New report: “Returning to Stability? Refugee returns in the Great Lakes region”

Published: 16 Oct 2019


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. Most of the countries in this region host refugees but have also seen their own citizens seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

Voluntary repatriation is generally seen by regional and international actors as the preferred solution to these displacement crises. But returnees rarely come home to political stability and security, and return migration can itself complicate the situation in return zones.

This new report, Returning to Stability? Refugee Returns in the Great Lakes Region, describes how the return of refugees has affected conflict dynamics and relations with local authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. Based on extensive field research in south-western Burundi, Faradje (north-eastern DRC) and Kalehe (eastern DRC), it describes what return means – both for returnees and for people who didn’t migrate. Aside from the logistics of crossing borders and the alleviation of immediate material needs, it analyses how interventions by international agencies and their local counterparts affect the politics of return.

  • In Faradje (Haut-Uélé province), the research focused on the return of Congolese refugees who fled from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 2009 and came back when violence erupted in South Sudan. Security challenges, frustrations over external assistance and contestation between established and new forms of authority continue to cause frictions.
  • In Kalehe (South Kivu province), an anticipated larger scale return of Congolese Tutsi refugees sparks nervousness among different communities. Returnees attempt to reclaim their lands, resulting in disputes with other communities. The citizenship of those returning from Rwanda is being contested, impacting on their ability to reclaim land and reintegrate into society.
  • In Burundi, the research looked at the most recent wave of returns of citizens who fled to Tanzania after the 2015 crisis. While returnees generally encounter solidarity and mutual assistance, they are also facing mistrust and socio-political exclusion. With no fundamental changes in the economic and political situation between their flight and their return, returnees are particularly vulnerable. External assistance is a driver of social tensions in return zones.

Consult our interactive map with a summary of the research findings

The ways in which refugees returned have been very different in the three cases. In Burundi, most did so in the framework of a tripartite agreement between Burundi, Tanzania and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In both Kalehe and Faradje (DRC), refugees have returned without a formal framework and with little assistance. Humanitarian resources have become an important issue in the politics of return.

The report also describes the effects of the different socio-political situation in Burundi and the DRC on the return process. In contrast to the strong presence of the state and ruling party in Burundi, state presence in the DRC is weaker. In Kalehe, the presence of armed groups contributes to a strongly militarised political arena, which is not the case in Faradje. These differences in political configurations have an impact on the role of international agencies in refugee returns.

Despite these important differences, all three case studies underscore the need to consider the political and social, and not just humanitarian and logistical, dimensions of return. Return is an inherently political process, affecting legitimacy and power relations. The report makes the case for more conflict-sensitive approaches to refugee return, and proposes 12 lessons for international engagement.

The research was carried out by a consortium including the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Groupe d’études sur les Conflits et la Sécurité humaine (GEC-SH), Actions pour la Promotion Rurale (APRu) and the Conflict Research Group (CRG).

Download the full report in English or in French.

Download the 12 lessons for international engagement in English or in French.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo
Type: Library, Paper