Cover Image
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





Voluntary repatriation operations, even when planned in advance, may have many of the characteristics of an emergency, as defined in this Handbook. They often have to be organized at short notice and require "an extraordinary response and exceptional measures". Mass unplanned repatriation, especially when carried out in less than optimum conditions can resemble an emergency caused by a sudden influx of refugees.


To seek permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting with their voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity and their successful and durable reintegration into their home society.

Principles of Response

· The decision whether or not to return home belongs to the refugees. They should neither be forced to return, nor prevented from doing so;

· The voluntary nature of the repatriation must be verified and safeguarded by UNHCR.


· Deploy sufficient staff to collect information on the intentions of the returnees and to assess whether the repatriation is voluntary or not;

· Collect information in the country of origin concerning the conditions for return, share this information with the refugees;

· Define the nature of UNHCR's involvement in the repatriation, communicate this to all staff, and to governments and other agencies as appropriate;

· Provide assistance to returnees on the way home and upon arrival, if required, in line with the nature of UNHCR's involvement in the repatriation.


1. Voluntary repatriation operations can have many of the characteristics of an emergency operation in that they too may require "extraordinary response and exceptional measures" and often have to be organized on short notice. This chapter gives brief guidance on voluntary repatriation particularly in emergency circumstances, but further reference must always be made to the Handbook, Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection, UNHCR, 1996.

2. Voluntary repatriation is the preferred solution for the plight of refugees. Article 1 of the Statute requires the High Commissioner, to assist "Governments and, subject to the approval of the Governments concerned, private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation" of refugees falling within the scope of the Statute.

3. Voluntary repatriation is usually characterized either as:

i. "Organized" - i.e. where refugees return in an organized manner assisted by UNHCR, or

ii. "Spontaneous" - i.e. where refugees return by their own means rather than as part of an organized operation.

4. Spontaneous return may take place unexpectedly, sometimes in conflict situations. UNHCR needs to position itself to provide timely and effective protection and assistance along routes of return and in the country of origin. In addition information on the conditions prevailing in the country of origin should be provided to the refugees (e.g. concerning landmines, routes of return and border conditions).

Spontaneous, mass repatriations are the most likely to require an exceptional response and extraordinary measures.

UNHCR's Role in Voluntary Repatriation

5. UNHCR's role in voluntary repatriation includes the following:

i. Verify the voluntary character of refugee repatriation;

ii. Promote the creation of conditions that are conducive to voluntary return in safety and dignity;

iii. Promote the voluntary repatriation of refugees once conditions are conducive to return;

iv. Facilitate the voluntary return of refugees when it is taking place spontaneously, even if conditions are not conducive to return;

v. Organize, in cooperation with NGOs and other agencies, the transportation and reception of returnees, provided that such arrangements are necessary to protect their interests and well-being; and;

vi. Monitor the status of returnees in their country of origin and if guarantees given by the country of origin are adhered to. Intervene on behalf of the refugees if necessary.

6. UNHCR should maintain objective and up-to-date information about the situation in the country of origin. Personnel on the ground should stay in close touch with refugees' thinking on the possibility of voluntary repatriation, and keep the refugees and concerned governments informed accordingly.

7. A distinction should be made between "promotion" and "facilitation" of voluntary repatriation. Repatriation should only be promoted when it appears, objectively, that the refugees can return in safety and with dignity1 and the return has good prospects of being durable. UNHCR can promote voluntary repatriation without being in charge of organizing all aspects of the return movement. Frequently, members of a group will make their own arrangements for return, with or without assistance from UNHCR.

8. When UNHCR does not consider that, objectively, it is safe for most refugees to return, but even so refugees indicate a strong desire to return voluntarily and/or have begun to do so on their own initiative, UNHCR must be careful not to promote the repatriation, but may take some steps to facilitate it.

UNHCR must make clear to the authorities and the refugees that support for such repatriation is based on respect for the refugees' free decision to repatriate and cannot be interpreted as an indication of adequate security.

9. Facilitating repatriation can, depending on the circumstances, include providing information to the refugees, advising on the limits of UNHCR protection and material assistance during and after their return, negotiating amnesties, establishing a presence in the country of origin and monitoring their treatment. The issue of material assistance requires careful handling, so that assistance is not interpreted as a pull factor nor as promotion of repatriation by UNHCR.

10. Where there is a mass spontaneous repatriation in conditions where UNHCR does not consider that, objectively, it is safe for most refugees to return, and in emergency conditions, Headquarters advice should be sought to define UNHCR's role in such circumstances.

1 "Safety" means legal safety, physical security and material security or access to land or means of livelihood. "Dignity" includes the concept that the refugees are treated with respect by national authorities including restoration of all their rights.

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.

On Route

Organized Repatriations

55. Identify sources of emergency assistance already available along the routes of return (medical facilities and potable water sources). Where sufficient assistance is not already available there will be a need to establish temporary "way-stations" for rest and overnight accommodation, food distribution (prepared food or cooking facilities), first aid stations, water points, etc. The form and degree of assistance required will, in part, depend on the means of transportation used by the returnees. Other issues for consideration include availability of fuel and facilities for vehicle repair.

56. A considerable UNHCR presence will be required to monitor and verify the voluntary nature of return, to assess needs and to coordinate with offices in the country of origin and asylum. They should provide up to date information on numbers, needs and likely routes to be used.

Mass Spontaneous Repatriations

57. Where UNHCR is providing assistance in mass spontaneous repatriation, the same issues need to be considered as above. However, providing the assistance to a large unorganized mobile population will present challenges, and there will be additional protection concerns. The following steps should be taken:

General Arrangements

Establish or strengthen positions on the routes (way-stations) for the provision of protection and assistance for the mobile population. Factors determining location of way-stations include, availability of water and mode of transportation of the refugees. If the refugees are traveling mainly on foot, the distance between the way stations en route should be closer to one another than if the refugees are traveling mainly in vehicles;

Establish a visible UNHCR presence at way-stations using flags, UNHCR stickers and other visibility material. Ensure that UNHCR staff can be clearly identified, particularly those in mobile teams;

Designate which UNHCR office will have responsibility for which sections of the route;

Make arrangements to support UNHCR staff living temporarily at way-stations by providing tents or other accommodation, drinking water, cooked meals, etc.;

Establish mobile assistance along the routes, between way-stations;

Install fax, PACTOR or other means of written telecommunication at UNHCR temporary offices along the route;

Equip all UNHCR vehicles with communication equipment;

Arrange for a common radio channel through which all organizations involved can communicate;

Put one experienced radio operator and/or technician in charge of coordinating the telecommunications along the whole route;

Have debriefing meetings in the evening and allocate tasks for the following day;

Introduce a single common numbering system for all vehicles;

Communicate the daily movement plan through staff meetings, bulletin boards and daily sitreps;

Provide information to the refugees on the location of way stations, etc. through the placement of signs along the route in languages that the refugees understand, through announcements on local radio stations and announcements using megaphones;

Make preparations for reception in the country of origin - at the border transit centers, and in likely districts of return, e.g. prepare the local population, as well as local government, and negotiate reception and treatment at the border;

Establish or strengthen a presence in the country of origin to facilitate integration and monitor treatment of returnees.

Protection and material assistance

Set up temporary water tanks with tapstands at way-stations (e.g. using bladder tanks);

Fill water tanks by pumping from local sources or tankering, ensuring adequate treatment of the water;

Preposition sufficient quantities of water treatment chemicals at way-stations and/or water collection points;

Establish mobile water maintenance teams;

Arrange for water tankering and refilling of water tanks at night if necessary;

Fit water tankers with distribution taps for mobile water distribution;

Provide refugees with small jerrycans (2-5 liter) which can be carried easily;

Demarcate defecation areas (or trench or other latrines) at way-stations, designate people to encourage and control their use;

Identify teams for cleanup of defecation (or latrine) areas, during their use and to restore the area following the end of the population movement;

Preposition lime for cleanup of defecation areas;

Reinforce existing hospitals and health centers which are on the routes with staff and supplies. Establish health facilities at way-stations and mobile health teams in between the way-stations. Ensure that there are adequate supplies of Oral Rehydration Salts with health centers and mobile health teams;

Try to prevent refugees concentrating in one area to avoid transmission of epidemics;

Preposition high energy biscuits or other convenient food (preferably types requiring little or no cooking) and distribute them at way stations;

Position staff with responsibility for unaccompanied minors at all way stations;

Establish mobile teams to identify and collect unaccompanied minors;

Ensure that staff responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors are highly visible;

Clearly define which types of people are to be considered "vulnerable" for the purposes of the population movement and ensure that all the organizations involved are using the same criteria for identification and care;

Arrange separate transport to collect vulnerable persons, and their families.

Travel Formalities

58. Immigration formalities: Every effort must be made to avoid the need for individual or family clearance to repatriate by the country of origin before movement. Not only would this create major practical problems and delays, it would also be contrary to the spirit of any properly comprehensive general amnesty. If individual travel documentation is required at all, the registration form should suffice.

59. Customs formalities: Customs formalities are generally waived or simplified in repatriation operations but this should be checked well in advance. Special arrangements may be needed where the refugees wish to repatriate with personal possessions such as vehicles or livestock.

60. Health formalities: Health requirements (vaccination certificates, etc.) should not exceed those required for normal travelers. Extra vaccinations, e.g. cholera, typhoid, are sometimes requested on the grounds that without them the refugees would pose special health hazards. Where vaccinations are required, WHO'S advice should be sought and if necessary they can be conveniently recorded on the registration form if the refugees are not already in possession of individual vaccination cards.

On Arrival in Country of Origin

61. The principle of return in safety and dignity does not cease to apply once the return movement is completed, but applies and should be monitored until such time as the situation in the country of origin can be considered stable, national protection is again available and the returnees are reintegrated into their community.

Registration on arrival

62. In certain situations, in particular in an emergency repatriation, it may be the case that no repatriation registration was undertaken in the country of asylum. In this case a system should be set up to register the returnee population to facilitate UNHCR access to all returnees in the different areas of return. In some circumstances, a returnee card may be appropriate.

Monitoring and UNHCR presence

63. A UNHCR presence is vital for returnee monitoring. Presence by other appropriate organizations, and liaison with them, is also important. The purpose of monitoring is to assess whether national protection has been effectively restored and extended to all returnees. The basic principle is non-discrimination - that returnees are treated the same as the resident population and are not targeted or discriminated against in any way. Monitoring should cover general conditions (human rights violations, and security, food security, access to basic facilities and property, freedom of movement, honouring of any guarantees), as well as random individual monitoring.

Reception by resident population

64. Where the return is spontaneous there may be less time to make preparations in the country of origin. Steps should be taken as soon as possible to prepare the resident local population for the arrival of the returnees to promote acceptance and integration if necessary.

Material Assistance

65. Material assistance and protection are interlinked and should be usually reinforcing. The provision of material assistance to returnees enhances the possibilities to monitor this population and is important in making return a lasting solution. Where assistance is given without discrimination on a community basis it can also help with acceptance of the returnees and integration. The question of the nature and degree of assistance programmes in the country of origin, as well as the length of time UNHCR should remain involved in the country of origin, are covered in more detail in the references listed below.

Access to land and property

66. Property is a key resource for returning refugees - either in terms of access to accommodation and return to one's home, or as a means of livelihood. Resolving this can be very complex, but must be addressed if the repatriation is to be successful and durable. UNHCR can play a role through negotiating with the authorities to protect the legitimate rights of returnees.


(Please refer to chapter 23 on staff safety for safety advice on mines.)

67. The presence of landmines on main routes of return and in returnee settlement areas poses tremendous danger for repatriating refugees and is therefore a major protection concern to UNHCR.

The need for return "in safety and dignity" means that UNHCR cannot promote the voluntary repatriation of refugees in patently dangerous situations with the risk of injury or death.

68. Within the UN system, issues relating to mine clearance are primarily the responsibility of the department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO). Where necessary UNHCR may help fund minefield surveys and demarcation, but involvement in actual mine clearance is exceptional and requires approval from Headquarters. The focus is therefore on less costly measures that lead to immediate risk reduction for the refugees like mine awareness campaigns. The danger of mines should be considered from the earliest stages of planning a repatriation.

69. The following activities should be considered:

Identification of return routes and potentially dangerous areas of return and landmine survey:

UNHCR should obtain reliable information on areas seriously affected by the presence of landmines and discourage refugees from traveling to or through such areas. While a landmine survey is a national responsibility, UNHCR may also be able to contribute information obtained through its presence in the country of origin as well as through interviews with refugees in the country of asylum. DPKO have a database on mines which includes country specific information on estimated numbers and types, and progress in clearance.

Repatriation method: The presence of mines may have an impact on the proposed repatriation method - for example it may be necessary to encourage refugees to repatriate by means of UNHCR organized transport rather than returning spontaneously.

Mine awareness campaign: If landmines are a factor, then mine awareness campaign should be part of the mass information campaign prior to departure in the country of asylum, and continue in the country of origin. Ensure that the campaign reaches all sectors of the population - both men and women should be involved with the planning and training activities of the awareness campaign. The campaign must be sensitive to levels of literacy, roles in society, and culture. It should cover: existence, appearance and danger of landmines, how to avoid injury, safe rescue procedures, and recognizing warning signs.

Demarcation (marking mined areas) and mine clearance. UNHCR should ensure that returnee areas and routes of return are included as priorities in national demining and demarcation plans. Returnees and local population must be taught about the demarcation signs used.

Key References

Registration - A Practical Guide for Field Staff, UNHCR Geneva, May, 1994.

Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection, UNHCR, 1996.

Voluntary Repatriation. Training Module. 2nd Edition, UNHCR, Geneva, 1993.



Annex 1 - Sample Voluntary Repatriation Form

An example of the type of form that might be used for a large-scale repatriation is given below. Where FBARS is used, it produces a pre-completed form with information taken during registration, which will then only need the signature. This form can be modified to suit the requirements of the operation.

Notes for those drawing up the form

1. Agree the information required with the authorities. All of the items in the example below may not be necessary.

2. Agree who needs to complete a separate form. The example is designed to be completed by each person over 18 years old and unaccompanied children, but it may be sufficient to have the head of the family group complete one form for all accompanying dependents.

3. Agree on the number of copies and language(s): normally original plus three copies with the following distribution: original - authorities; UNHCR in country of asylum; copy 1 - applicant; copies 2 and 3 -for travel and arrival formalities.

4. If at all possible, print the forms in sets on 'pre-carboned' paper.

5. Draw up simple completion instructions.


I, the undersigned principle applicant, declare that I (and my dependents) after due consideration wish to be repatriated to ____________________




Annex 2 - Types of Transport

General Considerations

Below are some advantages and disadvantages of the common means of transport. Whichever form of transport is used, the plan should also take into consideration:

1. Food, accommodation and minimum emergency health care during the journey. Where distances are short, it is recommended that only material assistance needed for the duration of the journey, plus, if essential, for the first few days after arrival, be distributed prior to departure. This will help reduce any incentive to "repatriate" several times;

2. Capacity to move all reasonable private possessions of the refugees, if at all possible at the same time as their owners. Remember that what refugees carry with them on return will be used to ensure more successful reinstallation and move more quickly towards self-sufficiency (i.e., roofing material, livestock, etc.);

3. Appropriate security and the maintenance of public order during all stages of the journey;

4. Arrangements for the safe transfer of the required documentation, passenger lists, registration forms, etc., and for keeping statistical records of the progress of the operation;

5. Escort or monitoring of the actual repatriation by or on behalf of UNHCR. At least for the first movements, a UNHCR staff member should accompany the returnees. Ensure voluntariness even during the movement stage.




(i) Spontaneous and self-organized

(i) Returnees can take little household effects

(ii) No logistical requirements necessary

(ii) Requires first aid medical stations, provision of potable water and food along route

(iii) Special assistance required for vulnerable groups (children, elderly, disabled)

(iv) Increased security risk. Risk of separation of families


(i) Can be used on most roads

(i) Open to elements

(ii) Usually available

(ii) Danger to passengers

(iii) Plenty of space for luggage

(iii) Uncomfortable


(i) Greater passenger capacity in safety

(i) Limited luggage space except on roof

(ii) Faster than truck if roads allow

(ii) Slower unloading and loading (e.g. at border and road checks

(iii) More comfortable

Notes for truck and bus

1. Assuming both bus and truck are available, the deciding factor may well be journey distance. If road conditions allow, a bus is usually preferred for longer journeys. Check with the refugees if a truck is acceptable, consider how small children would fare, what passengers would hold on to and how luggage will be secured. Some form of sun shade or other protection may be necessary.

2. For both truck and bus, the following facilities will be needed:

-vehicle fuel;

- food and water for repatriates during journey;

- emergency health care;

- breakdown or recovery service;

- vehicle insurance for the country of destination.

3. For any movement by road, try to avoid having to change vehicles at the frontier. While it is generally easier to use vehicles from the country of asylum, consider if having those from the country of origin coming to fetch repatriates has advantages. Ensure that drivers do not work excessive hours and that they have immigration and other clearances through to the destination.

4. It may be difficult to keep trucks together in tightly grouped convoys, and this is often impracticable on dusty roads in any event. However, there must be one person clearly identified as responsible for each group of vehicles. Seek local advice on how to marshal and control the vehicles. Prearranged stopping points where all vehicles regroup, with the person in charge in the last vehicle is one solution. Make sure all drivers are aware of breakdown or accident procedures.




(i) Easy overall control including border crossing

(i) Much less flexible: secondary transport required to and from railhead

(ii) Plenty of luggage space

(ii) Often slower than road

(iii) Can be made self-sufficient (fuel, food, water, etc.) over longer distances


1. Movement by rail rather than road may be the better solution where large numbers are repatriating to the same initial destination.

2. To avoid delays at the border, try and organize immigration, customs and health formalities either only at the final destination or by embarking officials who complete them during the journey.




(i) Swift, convenient and easily controlled

(i) High cost

(ii) Assembly and reception facilities are likely to exist

(ii) Secondary transport required to and
from airport

(iii) Optimum means for long distances and especially
for the sick, disabled and otherwise vulnerable

(iii) Limited luggage capacity


1. For any large scale repatriation, existing commercial flights will be insufficient (and more expensive than chartering). In general, the most economical aircraft on a medium or long haul is a full wide-bodied jet (i.e. jumbo or airbus type).

2. UNHCR has considerable experience in chartering aircraft for repatriation operations. The agreement is likely to be concluded from Geneva and advice should be sought from Headquarters (the Regional Bureau and Supply and Transport Section) regarding procedures and standards of safety.

3. In addition to practical matters such as runway length, consider requesting from the governments concerned:

- concession to use duty free fuel (check fuel availability);

-waivers of in-flight route charges, landing and parking fees;

- payment only for actual cost of handling charges rather than the fixed commercial fees.




(i) Greater passenger and luggage capacity

(i) Secondary transport to or from port

(ii) Assembly and reception facilities already likely
to exist

(ii) Slow and costly

(iii) Comfortable

(iii) Sea sickness