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

Danish Refugee Council (DRC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Samuel Hall




This report examines refugee return and reintegration in urban areas of Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. The analysis is based on key informant interviews, focus group discussions, household case studies, operational case studies, and a literature review.

Key points:

Returnees often move to urban areas when they cannot find opportunities or security elsewhere.

Returnees who move to urban areas that are not their place of origin face increased integration challenges. Fostering social capital in these contexts is crucial to facilitating access to livelihoods and improving social cohesion, mental health and overall wellbeing.

Limited land and housing are major impediments to reintegration.

The report presents ten lessons learned to reinforce preparedness for returnees:

Defining who is a returnee and when a situation is conducive to returns. The refugee returnee definition should be widened to include those who do not have official refugee status, those whose temporary protection status may have expired, and those who may require protection under the principle of non-refoulement. Protection thresholds for organized returns are required to enhance pre-planning and for determining when situations are conducive to returns and to the engagement of humanitarian actors.

Improving information sharing with refugees and returnees. Refugee representatives should be provided with opportunities for go-and-see visits. Return packages should include a stronger information component to address the need for accessible, tailored and unbiased information on conditions in the country, as well as information on documentation and bureaucratic processes.

Better hosting for better reintegration. The types of skills and work experience gained in asylum countries influence access to opportunities upon return. More work is required to make the link between refugee experiences in host countries and better reintegration, and to make this a priority for development actors.

Building on regional agreements to bolster responsibility sharing. There are several shortcomings of tripartite agreements between host countries, origin countries and UNHCR (that only cover documented refugees and lack refugee representation). More needs to be done to integrate refugee representation, voices and influence in the decisions that affect them.

Designing cross-border approaches. Joint cross-border programming can allow stakeholders to work with the same cohort, and to provide coordinated programming that follows a group of people through their return journey to their reintegration.

Planning local responses with a focus on housing, land and property (HLP). There are gaps in urban planning in contexts of return. Urban planning often fails to integrate the displaced or the informal settlements in which they live. HLP assistance is central to preventing land-related conflict and to supporting inclusion for returnees. Rental subsidies can be better adapted to urban areas, in certain cases, than land allocation, as piloted in Mogadishu.

Prioritizing urban and community plans. Initiatives are underway to strengthen the voices and inclusion of displacement-affected communities, and to make those voices heard by decision-makers, e.g. the establishment of a common social accountability platform in Somalia. Integrated approaches under a ‘one settlement plan’ are required to turn land-based solutions into stepping stones for durable solutions, focusing on housing, rather than shelter, and on configured, planned and connected city extensions.

Investing in locally led approaches to economic reintegration. Economic reintegration programming has focused disproportionately on technical and vocational education and training (TVET), while links to markets and socio-economic inclusion have been overlooked.

Closing monitoring and data gaps after return. There is still a lack of evidence and learning regarding the quality and impact of reintegration programming.

Defining the nexus between humanitarian action, development and peace building in return settings.