Return, Reintegration and Political Restructuring

About the project

Previous research on return migration has mainly covered return to political and economically stable countries. Furthermore, the literature predominantly focusses on economic reasons for return. Much less is known about the gendered experience of return migration to conflict-affected contexts, and how this relates to development, gender equality, justice and inclusive peace. This research project explores and analyses the gender experiences of returnees (forced and voluntary) in Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It reviews return policies of the countries under study to understand the possibilities, challenges and obstacles for returnees in the process of participating in re-construction in Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka through their human, social and cultural capital.

The project used a mixed methods ethnographic design including surveys and structured interviews with a total of 679 migrant participants with diverse levels of education, different destination countries, occupations, ages, and genders. In the Afghan context, this research was conducted in Kabul and Kandahar before the return of the Taliban in 2021, making it some of the last data gathered by researchers in country pre-Taliban.

Key findings

Return migration is motivated by conditions in both origin and host countries.

Factors driving return migration in the host country include poor living conditions, racism, and discrimination (heightened during Covid-19), and improved or stable conditions in the origin county, which can make return either feasible, profitable or both. These factors include political, economic and social changes, access to personal relationships and personal resources, and the relevance of newly acquired skills to the country’s development priorities and integration policies. Many return to their homeland for jobs where they can use their skills learnt in their settlement countries, to contribute the economic and political stability of their post conflict homeland and participate in the job market.

Many young and second-generation migrants return to their homeland in search of identity.

This is particularly true for those who have been born in Europe, the US or elsewhere and were not born in their parents’ homeland, where there is an attachment to positive memories or family. This search for identity is also a search for social and political status where their parents’ diasporic identity has been transmitted in the form of political activism or the form of having a responsibility towards their homeland where their skills can offer assistance.

Some people returned to pursue education in their homeland.

For some refugees, they were not able to enter the formal education system in their settlement countries like where refugees are often discriminated against. This was particularly the case for Afghan migrants who have left for Pakistan or Iran. Interestingly they returned to Afghanistan to seek further education (pre 2021 Taliban takeover).

Communication technology and transport routes have a huge effect on return mobility.

The internet, particularly social media, has revolutionised how diasporas connect with their homelands. Diasporas now leverage social media for communication, mobilisation, and knowledge exchange across borders. For young migrants and families, these online platforms are particularly impactful. They facilitate communication, information exchange, and participation in diverse aspects of life back home. These virtual networks extend existing social capital, built on family and political connections, influencing return decisions and maintaining vital ties.

Empowerment extends beyond information access.

Social media platforms nurture individual autonomy and a sense of collective identity. Young people can connect with potential employers directly, promoting professional and entrepreneurial opportunities. Virtual networks also strengthen relationships and pave the way for real-world connections, supporting job seeking, civic engagement, and building a sense of belonging in their homeland. However, challenges remain. Unequal power dynamics and disparities in access to information can hinder truly inclusive participation.

Return migrants positively contribute to their homeland.

Skilled returning migrants, especially women, are comparatively younger, better educated and able to commute between countries of origin and countries of settlement. Most returnees find a job that matches their level of education, for example in public administration, the health, education and IT sector or social services. Moreover returnees are often regarded as cross-border intermediaries whose ties to foreign resources and familiarity with their homeland institutions enable them to bring innovative practices to organisations in their countries of origin.

Returnees contribute to peace, development and gender equality.

Together with their economic, cultural and political remittances, direct investments, the transfer of knowledge and technology of the host country, and skills and training, returnees are successful in using their human, social and cultural capital. Despite female returnees facing more discrimination based on their gender, lifestyle, political views, ethnicity and age, they play a crucial role in the fight for gender equality and contribute to peace and development.

Gender norms negatively impact women upon return.

Many women state that women should have a university education, should work and should be involved in business but on return they experience multiple gender-based discrimination practices and norms. Many women describe their public space as disappearing, and some experience cultural and societal isolation and exclusion, domestic violence, verbal and physical harassment in their homeland.

Despite numerous studies indicating that only men return to their homeland, this study finds that women return just as frequently.

Women, just as much as men, are returning to their homeland to be part of the political process and contribute to the economic development of their homelands where they often hold roles in higher education, with 40% of respondents working in education, public administration, finance and health. In addition to this, across all four countries, women returnees have higher education levels than men. Crucially, women use their roles within public and private spaces to contribute to gender equality policies and are very active in advocating for gender equality. This is the case particularly for Kurdistan-Iraq and Afghanistan.

A lack of return migration policies and assistance limits some migrants from returning to their homeland.

Returnees and their families face barriers to returning, for example a limited labour market, large salary differences between the settlement country and their homeland, and a lack of returnee policies that would give access to housing, education programmes and entrepreneurship programmes for example. This means that many young people who are able to contribute to peace and economic development are unable to return.

Some returnees feel alienated from their homeland due to language barriers and/or because of competition between returnees and local people.

Some local people resent the return migrants, claiming they do not understand the traumas the nation experienced during the conflict. Furthermore, returnees are accused of leaving the country during conflict and only returning to exploit the job market in the relatively prospering post-conflict transitional period.

Countries should have certain mechanisms, certain institutions to facilitate return migration to encourage people to invest or come back to these post-conflict countries.


Governments of Kurdistan-Iraq, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

  • Develop sustainable and viable policies to attract highly skilled men and women to return to and contribute to economic development and peace. Many countries such as India, China, The Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Armenia, Poland, Ireland, Portugal, Latvia, Spain, the Caribbean, and Ghana, have already established return policies and have built specific institutions as part of broader migration strategies to attract their citizens or second generations to return and fill the labour market shortages. The governments of Kurdistan-Iraq, Pakistan and Sri Lanka should develop such institutions and policies to benefit from the skills of returnees and implement integration policies. Efforts can also be made by the global Afghan diaspora community and international organisations to engage, organise, and mobilise Afghans in advancing gender justice and inclusive peace in their country in ways that might allow for their safe eventual return.
  • Establish Diaspora Affairs Departments to benefit from the human, cultural, social and economic capital of the diaspora in western countries. The governments of Kurdistan-Iraq and Sri Lanka should identify evidence of labour shortages, build networks of potential sreturnees and assess their potential contribution to sustainable development.


  • Work with non-governmental partners to implement policies to overcome constraints on reintegrating returnees and develop positive discrimination policies to benefit from the skills of female returnees. New strategies should be developed with civil society partners to mobilise migrant knowledge and expertise in the development sectors to change the perception of the country from one of conflict to economic, political and social development, but to also drive forward diversity and gender equality policies and remove barriers that prevent returnees, particularly women, in playing an important role in the decision-making process at local and national levels.

Case study: Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been witnessing one of the worst internal displacements and refugee crisis in the world for more than 40 years. Since the 1970s, it is estimated that 6 million Afghans have fled their country. Despite the ongoing conflict, there have been sporadic waves of returnees settling back in Afghanistan in line with changes of political power in the country. The UNHCR estimated that although 5.3 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021, 3.4 million Afghans are presently internally displaced and 2.1 million registered Afghan refugees are still “hosted” in neighbouring countries of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Since the regime takeover by the Taliban in August 2021, over 1,268,730 Afghans have fled to regional and international countries and only 5,622 refugees have returned to Afghanistan since then.

Our study is based on a survey and semi-structured interviews with returnees carried out in Kabul and Kandahar in 2020/21. It provides insights into the motivations and experiences of conflict faced by Afghans who returned between 2001 and 2020. The majority of respondents were returnees from Pakistan after a prolonged time as refugees in exile. A smaller proportion were from Western countries and the Middle East.

Key findings

Gendered patterns and drivers in return migration.

For most returnees, conflict was the reason for leaving Afghanistan in the first place. One of the key drivers for their return was the improved political situation in Afghanistan and family and caring responsibilities, particularly for women. For men, the end of their studies abroad, expulsion and end of visa also played an important factor in their return, suggesting gendered emigration and return patterns.

Gendered labour roles and markets persist.

Women were more likely to work part-time than men, allowing them to balance family caring responsibilities and pursue further education at the same time. They were predominantly employed in the third sector working for NGOs, educational institutions, public service jobs, and work in home services and domestic work.

Social mobility upon return.

Both men and women, experienced high levels of social mobility in Afghanistan with a relatively high proportion of returnees employed in jobs that correspond fully with their required level of education. This is in contrast with newly arrived migrants in western countries who are often employed in jobs far below their levels of education and skills. Educational qualifications, social contacts, skills and knowledge acquired abroad were seen as useful in resettling in Afghanistan. However, being away for a longer period impacted returnees’ ability to build crucial social capital in Afghanistan which sets them back in the job market.

Returnees faced significant gendered challenges.

Returnees in Afghanistan encountered a variety of problems and hardships. There were considerable differences between men and women in respect to raising children, finding a job, accessing welfare and healthcare, adjusting to daily life, and dealing with bureaucracy. Women were more likely to report challenges in adjusting to the social norms. Women were more likely to point out gender and language as a problem and men were more likely to emphasise discrimination based on ethnicity and political views.

Gendered experiences of discrimination, safety and violence.

Group-based discrimination reported by the returnees was based on ethnicity, language, gender, religion, political views, lifestyle, and to a less extent age, sexuality, and disability. The perception of safety was also highly gendered with almost all women stating that they feel extremely unsafe walking in their local area or neighbourhood after dark. They also reported experiencing verbal and physical harassment when traveling on their own. This is most acute for those who travel for work and endured harassment by taxi drivers and defamation by neighbours.


Engage, organise, and mobilise Afghan experts inside Afghanistan and across the diaspora.

In order to support Afghans, in their homeland and in the region, the UN, host countries for Afghan refugees, and organisations from the Afghan diaspora need to develop policies to identify Afghan experts and determine how to best capitalise on their social, human, cultural, and economic capital.

Exert leverage to catalyse the stalled peace process.

The international community needs to use whatever leverage it has over the Taliban to pressure them to begin the stalled peace process and reconciliation with all facets of the society, especially with women and highly qualified individuals.