Coming Home? Refugees, Migrants, and Those Who Stayed Behind

Coming Home? Refugees, Migrants, and Those Who Stayed Behind

Coming Home? Refugees, Migrants, and Those Who Stayed Behind

Coming Home? Refugees, Migrants, and Those Who Stayed Behind


Few things weigh on the human spirit more heavily than a sense of place; the lands we live in and return to have a profound ability to shape our notions of home and homeland, not to mention our own identities. The pull of the familiar and the desire to begin anew are conflicting impulses for the nearly 180 million people who live outside their countries of origin, often with the expectation of returning home. Of 30 million people who immigrated to the United States alone between 1900 and 1980, 10 million are believed to have returned to their homelands.

While migration flows occur in both directions, surprisingly few studies of transnationalism, global migration, or diaspora address return experiences. Undertaking a comparative analysis of how coming home affects individuals and their communities in a myriad cultural and geographic settings, the contributors to this volume seek to understand the unique return migration experiences of refugees, migrants, and various others as they confront the social pressures and a sense of displacement that accompany their journeys.

The returns depicted in Coming Home? range from temporary visits to permanent repatriation, from voluntary to coerced movements, and from those occurring after a few years of exile to those after several decades away. The geographic sites include the Balkans, Barbados, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Germany, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Vietnam. Several studies portray the experiences of returning refugees who earlier fled war and violence, while others focus on economic or labor migrants.

As the essays show, connections between permanent returnees and home communities are contentious and complex. On the one hand, issues of land title, property rights, political orientation, and religious and cultural beliefs and practices create grounds for clashes between returnees and their home communities, but on the other, returnees bring with them a unique ability to transform local practices and provide new resources.


Ellen Oxfeld and Lynellyn D. Long

Someday, when my daughter has grown enough to understand and remem
ber, we will take a trip to Russia. We will go to my village, where nobody lives
anymore, where empty windows are nailed down. We will find my house, and
I will show her a real Russian stove, with hundreds of tiny fingerprints on it.
We will find our banya on the bank of the river. We will clean this now cold
little hut and sit there for a long time, inhaling the smell of old birch leaves.
With the beginning of twilight we will take off our clothes and swim under
the moon in the river of my childhood. a flock of birds will timidly take wing
from our loud squealing. They will circle above, surprised by the sound of
human joy, so long forgotten in this abandoned, neglected place.

—A thirty-eight-year-old Russian, Burlington, Vermont, 1999

People often remember a place from their past to which they want to return and share with future generations. However, for some, returning home is problematic and, given existing social, economic and political conditions, the return may be neither possible nor desirable. Historically, many immigrants, refugees, and exiles have been unable to return home. Yet, surprisingly in recent times, many people find they can return home again and they are doing so—to visit, to live temporarily, or to reestablish a long-term residence.

In the past decade alone, the world witnessed the unprecedented return of millions of displaced persons, refugees, and migrants to their former homes. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present time, there was a steady rise in the number of refugee returns. in 1998 alone, unhcr estimated that 3.5 million out of 22.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons returned to their homelands. Most recently, there have been major return movements in the Balkans, East Timor, Rwanda, and Guatemala. in 2000, between BosniaHerzegovina and Croatia, for example, cross border returns of different ethnic . . .

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