Migrants being helped ashore by the Italian Coast Guard in southern Italy
Photograph by Valeria Ferraro/Sipa via AP Images


October 24, 2022


Professor Sandra Joireman studies the experiences of people forcibly displaced by violence, particularly the factors that affect whether they ever return home.
Interview by Matthew Dewald
Sandra Joireman
Sandra Joireman

If you’re forcibly displaced, how much control do you have over where you go?
People go to the closest safe place, but we have seen in places where there’s protracted displacement that people may end up in camps or are prevented from working. If that happens, they often become dependent on food aid, and food aid is unpredictable.

If the closest safe place is somewhere they can’t really live, then they will continue to move. We saw that with the Syrians who flooded into Europe in 2016–17.

Are internally displaced people more likely to return home than people who cross borders?
We don’t have a conclusive answer, but in states where we have good data on displaced people — like in Colombia and in northern Uganda, two very different places — the answer is no, they’re not more likely to return.

In both those cases, most people went from rural to urban areas, and many of them had no intention of going back. You can think about conflict in this case as accelerating a broader rural-to-urban migration that might occur later for other reasons.

What are the main factors that influence whether refugees eventually return?
Safety is foremost. Nobody returns when it’s not safe.

Next is time. How long have they been displaced? If you’ve been displaced five years or less, you’re more likely to return.

A third is experiences of trauma, but there’s mixed evidence. Some studies say the more likely you are to experience trauma, the less likely you are to return. Other studies say it’s all about whether you’re returning to a community where you feel safe.

Economic opportunities are huge, too. Are they better in your home situation or in your place of refuge?


My life is here. My job is here. My friends are here. I’m not going back.

Different family members probably weigh those factors differently.
I’ll tell you a little vignette. I was doing an interview in central Serbia with a family that was displaced from Kosovo. Everybody’s sitting on the couches in the living room, and I ask them, “Do you want to go back?”

Mom is chain-smoking and crying and saying, “Yes, I want to go home.” Her daughter sitting next to her was 21. She says, “No, my life is here. My job is here. My friends are here. I’m not going back.”

One of the most important things that I would like people to think about differently is to consider displacement an intergenerational problem. It’s not just about adults moving across borders. It’s about their kids and grandkids.

What are the main issues faced by people who return to their homes?
A lot depends on the circumstances. A key issue is whether they are part of a minority group returning to an area where they were subjected to violence. That’s very difficult. We rarely see minority groups return home because they don’t feel safe.

The quintessential example is Bosnia, where you had three factions intermixed before the war. What we saw after the war was that even though everybody got their property back, if you were a minority, you would typically sell your house and move to an area where you were then a majority. People want to live in situations in which they are safe.