Coming home can be harder than leaving: the psychosocial challenges of being a returnee

Why coming home can be harder than leaving: the psychosocial challenges of being a returnee

According to IOM’s definition, reintegration is the re-incorporation of a person into a group or process, for example, of a migrant into the society of his or her country of origin or habitual residence. Reintegration is thus a process that enables the returnee to participate again in the social, cultural, economic and political life of his or her country of origin.

All migrants face the challenges of adapting to new host societies and identity is at the center of this adaptation process. The migration experience impacts three aspects a person’s identity: 1) how he or she is perceived by others; 2) interiorized societal factors such as roles and social expectations related to gender, culture and traditions; and 3) how the person ultimately views him or herself in terms of individuality. Returnees experience these challenges to their identity not only during transit and upon arrival at their destination, but also during the process of returning and re-adapting to their communities of origin.

When a migrant returns to his or her country of origin, the reintegration process will be determined by factors such as the length of time spent abroad, the amount of time the migrant had initially intended to be away, the extent to which the migrant retained his or her connections to family and social networks in the country of origin, the extent to which the migrant had integrated in the host country, and other more structural factors such as adequate housing and safe employment. Many other factors like these affect the reintegration process upon return to the country of origin.

However, adaptation does not only bring along negative consequences. During the migration process, people learn and adopt new skills, experiences and norms that shape and enrich their lives. This also means that their identity changes, many times juggling with transnational identities that combine parts of who they used to be and who they are now, after their migration experience.  All these factors make it difficult for returning migrants to fit in to their community of origin, as there is a rupture between who they are now and who they are expected to be by people who knew them prior to migrating. In this sense, social exclusion is a big risk for the emotional well-being of returning migrants, as it is associated with negative psychological consequences such as depression and anxiety, and can negatively affect their livelihoods and the sustainability of their return.

Returnees must also cope with a changed support structure in their community of return. A returnee’s family and social networks often change while he or she is abroad, especially after long periods. It is also common for them to lose their sense of belonging, making it more difficult to adapt. Therefore, returnees often need to rebuild their networks, which are important for social capital, information, safety nets and access to the job market.

Migrant children and adolescents also face specific challenges in returning to countries they have never lived in or may not remember after years of living abroad, for example not being familiar with the language and culture, and having no social networks.

Another significant factor is the way returnees are often perceived when they return. Many returnees, regardless of whether they voluntarily returned to their countries of origin, experience discrimination upon their return, wrongly stigmatized as deported criminals, making their reintegration more difficult. Return may also be seen as a failure or a failure to return with adequate wealth/earnings.

These challenges can lead to feelings of frustration, uneasiness, shame and fear, causing anxiety and stress in returning migrants. These common psychological consequences negatively affect their capability to face other important challenges of the reintegration process, such as finding a job. Returnees who have access to psychosocial counselling are likely to have an easier time coping with the impacts of return, both before and after the actual return. This is especially important for migrants who are part of vulnerable groups or who have been victims of violence.

An essential part of IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Integration (AVRR) approach is sustainability. Reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities and psychosocial well-being, which allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers. Having achieved sustainable reintegration, returnees are able to make further migration decisions a matter of choice, rather than a necessity.

According to the AVRR Framework, sustainable reintegration can be facilitated when needs are addressed at 3 different levels: individual, community and structural. This means that, in the case of psychosocial support, different activities ought to be implemented at different levels. Some examples include provision of information about services available to them, family mediation and community-based group support, counselling sessions when emotional distress is apparent and referrals to specialized mental health care when needed; strengthening the technical capacity of identified governmental, non-governmental and civil society partners at a structural level is also relevant to ensure that returning migrants have easy access to health and social services that will facilitate their reintegration.

Governments, organizations and other stakeholders should focus on developing reintegration programs that respond to the needs of these populations, and support returnees so they get to live their lives at their maximum potential and have healthy, lasting bonds with their communities, thus contributing to individual and collective wellness and growth.

Extortion is Causing the Expulsion of Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America

Extortion is Causing the Expulsion of Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Categoria: Migrant Protection and Assistance
Autor: Guest Contributor

In cases of forced displacement, extortion is often mentioned as one of the main causes. However, extortion is located within a cycle of violence, such sexual violence, murder, etc., and it is difficult to identify a single incident of extortion as the sole reason for leaving a country.

Although its definition varies depending on national legislation, extortion can be understood as the use of threats, intimidation and other acts of violence to obtain actions or goods from another person against their will, as defined by the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Environmental Funds (REDLAC), in a special bulletin dedicated to this issue and upon which this post is based.

In the context of migration, kidnapping and extortion go hand-in-hand, as smugglers often extort money from migrants by threatening to kidnap their relatives. Extortion can also be committed in the other direction: relatives of migrants who have already arrived in another country are extorted by smugglers, demanding money from them so as not to harm the family member who has already migrated. This can often lead to persecution in communities of origin and destination.

In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the serious issue of personal insecurity fuelled by drug trafficking and corruption has marked the region as one of the most violent on the planet, according to Amnesty International. In this context, extortion schemes demanding payments from local markets and small businesses are commonplace in gang-controlled territories. However, depending on the country, there can also be extortion demands  placed on homes, such as in Guatemala, where this accounts for 55% of extortion complaints.

There is also a difference between the type and impact of extortion experienced by men, women, children and the LGBTIQ+ population. In this sense, when women are extorted for money, threats are often combined with the intimidating possibility of sexual violence. According to the REDLAC bulletin, the bodies of women, adolescents, and girls are treated as territory for revenge and control while children are being increasingly recruited as rent collectors, among other functions.

Migrants are often also extorted by people who are not part of criminal groups but who take advantage of their vulnerable situation to turn a profit, such as locals who demand payment to cross private land rather than using routes with criminal gangs, or transporters who demand money from irregular migrants in exchange for not reporting them to immigration authorities. The same situation has been reported with employers who, on pay-day, threaten to report migrant workers for an irregular migrant status.

There are currently no figures on the number of people displaced or forced to migrate due to extortion in northern Central America, as this is part of a generalised climate of violence; however, some organisations locate this crime as one of the main reasons for migration from areas or even from the country.


Extortion during the pandemic

In the bulletin of the Network of Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Funds (REDLAC) which examines extortion as a trigger for internal displacement and forced migration in northern Central America and Mexico, some relevant points were also made about how extortion has adapted to the context of COVID-19:

  • In El Salvador, COVID-19 has reduced the income of gangs, but they have not lost territorial control. Some gangs have established restrictions, such as allowing one individual per family to make food purchases, to reduce the risk that a gang member may become ill and not be able to access medical care.
  • In Honduras, the paralysis of the transportation and informal trade sectors, generally common sectors for extortion, has registered a decrease in cases of extortion due to the pandemic. However, there have been reports of threats of retroactive charges once commerce resumes, house-to-house tariffs, and road ‘tolls’, and scams executed by gangs. Food distributors are frequent victims of extortion when entering communities.
  • In Guatemala, extortion has not stopped either, although at the beginning of the pandemic some maras (gangs) granted ‘pardons’ in their communities. However, national agencies predict that when the restrictive measures end, there will be an increase in other crimes and that extortion will return as a greater threat.
  • Mobility restrictions increase the risk of people being trapped in violent environments, making it difficult to seek support in other territories and countries. Despite this, many people seek and will continue to seek irregular migration options, despite the dangers of the pandemic, in order to leave the high-violence, low-income contexts in which they live.