Cover Image
close this bookRefugee Emergencies. A Community-Based Approach (UNHCR, 1996, 142 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
close this folderPart One. Emergency Response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Role of Community Services
View the documentNeeds and Resources Assessment
View the documentPlanning Action
View the documentCommunity Building
close this folderPart Two. Refugees at Risk
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVulnerable Groups, Minorities and Isolated Refugees
View the documentRefugee Children
View the documentUnaccompanied Children
View the documentRefugee Women
View the documentSingle-Parent Households
View the documentThe Elderly
View the documentThe Disabled
View the documentMental Health
close this folderPart Three. Voluntary Repatriation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Role of Community Services
close this folderPart Four. Organizing Services
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentField Level Management and Administration
close this folderAnnexes
View the documentAnnex No. 1
View the documentAnnex No. 2
View the documentAnnex No. 3
View the documentAnnex No. 4
View the documentAnnex No. 5
View the documentAnnex No. 6
View the documentAnnex No. 7
View the documentAnnex No. 8
View the documentAnnex No. 9
View the documentAnnex No. 10
View the documentAnnex No. 11
View the documentBibliography

The Role of Community Services


Repatriation is not always an easy process. There may be unforeseen problems, not only for the returnees, but also for those welcoming them home...

"My wife seems like a different person... Now she acts like she is the boss... She has a good job. She says she won't give up her job now. I feel as if she doesn't need me any more."

"My son behaves so strangely these days. He always wants to close his bedroom door - is he hiding something from us?"

Repatriation involves the voluntary return of refugees to their country of origin from which they had earlier fled for fear of persecution. It implies that since their departure there has been a change in the circumstances that caused their flight, thus permitting their return in safety and dignity. It is however necessary to recognize that, because of the complexity of human affairs and institutions (beliefs, expectations, prejudices, memories, desires), and despite changes in laws and governments, successful repatriation operations must encompass much more than the logistics of the return.


Prior to departure. The voluntary nature of the return has to be established and therefore involves a community services and protection element on both sides of the border.

The Voluntary Repatriation Application Form (VRAF) duly filled in implies the willingness to return home. However, besides belonging to a particular country a returnee also belongs to a community, a family, and has feelings, hopes and expectations about returning home.

Assistance must be given to establish contact with his/her family prior to departure in order to avoid traumatic episodes on arrival (e.g. discovering that family members have died, and mat after all his/her return is meaningless, or expecting a hero's welcome, only to be rebuffed and rejected as yet another 'mouth to feed' by a family struggling to make ends meet). Information about the country should be given to the returnee before departure so that he is 'prepared' for his/her return.

Why Exiles Return Home

1. Life in exile intolerable
2. Home-sickness
3. Reforms in country of origin and change in government policy
4. To find out what is happening
5. Optimism about the situation in the country improving
6. Fear of being sent back by host country
7. Family circumstances
8. UNHCR's presence and security given thereby
9. Information about assistance given to returnees and possibilities for a new start
10. Change in government

Initial assistance should be given to enable the returnee to find his feet and a job and relationships to fall back upon. An initial period of six months should be enough, all things being equal.

The more vulnerable among the returnees may need special assistance. Their needs have to be carefully understood and addressed. It is necessary that the local residents and local institutions are involved at the earliest in the arrangements for the vulnerable.

Community leaders, volunteers, and other groups of persons should be involved in assisting the returnee in his integration. Returnees should be involved in community and group discussions regarding the problems faced by them in exile and the special problems they have faced and their special needs particularly for a deeper human understanding.

Preparing the Ground in the Country of Origin:

Collaboration with other agencies. It is very important that other agencies are involved in me process of reintegration. However, it is important to ensure that they are not prejudiced (or perceived to be so) against returnees. Where perceptions differ, policies need to be clarified, and agreed to by the agencies concerned before returnees are put into contact Lines of accountability and relationships have to be dearly understood by all. Similarly, procedures established for returnees (e.g medical examinations, scrutiny of bags for contraband items, etc.) should be dearly explained to the returnees prior to departure.

Assessment form. A record of individual returnees needs to be established and put in place for future assistance and follow up.

Post-Arrival - Understanding the Psychological Aspects of Counselling Returnees: Counselling of returnees entails a proper understanding and response to their feelings.

While some, because of family support, may have the possibility of making a better adjustment than others, there are returnees who have been traumatized and, as such, need special care. The long duration of their absence compounds the situation, making the process of integration difficult and often painful.

Consideration should be given the feelings that may be experienced by returnees:

· fear
· withdrawal
· anxiety
· inadequacy
· alienation
· shattered expectations
· suspicion
· loneliness

Some typical expectations of exiles include: a warm welcome from co-patriots, to find a niche in society, to find a job or means of livelihood, to start life where they last left off.

Common Problems and Difficulties Faced by Returnees: The main problems faced by returnees are likely to concern housing, health, employment, social reintegration and family separations (especially where spouses have formed new relationships in the absence of partners in exile).

Some other difficulties experienced may include:

· security problems vis-a-vis the government and others with whom they may have had difficulties before.

· no family to fall back on

· dual identity of an exile and a returnee

· maintaining neutrality in the given situation which has not changed much since they left

· confidentiality about their situation

· unemployment

· a system to integrate them not yet in place

· given wrong information in country of exile about situation in country of origin leading to inappropriate expectations

· differing loyalties within families

· no ready-made solutions

· false promises and disillusionment

· feeling strange in a place they once knew well

· confronting changes (prices are different, life has moved on without them).

Cross Cultural Problems: Changes in social structures that occur in the interim also make readaptation difficult. The longer the absence, the more difficult the adjustment.

Concept of Trust: The concept of trust underlies all efforts at repatriation. Where laws but not governments change, those who have suffered under the ruling regime find it difficult to believe in a change of heart on the part of those who were responsible for their hurts and exile. Thus it is essential that every measure is taken to ensure that bridges of trust and reconciliation are built up between people at every level.

Careful choice of staff and volunteers cannot be overemphasized. They will be the vital links in the overall plan and programme of action.

Survival Skills of Returnees: While some returnees may have the benefit of welcoming and understanding families, most have to fend for themselves. In the context of the types of problems outlined above, many have to resort to unconventional methods of survival.

Some of these may include theft, alcoholism, manipulation of the system, fraudulent behaviour and lies. Some may even return to exile, where they have a support system of friends who can be trusted.

Re-integration rituals and membership of self-help groups are more positive ways in which returnees survive

Strategies for Assisting Returnees:

Individual counselling: Comprises one-to-one case management, including an accurate assessment of the returnee's situation and orientation upon arrival.

Volunteers: Support: Entails the organization, on a one-to-one, activities for returnees. Be-friending - Create groups of people who befriend life of the community.

Group counselling and therapy: Assist groups of returnees who have the same problem, thereby enabling them to provide mutual support. The ideal would be to include early returnees who had already made the adjustment.

Community support and awareness: Create a support system within the larger community, because problems need to be put into the context of society as a whole, thus involving everyone.

Self-help groups: Allow returnees with similar interests to meet and help each other, with older returnees helping newcomers.

Networking: Set up a network of contacts (formal and informal) for assistance and exchange of information

Assessment of Needs: In order to help those in need, returnees' requirements must be assessed on an individual basis. This assessment must cover, inter-alia, the following: family situation, previous training, work experience, housing, health, etc. (See Social Services for Returnees Needs Assessment Form, annex no. 7.)

Counsellors: Often in a confused and confusing situation such as repatriation, counsellors and others expected to assist returnees experience 'burn out' and, as a result, are not able to be positive in their approach. Some feelings typical of this situation include:

· inadequacy
· irritation
· uncertainty
· confusion
· helplessness
· "fed up"

Accordingly support for both staff and volunteers should be provided in an organized way.

In addition to a knowledge of the returnee's background, counsellors require the following skills:

· ability to listen
· ability to give guidance
· tact
· creativity
· objectivity
· ability to work with groups
· empathy
· ability to handle aggression.

Vulnerable Returnees: In the case of the disabled, the elderly and unaccompanied minors, for whom short-term assistance would be inappropriate, additional assistance may be provided in the form of a one-time assistance grant from UNHCR.

However, in planning for the long term, provision should be made for assistance by governmental or non-governmental institutions. In this context a good referral network is vital.

Assistance - Short- and Long-Term Planning: The immediate assistance needed by returnees on arrival and shortly after return is determined by the situation and operates on a sliding scale. However, during this time (to be seen as a buffer period), the returnee is expected to find some means of earning a livelihood (i.e. finding a job, undertaking training in a trade or skill) and be self-supporting at the end of the period. The role of counsellors during this period is to provide guidance about opportunities, make appropriate referrals, tap resources for jobs and ensure that training opportunities are developed, if they are not already available. One-time grants for income-generation and other assistance must be carefully monitored to ensure long-term self-support.

The diagram below represents a plan of action based on a buffer period of six months. In other situations, a lump-sum payment upon arrival may relieve the organizers of the burden of assisting returnees and their families. However, it has been proved that an initial follow-up is good for both the returnee and the community.


Planned Voluntary Repatriation
Identification of Extremely Vulnerable Individuals (EVIs) and Medical Screening:

Identification of extremely vulnerable individuals should be undertaken at the time of registration to plan the assistance required during the movement and reintegration phases of the repatriation. Medical cases would include:

· chronically ill with diseases that require continuation of long-term treatments (e.g. tuberculosis, leprosy, diabetes, etc).

· disabled/physically handicapped

· children who are moderately malnourished (between 70%-80% weight for height)

· pregnant women

· mentally ill.

Identification is carried out by a medical team working with the registration team. Care should be taken not to overlook those who might not be able to walk to the registration sites because of acute disease or physical disability.

Counselling should be provided regarding the arrangements made for assistance during the movement and the reintegration phase. Special emphasis should be put on seeking assistance and support from dose relatives and other refugees travelling to the same destination. Where support of dose relatives cannot be ensured for unaccompanied children, authorities in the country of origin should identify a reliable alternative support system.

Priority should be given to seeking family reunion on both sides of the border as a solution to EVI problems. Outside assistance should not replace support by the family. This is particularly important for refugees with mental health problems.

Updating Medical Records: Preventive and chronic disease medical records should be updated and sent with the returnees for continuation of the services in the country of origin. Preventive records include immunization, particularly measles, antenatal services, family planning and other MCH records.

Medical Screening and Escort: It is essential to ensure that refugees should not unduly suffer in the process of repatriation. In this regard, it is necessary to conduct screening in health and nutrition for all repatriants prior to their departure.

The objectives of the medical screening are to:

· ensure that repatriation of refugees with acute life threatening conditions will be postponed while they are undergoing treatment;

· make adequate provisions for attending to emergencies during the movement phase;

· prevent transmission of an internationally notifiable disease across the border;

· postpone pregnant women who might deliver on the way (as assessed by a qualified medical doctor/midwife);

· ensure that families with severely malnourished children (i.e. less than 70% weight/height) are not moved until the child recovers (> 75% weight/height);

· make a final check of the medical records and provide measles vaccine on the spot if required;

· provide medicines required for continuation of treatments of chronic diseases till access to similar services in the country of origin is assured.

A mobile medical escort (comprising medical doctor/TBA/Community Health Worker(s) as required) should accompany each convoy. Each medical escort should have a first aid kit in addition to medicines such as ORS, chloroquine, paracetamol, aluminium hydroxide, ampicillin, promethazine injection and egotamine injection (with the necessary needles and syringes).

Overall Procedures: In organizing mass returns of people, it is essential that every part of the community is involved in the process of reintegrating returning exiles. Clear procedures and the identification of focal points for different activities are an essential starting point.

Where travel is by road crossing points, and reception centres have to be identified, assistance during travel and special arrangements for vulnerable groups need to be organized. Protection en route of returnees, and of women in particular, needs to be ensured. Reception and care of the vulnerable upon arrival must be organized in co-ordination with implementing partners, host government and NGOs, as well as with volunteers.

The important point to remember is the time factor, which limits assistance to the initial buffer period. However the process of mobilizing local government and non-governmental resources should occur simultaneously, allowing them gradually to assume full responsibility for assisting returnees as citizens of their own country.

The flow chart on the following page is an attempt at identifying me various stages in the process and the breakdown of activities by sector.

The following case studies illustrate the importance of planning and preparation for all those involved in repatriation activities.

Case 1

John has come back after five years of exile. He has not been in touch with his family since he left. His father, who was very upset by his son's departure, died while John was away. John arrived home without informing his family. His mother was shocked to see her son again as she had thought he was dead. Four days later she died of a heart attack. John is very disturbed as he feels that he killed both his mother and his father. He wonders why he came back. His sister, and only surviving relative, has been struck by paralysis and is bed-ridden. As his mother, who looked after her is now dead, there is no one to look after his sister. He wanders about alone and is seen sitting by himself. If anyone gives him money he uses it to drink at the local bar.

Case 2

Joe has been away for 20 years. He had left his wife who was very young. He did not keep in touch. She was not sure whether he was dead or alive. In the meantime, she formed a relationship with another man and had his children. However, she did not many him. Informed of Joe's return, she was very excited. She asked friends for help and went to the airport in a car to meet him. The flight did not arrive as scheduled.

When the flight eventually arrived, some of Joe's friends who had seen her there, told Joe that his wife had come to meet him. He had been very hesitant about his reception but was reassured that she still cared. He understood her need for another relationship in the interim and did not hold it against her. They met and were happy to be reunited.

Procedures for Reception of Returnees

Check List

Are you fully aware of the political/social/cultural aspects of the problem?

Have you identified people who can assist returnees on a one-to-one basis in the communities to which they will return?

Are the communities briefed to understand the psychological aspects of the returnees and their needs for acceptance and understanding?

What efforts have you made to bring about a larger community awareness?

What efforts have you made to brief the returnees in their country of exile about conditions they will experience in their country of origin?

Identify special needs that you perceive need to be addressed prior to the arrival of the returnees. E.g. assistance package, shelters for the homeless, medical care, food arrangements and clothing.

Identify the main attitudes that returnees are likely to have as well as their expectations from the receiving community.