Just before joining the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies in March 2020, I visited Nigeria and Guinea Bissau to evaluate projects supporting the reintegration of migrants who had returned home after difficult journeys. The experience allowed me to reflect on the concepts of reintegration and rehabilitation, which are among the 129 that feature in Humanitarian Encyclopedia, and to recognise the importance of unpacking the diversity of meaning contained in each one.


Who is being reintegrated?

The first conceptual dilemma I noticed concerned who was being reintegrated? At first glance, that was simple; reintegration project beneficiaries are migrants who returned home and are eligible for assistance according to certain criteria. On further thought, however, I wondered whether a former migrant is still considered a “migrant” once they return home?


Returnee struck me as a better term, even if it was very technical and deeply embedded in humanitarian jargon. Then I realised returnee translated to repatriado/a in Portuguese, or repatrié(e) in French. Repatriation, with its connotations of returning to one’s nation-state, did not adequately describe the complexity of situations I encountered. For example, one of the returnees I spoke to had dual citizenship: having first returned to Guinea Conakry, he had later decided to pursue reintegration in Guinea Bissau. Others I met lived nomadic rural lifestyles, crossing international borders regularly for agricultural labour or herding cattle. Had they returned home, even if not to the same location? Where exactly does return occur? Is it marked by arriving back in the locality, commune, city, state, region or country of origin? 


What are reintegration and rehabilitation?

Conceptualising what happens after return is arguably even more complex. IOM’s integrated approach to reintegration states it “requires a holistic and a needs-based response at the individual, community and structural level.” In addition, according to IOM, “sustainable reintegration is achieved when returnees have reached levels of economic self‑sufficiency, social stability, and psychosocial well-being that make their further migration decisions a matter of choice, rather than necessity.”


Between 2017 and 2019, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia team analysed strategic documents from some 478 humanitarian organisations, surveyed 1,060 humanitarian practitioners, and organised nine workshops across the world to identify 129 key humanitarian concepts and an accompanying set of associated related concepts. One concept, rehabilitation, was found to be closely related to reintegration. 

IOM’s 304-page reintegration handbook mentions rehabilitation 10 times to describe the restoration of the built and natural environment from damage or disrepair. Broader interpretations also consider people as objects of rehabilitation. Linguistic analysis of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s corpus, which contains some 71 million words from humanitarian documents since 2005, shows rehabilitation is frequently used in relation to restoring people’s physical health, financial situation, psychosocial health and torture. 


Only a brief analysis like this shows both consensus, variation and relationships between the concepts of reintegration and rehabilitation. There is much more to explore. Why is that important?


How does conceptual variation affect humanitarian response?

If we take rehabilitation to mean restoring someone to their previous status, then reintegration goes further, as it refers to ensuring return is sustainable and future migration decisions are a matter of choice. This distinction has important consequences for humanitarian and development practitioners. On the one hand, rehabilitation – helping to restore someone to their original situation – does not seem adequate. This original situation was characterised by duress significant enough to lead the (now) returnee to (previously) embark on a dangerous migration journey in the first place. On the other hand, reintegration – helping someone achieve a position of sustainable economic, social and psychological wellbeing where migration decisions become a matter of choice – is a major, long-term challenge requiring support over a number of years. Arguably, such support is beyond the capacities and project cycles of traditional humanitarian actors, which raises further questions about the nexus, or where and when reintegration support transitions to development and government actors.


This is where the importance of clarity on who is being reintegrated comes back to the fore – what responsibility do the international community, transit and destination states bear for the reintegration of returnees, which still implies some level of vulnerability associated to the migration experience, compared to repatriates, which implies restoration of citizenship and a handover of responsibility to the state of origin? As one of the returnees said to me: “when it is everyone’s responsibility, it is no-one’s responsibility”. Knowing who is accountable for what role, and how these roles can best support each other, is crucial to coordinating humanitarian and development efforts that seek to benefit people returning from difficult migration experiences.


Just a cursory reflection on two concepts in practice raises a handful of questions. There are many more to be discussed on this and all 129 concepts in the Humanitarian Encyclopedia. With contributions from academics and practitioners from a wide range of organisations, experienced in humanitarian action at global, regional and local levels, across a range of contexts, cultures, languages, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia offers a valuable and much needed resource. As we build up theplatform in the coming months, I am excited to explore the diversity in these concepts further, discuss divergent views, and find common ground and mutual understanding for a better humanitarian response.

Alex Odlum is Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Encyclopedia at the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies.

Last update : Jan 27, 2021