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Unprepared for (Re)Integration: Lessons learned from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria on Refugee Returns to Urban Areas


Executive Summary

This study informs programming and policies in relation to refugee returns and, specifically, with regards to their (re)integration within urban areas, with a focus on Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. While millions of refugees return to poverty, conflict and insecurity in all three settings, a tunnel focus on returns rather than on (re)integration has limited value for long-term planning. Stakeholders, including communities and returnees themselves, have been unprepared for what happens post-return.

In this context, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) have drawn lessons from recent responses to refugee movements in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Return trends have shifted in each of these contexts in recent years, driven by changing governmental priorities and conditions in host and origin countries. Although return contexts are diverse, some patterns are common, and refugees’ own priorities and actions need to be considered in order to build the way for effective programming.

Objectives and methodology

The main report supports the thinking and planning around (re)integration by examining patterns of return and identifying obstacles, including operational, policy and knowledge gaps, to support better preparedness for (re)integration. It asks: “How can returnees, receiving communities, governments and organisations be more effectively prepared so as to lay the ground and work towards sustainable (re)integration? What has worked and what could work?”

The research team interviewed over 100 key informants in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia and globally; it led 21 focus group discussions, produced 14 household case studies and 4 operational case studies, integrating all levels of policy, programme and community stakeholders. The research builds on a literature review of 150-plus sources to investigate (re) integration dynamics and inform future responses.

Report overview

The report examines findings, paradigms and blind spots that can inform designers, implementers and funders of return and (re)integration programmes, policies and frameworks on how to support returnees, countries of origin and countries of asylum. It examines how preparedness and response can be conceived differently, in order to support the achievement of benchmarks for durable solutions through sustainable (re)integration. The report outlines the following:

  • Trends and factors – which stakeholders do not sufficiently understand or consider in current return and (re)integration programming – about the profiles, aspirations and decision-making strategies of returnee populations in urban areas, implications for returnees who are not in their places of origin, female returnees and youth returnees.

  • Literature and data gaps in monitoring, methodology, trend analysis and geographic coverage, which undermine knowledge about how returnees fare and what type of support may be most beneficial for their (re)integration. These knowledge gaps must be closed in order to inform changes in the way policies and programmes have been conceived to date.

  • Ten lessons, which take into account the outlined trends, factors and information gaps, to provide a roadmap for how (re)integration programming can be conceived and prepared earlier and differently across three phases:

  • return processes

  • immediate support

  • long-term support for (re)integration

  • Conclusions and recommendations for global discussions, including the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR or compact) as a framework through which multi-stakeholder refugee response can be approached in holistic and more structured ways, including on early preparedness for (re)integration.