The politics of return: Understanding trajectories of displacement and the complex dynamics of ‘return’ in Central and East Africa

Anna Macdonald, Holly Porter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


By 2019, a record high of 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations (UNHCR 2020a: 2). In the decade leading up to this only a fraction of this number were able to 'return' or find a 'durable solution'. Multiple waves of displacement are common, and 'return' often involves far more complicated arrangements than the term suggests. Yet if 'return', as a one-directional durable solution is increasingly rare, the need to understand it in difficult and dynamic contexts of precarity and multi-directional mobility, is all the more urgent. This introductory essay reflects on what studies of return can tell us about the 'life cycle' of conflict and displacement dynamics in war-affected Central and East Africa, with particular focus on Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda. 'Return' and the 'returnee' category is broad and includes former combatants, especially those involved in non-state armed groups. We survey the historical and conceptual background of 'return' and its growing prominence in international policy before introducing four areas in which the articles in this special issue contribute to our understanding of internally displaced person, refugee and combatant return dynamics: conceptualizations of home and mobilities; everyday negotiation of belonging; the relationship between return and 'cycles of violence'; and finally, the ways in which return shapes and re-shapes governance and public authority across settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)639–662
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Refugee Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • conflict
  • displacement
  • return

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