughout the region, complex histories of conflict have created a complicated displacement landscape.

The DRC, for instance, is not only a major source of cross-border departures, but also hosts over 4.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and over 500,000 refugees within its territory. Burundi hosts refugees from eastern DRC, which in turn has become home to tens of thousands of Burundian refugees. The DRC hosts several hundred thousand more refugees from CAR, South Sudan and Rwanda. Rwanda hosts tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi and the DRC. Tanzania and Uganda have opened their doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

These protracted situations have wide-ranging effects on the areas of departure and arrival of refugees. The domestic costs and challenges for host countries of managing these refugee populations are enormous. Voluntary repatriation is generally seen by regional and international actors as the preferred solution to these displacement crises. The return of refugees has become a key element in peace negotiations and post-war peacebuilding and is considered a critical step towards national recon- ciliation, state stability and economic development.[1] However, studies on return reviewed by re- searchers for this project show that contrary to previous assumptions, returnees rarely come home to political stability and security, and return migration can itself complicate security and stability in the areas to which they return.[2] This is particularly relevant in the Great Lakes region, where cycles of displacement and return have fuelled conflict and power struggles over many years.

Lessons Learned from Returns in Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan

IRRI partnered with several organisations to research on returns in the Great Lakes Region[3] and held a Policy Lab in January 2020 in Addis Ababa, and this Policy Brief reflects both the outcomes of the research and the Policy Lab. While the Country contexts each have their particular characteristics and dynamics, a number of broader lessons can be learned from this work. Overall, these lessons underscore the need for a conflict sensitive approach, one which begins with an analysis of the political, socio-economic and cultural factors, and which continuously assesses the potential impact of returns, not only on humanitarian and logistical aspects, but also on the dynamics of the areas to which people return. These analyses will be relevant for humanitarian and other interventions that support or impact the return of refugees and other displaced communities.

[1] J. Tegenbos and K. Vlassenroot, “Going home? A systematic review of the literature on displacement, return and cycles of violence,” Politics of Return Working Paper, ISSN: 12345678, 2018, p. 3, available at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/89151/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Research Report titled Returning to Stability? Refugee Returns in the Great Lakes Region, October 2019, can be accessed here:  http://refugee-rights.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Returning_to_Stability_2019-10-15-1.pdf

The Policy Lab was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 23 January 2020, on the margins of the African Union summit, and was kindly supported by the Knowledge Management Fund (KMF) and the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at the Addis Ababa University .

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Advocacy, Research, Return
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Africa, Central Africa, Central African Republic
Type: Advocacy, Meeting report, Policy brief