There is a sedentary bias in the concept of refugee, which implicitly suggests that people belong to a particular location as if by nature. The separation of people from their place forms one aspect of the refugee problem and the restoration of a person to their place through repatriation is often presented as the optimum solution. This simplistic narrative of refugees being able to go ‘home’ is too often employed without a critical analysis of what they conceive to be home and how it has changed since they were forced to leave.
Over the last decade voluntary repatriation has been widely presented as the optimum, and often the only, durable solution to refugee problems around the world. The universal desire to return is ascribed to refugees as easily as their vulnerability, powerlessness and other such stereotypes. Like most stereotypes, it reflects a commonly observed phenomenon: in this case, that people who are forced to leave their homes very often want to go back to them. However, if such stereotypes are to be relied on to predict human behaviour and to form the basis of policy, it must be asked if they can be seen to have universal validity.
This paper questions these assumptions and presents a case study of self-settled Angolan refugees in Zambia, which illustrates how repatriation programmes based on a simplistic idea of refugees returning home are likely to prove ineffective and inefficient.