By Ana María Ibáñez**
The end of a conflict poses new challenges. Post-conflict is a fragile period: political forces need to accommodate to the new realities, a flow of ex-combatants enter the society, victims become active political actors claiming truth and restitution, and uncertainty is still high, among others. This implies that the risk of the war resuming is ten times higher than before the war started (Hegre et al, 2001).
The return of internally displaced population (IDP) is among the many challenges in post-conflict periods. The ease of violence allows IDP to settle in permanently and must decide whether to return to their hometown, stay in the host destination or resettle in other region. The return of IDP to their hometown provides some benefits and entails significant challenges. Return increases the chances of IDP recovering their assets and social networks as well as resuming economic activities in a familiar setting. Better knowledge about social norms, markets and informal institutions of their hometowns helps families to connect rapidly to labor markets and economic opportunities. Nonetheless, resuming economic activities may require large investments and institutional support. In addition, the hometowns of IDP usually were amidst intense conflict and destruction, implying markets eroded or disappeared, social dynamics changed and institutions were weakened.
Few IDP return to their hometown after the conflict ends. Data of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates only 3.2% of IDP returns. A recent survey for Colombian IDP reveals 20% of them are willing to return to their hometown.
What drives the return of IDP to their hometown?
A paper I wrote with María Alejandra Arias and Pablo Querubín examines the correlates of the desire to return of Colombian IDP. We use a household survey that asks displaced households about their preferences to i) return to the municipality of origin; ii) stay in the current reception municipality; or iii) relocate to a new municipality. Since the survey was applied during the most intense period of the Colombian conflict, only 11% of households expressed a desire to return.
Four conclusions emerge from the findings of the paper.
1. The causes of forced displacement shape the preferences for returning. Victims of non-selective violence or directly targeted by armed groups are less willing to return. Post-traumatic stress and fear of being victimized again seem to play a dominant role on the locational preferences of IDP households.
2. Social networks and informal organizations are potential drivers of return. Members of peasant organizations before displacement are more likely to be willing to return. Upon return, social organizations may provide security, economic assistance and links to trading networks, among others.
3. Labor markets and access to land, by determining income generating opportunities, influence the desire to return. Unemployed before displacement and employed in the destination cities are less willing to return. Strong attachment to agricultural activities is an incentive to return: working in agriculture before or after displacement is associated with more desire to return. This is not surprising. Most Colombian IDP migrated from rural to urban areas, where their labor experience depreciated. Access to land tenure is associated with more willingness to return. Losing land entails high economic costs, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of not returning.
4. Vulnerable households prefer to stay in urban areas. Since urban areas have a wider supply of government support and social services (e.g. school and health), women headed households or household with a larger number of members below 14 years of age express a lower desire to return.
Two important caveats about our findings are worth discussing. First, our analysis concentrates on preferences for return and not actual return of IDP. Second, we are not claiming causality and our results are descriptive.
However, the findings identify relevant dimensions resettlement policies should account for during post-conflict periods. Incorporating the preferences of IDP is essential when designing settlement policies. Our results also suggest IDP ponder the benefits and costs of the different alternatives. Public policies, international programs and restitutions processes shape the net benefits of the three alternatives, potentially tilting the balance towards one particular alternative. Policies should provide sufficient flexibility for people to select their preferred alternative according to their experiences of violence, incentives and economic opportunities.
IDP are active agents deciding amidst complex conditions, not passive victims of war.