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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder19. Voluntary Repatriation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOverview
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentUNHCR's Role in Voluntary Repatriation
View the documentConditions For a Voluntary Repatriation
View the documentOn Route
View the documentOn Arrival in Country of Origin
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes

Conditions For a Voluntary Repatriation

11. In a voluntary repatriation, there must be:

· Safeguards as to the voluntary nature of the return;

· Safeguards as to treatment upon return;

· Continued asylum for those who do not repatriate and remain refugees.

Voluntary Nature of the Return

12. Ensuring the voluntary nature of the return includes ensuring

i. The decision to repatriate is made freely;

ii. The refugees are making an informed decision based on an accurate country profile;

iii. The decision is made expressly.

13. Voluntariness must be viewed in relation both to conditions in the country of origin (calling for an informed decision) and the situation in the country of asylum (permitting a free choice).

Voluntariness means there should be no pressure on the refugee to repatriate.

14. A field office should analyze both factors, relying for the first, to a large extent, on direct interviews with all segments of the refugee community, including women. Consider refugee attitudes both towards changed circumstances in their home country and towards the situation in the country of asylum.

15. Voluntariness also means that the refugees should not be prevented from returning. In certain situations, economic and political interests in the country of asylum may lead to interest groups trying to prevent repatriation.

16. What ever the nature of the repatriation, the refugees should be kept fully in formed of the situation in the country of origin in order to guarantee the voluntary nature of the return. Though refugees are often already well informed, it may be necessary to provide additional information on the situation in their home country.

17. Information should be available about their planned reception and prospects for reintegration into national life. They will want to know if they have the right to repossess their old houses and land, what the type and amount of material support they will initially receive, what they can take with them, etc.

18. Many of their questions may be best answered by:

i. Arranging for refugee representatives (including women) to make a visit to the home area to see the situation at first hand, if this is possible (go and see visits);

ii. Assisting with the exchange of letters;

iii. Enabling communication by radio with relatives in the country of origin;

iv. Displays of information about home conditions;

v. Formal or informal discussions with recent visitors to the area of return, or through visits to the refugee camps of returnees or country of origin local authorities.

19. Whatever the method, care must be taken to ensure that the refugees are given as fair (and objective) a picture as possible of conditions in their home area.

20. The refugees must freely express their intent to repatriate. They may be unused to taking individual or family decisions of this nature, but programmes must be structured so that their rights in this regard are safeguarded, for example by using volrep declaration forms.

21. In instances of organized return, the use of a voluntary repatriation declaration form is recommended (see Annex 1). Where there is any risk of coercion, either from outside or by factions among the refugees, the form should be signed in private in front of a UNHCR officer or other neutral witness. He or she may need to interview the refugees to ensure that their decision is truly voluntary. Where circumstances allow, more informal confirmation of Voluntariness than these may be used and simple lists of names may suffice.

In cases of massive spontaneous return, completion of a voluntary repatriation form will not be realistic and UNHCR must position officers along the routes of return to monitor, interview and intervene where necessary to determine if instances of coercion are taking place.

Treatment on Return

22. The durability of voluntary repatriation depends, to a large extent, on the protection given to returnees during their reintegration into their home country.

23. The state of origin bears responsibility for the protection of returnees, its nationals. However, UNHCR involvement with returnees is justified by virtue of its protection role on behalf of refugees and the Office's statutory responsibility to seek voluntary repatriation as a durable solution for refugees.

24. UNHCR cannot guarantee safe treatment to the returnees, though they will often request such assurances. UNHCR's involvement with returnees is set out in more detail in the UNHCR Handbook, the Voluntary Repatriation Handbook, which includes information on amnesties and monitoring.

Amnesties, Assurances. Guarantees

25. In any voluntary repatriation, appropriate legal safeguards are essential. UNHCR recommends that, in addition to conditions set out in a repatriation agreement, governments independently promulgate amnesties or legal guarantees for returnees. Such declarations should include the right to return, freedom of residence, and the provision of an amnesty. As a minimum, they should stipulate that returnees not be subjected to any punitive or discriminatory action on account of their having fled their country.

26. If the government consults UNHCR when drawing up an amnesty, it is particularly important to propose that the amnesty should be both:

i. A group amnesty - the amnesty should be extended on a group basis, rather than requiring individual determination;

ii. A blanket amnesty - the amnesty should whenever possible be a blanket one, not distinguishing between different types of prior 'crimes'. Such distinctions can create major problems, for example in a situation where a clear differentiation between political and criminal offenses may not be possible. Unless the amnesty is a blanket one, repatriates may not know if they are covered until they return, which may be too late. If a complete blanket amnesty is not possible, then a time limitation on the amnesty (offenses committed before or after or between given dates) should be the aim.


27. UNHCR must have direct and unhindered access to returnees to monitor their safety and reintegration conditions. This should include access to prisons or detention centers (liaison with ICRC and Human Rights will be important in this regard as well as information-sharing with other NGOs working with returnees).

28. If returnees are at risk due to inadequate state protection, UNHCR should intervene on their behalf as appropriate, for example by remedial action, or formal protest at local, national or even regional level, and ensure there is good reporting. If the insecurity persists, UNHCR would have to review its policy on return.

29. UNHCR's returnee monitoring role alone will never provide a mechanism for ensuring the safety of returnees and respect for international human rights standards in the country of return. It can be a helpful influence to enhance respect for amnesties, guarantees, the rule of law and human rights but should never be seen as a substitute for state responsibility.

Continued Asylum for Those who Remain Refugees

30. Any voluntary repatriation programme must be complemented by measures to ensure continued safe asylum of refugees and international protection for those who choose to stay longer in the country of asylum. Some refugees may continue to harbour a well-founded fear of persecution and who therefore do not wish to repatriate. There may be others who delay their decision, or even initially decide against repatriation, in order to see how the first fare.

31. This may mean the continuation of any existing operation, but for a reduced number of beneficiaries. Local integration in the country of asylum is the preferred option for a residual caseload of refugees who remain after the completion of a repatriation programme and who are unable for one reason or another to return to their country of origin. However, in rare circumstances, it may mean a resettlement project of some kind for those who remain refugees.

32. If there is a serious problem of coercion, or intimidation, it may be necessary to move those who decide not to repatriate to another location immediately after they have reached this decision. This, too, should be foreseen and covered in any voluntary repatriation agreement.

Other Protection Concerns

Vulnerable groups

33. Throughout all phases of the operation particular attention has to be paid to vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children, unaccompanied elderly, the disabled and chronically ill as well as specific needs of unaccompanied women and single heads of households. In large scale spontaneous repatriation movements, family members may become separated during the operation and it will be necessary to establish tracing services to reunite families. During registration the identity of vulnerable refugees, particularly those with special needs, and of persons with close links to the vulnerable in the country of asylum or country of origin, should have been recorded.

Preparing for Repatriation

34. The steps below should be considered in any kind of repatriation, including in emergency circumstances. The management principles described in chapters 1 to 9 should be referred to (e.g. planning, needs assessment and implementation) and reference should also be made to chapter 18 on supplies and transport.

Being Prepared for Spontaneous Repatriation

35. Proactive steps to ensure preparedness for spontaneous repatriation include:

i. Being well informed about the refugee caseload, in particular its origin, history, composition, reasons for flight, and its view of developments in the country of origin;

ii. Liaising closely with the UNHCR office in the country of origin to determine whether internally displaced people are returning home or other developments which could lead to a return movement. Such return movements are often sparked by refugee fears that they could lose their land, property or jobs if they do not return;

iii. Being in close touch with the prevailing concerns of the refugees.

36. If indicators for a spontaneous repatriation are present, contingency planning should take place, including identifying protection and material assistance needs in the country of origin and en route, and establishing a capacity for monitoring in areas of return including a direct UNHCR or operational partner presence.

Agreement Between the Parties

37. Whenever possible, a formal voluntary repatriation agreement should be concluded between the governments of the countries of asylum and origin and UNHCR in the form of a tripartite agreement. A tripartite commission should in any event be established as soon as possible when voluntary repatriation is forseen. However, it is important that UNHCR not enter into tripartite repatriation arrangements without due consultation with the refugees, and that their preoccupations are always kept foremost.

38. UNHCR's role in developing repatriation agreements is to:

i. Work with the two governments to ensure that any such agreement respects the basic protection considerations already outlined;

ii. Help provide material assistance, where necessary, to enable the agreement to be implemented;

iii. Monitor the return programme, with particular attention to protection, and to ensure free and unhindered access will be given to returnees. UNHCR should also be present in the country of origin to monitor returnee reintegration.

39. The actual content and scope of the formal agreement will depend on the circumstances. An example can be found in Annex 5 in the Handbook Voluntary Repatriation International Protection Handbook.

40. The question of whether those wishing to repatriate are in fact nationals of their claimed country of origin may arise. Responsibility for determining this rests with the government of the country of origin. However, if particular issues arise over nationality claims or problems related to statelessness that cannot be resolved at field level, contact HQ for advice on how to proceed.


41. UNHCR is likely to be responsible for the practical coordination of an operation which by definition will involve more than one country.

42. Cross border communication and coordination between UNHCR offices on both sides of the border can make or break an operation.

The underlying principle of cross border coordination should be that voluntary repatriation operations have to be determined by the conditions, absorption capacity and preparedness in the country of origin.

43. One UNHCR officer should be designated with overall responsibility for the repatriation operation in countries of asylum and origin, and for the actual movement, for example the Representative in the country of origin. The need for a coordinator is even greater when substantial repatriation will take place from more than one country of asylum. The designation of a focal point officer at Headquarters is equally important.


44. Because of UNHCR's protection responsibilities, such operations are often staff-intensive in the field. UNHCR staff may be needed to:

Witness the refugees' voluntary declaration of a wish to repatriate;

Maintain a presence, sometimes a continuous one, in the settlements, along routes of return, at border crossing points and in the transit and arrival centers;

Accompany the returnees during the journey;

Monitor treatment of the returnees on return;

Mount those parts of the logistical operation not contracted out to operational partners and monitor those that are.

Estimation of Numbers

45. An important element for planning is the number of refugees likely to repatriate, which will rarely be known accurately for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, a best estimate will be required, and assumptions will need to be made. Plans must be flexible, taking into account the fact that a common pattern is a slow start as refugees wait to see how the initial movements go and how the first repatriates are received.

46. Information should be obtained on:

i. The numbers of refugees intending to repatriate. Estimates should be obtained by random sampling of intentions, discussions with refugee elders, leaders, women, teachers and others in touch with the community and who are aware of likely intentions. Assumptions can also be drawn from observing current spontaneous return and identifying obstacles being faced by the returnees;

ii. The number of refugees for whom repatriation is unlikely to be an option at this stage;

iii. Current location and numbers of refugees in the country of asylum;

iv. Province and district of origin (intended destination) in the country of origin. Determination of priority provinces and districts of return will be based on the number of potential returnees;

v. Lists of those with special needs.

47. Information for a repatriation operation, including iii - v above, should be computerized if possible using the FBARS (Field Based Registration System) and consist of information obtained during the initial registration when the refugees first arrived and periodically updated thereafter (see chapter 11 on registration and population estimation).

Likely Routes of Return

48. Identify principal routes of return from the refugee camp to the destination in the country of origin based on the likely methods of return (roads, trains, airports, etc.). Identify border crossing points (primary, secondary, tertiary and minor foot paths). Consider which routes are safer, and where there may be dangers of mines.

49. A range of maps with varying degrees of detail should be compiled. Data from FBARS can be imported into maps, charts and graphs. Use standard names and spelling for all locations since in may cases these may have changed.

Mass Information Campaign

50. In addition to ensuring the refugees have access to accurate information on conditions in the country of origin, they should also have direct access to information about the voluntary repatriation operation itself. Posters, leaflets, verbal presentations, radio and TV programmes, etc. in the refugees' language(s) should be used to explain as thoroughly as possible the envisaged voluntary repatriation operation. A simple leaflet, setting out the formalities to expect on arrival and arrangements made, can do much to help the repatriates and facilitate the reception process. It is important that at each stage of this information campaign care is taken to ensure it is as objective as possible and that no false expectations are raised. Do not hesitate to tell a refugee that the answer to some questions about specific conditions in the country of origin is not known.

It should also be made clear to the refugees that on return he or she is outside the scope of UNHCR's protection responsibilities and once more subject to national laws.


51. Registration: Annex 1 contains a sample registration form - the Voluntary Repatriation Form (VRF), including a declaration of intent to repatriate. Where the Field Based Registration System (FBARS) for the computerization of the registration data has been used, precompleted VRF forms can be produced. These computer printed forms contain the required data on those individuals and families wishing to repatriate and the print-outs can be signed by those concerned.

52. Deregistration: Upon departure to their country of origin, repatriates have to be de-registered from any camp or assistance related records to ensure a proper scaling down and adjustment of assistance in the country of asylum.

53. Assembly prior to departure: Unless repatriation can take place directly from the settlements, special arrangements will be required for transit centers prior to the actual move, including transport, accommodation, food and basic health care as well as the orderly completion of the necessary administrative formalities. In some circumstances, registration may conveniently take place at the transit centers.

54. If repatriation takes place by means of organized transport, computerized passenger manifests, allocating passengers to convoys, could be prepared using the FBARS repatriation module. This will also allow the system to deregister refugees who are repatriating and exclude them from assistance in the camps.