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
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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.


Strength in diversity: how inclusiveness contributes to disaster risk reduction

Strength in diversity: how inclusiveness contributes to disaster risk reduction
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Autor: Guest Contributor

Disasters due to natural hazards exact a heavy toll on the well-being and safety of persons, communities and countries. These disasters tend to be exacerbated by climate change, and are increasing in frequency and intensity, significantly impeding progress towards sustainable development, especially for most exposed countries.

It is critical to anticipate, plan for and reduce disaster risk to more effectively protect persons, communities and countries, their livelihoods, health, cultural heritage, socioeconomic assets and ecosystems, and thus strengthen their resilience.

According to a recent IOM study on human mobility and the climate agenda in the Americas, countries in the region have advanced in the integration of human mobility in national and regional policies and plans for disaster risk reduction, as well as in other related areas such as climate change, development planning, agricultural policy and housing.

However, in many cases the most vulnerable populations are excluded from contributing to disaster risk management policies and plans, thus suffering more disproportionately when disasters strike.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which sets a series of guiding principles for States and other stakeholders in disaster risk reduction, stresses the importance of inclusive disaster risk management: “There has to be a broader and a more people-centered preventive approach to disaster risk. Disaster risk reduction practices need to be multi-hazard and multisectoral, inclusive and accessible in order to be efficient and effective.”

While Governments have a leading and regulatory role to play, they should engage with different groups including women, youth, persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples and other communities in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards.

The framework notes the following opportunities:

  • Migrants contribute to the resilience of communities and societies, and their knowledge, skills and capacities can be useful in the design and implementation of disaster risk reduction;
  • Persons with disabilities and their organizations are critical in the assessment of disaster risk and in designing and implementing plans tailored to specific requirements, taking into consideration the principles of universal design;
  • Children and youth are agents of change and should be given the space to contribute to disaster risk reduction
  • Women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk and designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as to build their capacity to secure alternate means of livelihood in post-disaster situations;
  • Indigenous peoples, through their experience and traditional knowledge, provide an important contribution to the development and implementation of plans and mechanisms, including for early warning;
  • Older persons have years of knowledge, skills and wisdom, which are invaluable assets to reduce disaster risk, and they should be included in the design of policies, plans and mechanisms, including for early warning.

The inclusion of migrants and other communities can also contribute towards strengthening local capacities, advance an integrated agenda, strengthen local networks and expand the governance base of migration and climate change.

To turn these words into action, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) developed a companion for implementing the Sendai Framework Target, offering practical guidance to help Government authorities integrate disaster displacement and other related forms of human mobility into disaster risk reduction strategies at local and regional levels.

Similarly, The Migrants In Countries In Crisis Initiative (MICIC), developed a series of Principles, Guidelines, and Practices to strengthen local, national, regional, and international action to better protect migrants in countries experiencing conflicts or natural disasters. The Guidelines provide recommendations on how migration can contribute to resilience, recovery, and the well-being of affected communities and societies. These include practices for implementation, such as migrant-to-migrant learning, regional and cross-border contingency plans, and crisis alert systems. 

While public and private sectors, civil society organizations, academia and scientific and research institutions, communities and businesses can all work more closely together to create opportunities for collaboration, the rights of vulnerable groups should always be contemplated as part of holistic strategies for disaster risk management and climate change adaptation.