Once the conflict ends: what drives the return of internally displaced people?

bus that returns refugees

The end of a conflict poses new challenges. The post-conflict period can be fragile: political forces need to accommodate to the new realities, a flow of ex-combatants re-enters society, victims become active political actors claiming truth and restitution, and uncertainty remains high. More specifically, the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a serious challenge in post-conflict situations. What happens to these people when the conflict ends? 

Internally displaced people return to changed societies
As Hegre and colleagues have argued, the risk of a war resuming is 10 times higher in the post-conflict period than before the war started. At the same time, a reduction in violence can have positive and negative effects on IDPs. These people must decide whether to return to their hometowns, stay in the host destination or resettle in another region.

The return of IDPs to their home towns provides some benefits and entails significant challenges. It increases the chances that they will recover their assets and social networks, and resume economic activities in a familiar setting. Better knowledge of the social norms, markets and informal institutions of their hometowns also helps families to reconnect rapidly to labour markets and economic opportunities.

Nonetheless, resuming economic activities may require large investments and institutional support. In addition, when they return to their home towns, IDPs usually experience the aftermath of intense conflict and destruction, disappeared or eroded markets, changed social dynamics and weakened institutions.

Very few displaced people actually return home
Few IDPs return to their home towns after a conflict ends. Data produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that only 3.2 per cent of all IDPs return home. A recent survey conducted by the National Statistical Office of Colombia (DANE) reveals a somewhat higher figure, finding that 20 per cent of Colombian IDPs are willing to return to their home towns.

What drives the return of IDPs to their home towns? In a recent paper, María Alejandra Arias, Pablo Querubín and I examined the correlates of Colombian IDPs’ desire to return. We used a household survey, asking displaced household members to state whether they would prefer to (a) return to their municipality of origin; (b) remain in the municipality in which they were currently registered; or (c) relocate to a new municipality.

Since the survey was applied in 2005, during the most intense period of the Colombian civil war, only 11 per cent of households expressed a desire to return.

The causes of forced displacement influence the desire to return
Four conclusions emerge from the findings of the paper. First, the causes of forced displacement shape IDPs’ preferences with regards the choice to return home. Victims of non-selective violence or those directly targeted by armed groups are, perhaps unsurprisingly, less willing to return. Post-traumatic stress and fear of being victimized seem to play a dominant role in the locational preferences of IDP households. 

Second, social networks and informal organizations are potential drivers of return. People who were members of peasant organizations prior to being displaced are more likely to be willing to return. Upon their return, such social organizations may also provide security, economic assistance and links to trading networks.

Third, labour markets and access to land influence the desire to return insofar as they determine income-generating opportunities. People who were unemployed before their displacement who have since gained employment  in their destination city are less willing to return. In this context, a strong attachment to agricultural activities is an incentive to return—working in agriculture before or after displacement is associated with more desire to return. This is not surprising. Most Colombian IDPs migrated from rural to urban areas, where their labour experience had less worth. Furthermore, access to land tenure is associated with more willingness to return. Losing land entails high economic costs, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of not returning.

Fourth, vulnerable households prefer to stay in urban area. Since urban areas have a wider supply of government support and social services (e.g. schools and health services), households headed by women or households with a larger number of members below the age of 14 express less desire to return.

Designing resettlement policies that account for personal preferences
Two important caveats about our findings are worth discussing. First, our analysis concentrates on preferences for return and not on the actual rate of return of IDPs. Second, we do claim causality and our results are descriptive.

Nevertheless, our findings identify a number of relevant dimensions that resettlement policies should account for during post-conflict periods. Incorporating the preferences of IDPs is essential when designing settlement policies. Our results also suggest that IDPs weigh up the benefits and costs of the different alternatives available to them. Public policies, international programmes and restitution processes all help shape the net benefits of these alternatives, potentially tilting the balance towards one particular alternative.

Policies should therefore provide sufficient flexibility for people to select their preferred alternative according to their experiences of violence, incentives and economic opportunities. IDPs are active agents making decisions in complex conditions—not passive victims of war.

This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).