Understanding and implementing gender-sensitive sustainable reintegration

Rosamond returned from Libya in 2017 and opened a grocery shop in the Gambia. Little by little, she has been expanding it to meet the needs of her family. © IOM 2020

The complexities of reintegration processes are determined by a variety of converging factors, which influence returnees’ social, psychosocial and economic spheres, as well as possible re-migration aspirations. Among these factors, a major role is played by sex characteristics and gender, the latter defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for individuals based on the sex they were assigned at birth”, and how it impacts returnees’ well-being, access to services and activities, and the overall reintegration experience. However, important questions remain on the interlinkage between gender and return and reintegration studies: what role do sex and gender play in the reintegration experiences of returnees? What are the gender-specific barriers for their reintegration?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) commissioned, under the EU-IOM Knowledge Management Hub, two research projects designed and implemented by the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance of Maastricht University. The overall objectives of the study were threefold: to compare differences in reintegration sustainability outcomes in Afghanistan*, Bangladesh, El Salvador, the Gambia, Nigeria and Somalia, to determine individual, community and structural factors that affect these outcomes in countries of origin, and eventually to inform the design, implementation and evaluation of reintegration support programmes for returnees.

The findings are presented in the recently released combined research study Comparative Reintegration Outcomes between Forced and Voluntary Return and Through a Gender Perspective, in which the discourse on gender and migrant reintegration is addressed in Chapter 4 “Understanding and implementing gender-sensitive sustainable reintegration”. Evidence confirms not only the intersectionality of gender with structural conditions in origin and host countries, but also its effects on reintegration outcomes. Findings also point out that societal norms, values and expectations — associated with sex — do impact the reintegration of returnees across the economic, social and psychosocial dimensions.

To achieve the above-mentioned objectives, the research adopts a mixed-methods approach integrating desk review, data gathered through IOM’s Reintegration Sustainability Survey (RSS), and in-depth interviews with returnees. The RSS is a tool developed in 2017 by Samuel Hall in collaboration with IOM; through a series of questionnaires, the RSS generates composite reintegration scores and three-dimensional scores measuring economic, social and psychosocial reintegration: the higher the score, the more sustainable is the returnee’s reintegration. The economic dimension investigates indicators such as returnees’ satisfaction with their economic situation, indebtedness and access to employment or trainings. The social dimension investigates, for example, access to services (housing, health care etc.), possession personal documents and level of one’s children enrolment in school. Ultimately, the psychosocial dimension investigates indicators of personal well-being such as among others strength of social networks, sense of belonging to the community and ability to remain in the country of return. The study addresses one of its limitations, resulting from the RSS not including the gender dimension but rather sex-disaggregated data, by additionally incorporating key informant interviews with global-level experts on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

Reintegration activities to strengthen teamwork and synergy, through different dynamics in El Salvador.
© IOM 2019 / Elena MONTOYA.

Comparative reintegration outcomes through a gender perspective

Chapter 4 of the report aims to contribute to bridging the existing gap, where little research has been conducted, on the gendered analysis of return migration and reintegration processes. It examines the differences in reintegration outcomes of female and male returnees, and identifies challenges, good practices and recommendations for gender-sensitive reintegration programming.

The experiences of return and reintegration are closely interlinked with gender stereotypes, social stigma and relatives’ pressure. As presented in the report, several Afghan female returnees, who migrated alone, are subject to stigmatization from members of their families due to patriarchal norms in some communities. For example, a female respondent who was living a good life with a decent income in Oman had to return due to pressure from her brothers to come back and get married:

“If I was still abroad, everyone [in my family would] call me bad.”

Male returnees were also often affected by the gender-related expectations, facing high levels of pressure to fulfil the role of “providers” and experiencing return with an overlay of psychological reactions, such as failure and shame. All these situations significantly impact the reintegration processes of returnees. As an Afghan male returnee expressed:

“Why did I have to back off? Because I have a weakness. Because I have a family. I have children. Today if I lived in Austria for 4 and half years and then I went to Italy, would my paperwork be done there? I couldn’t take this risk. It might be fine if I was alone but I couldn’t take it with my family, due to which I had to return back to the country by following their laws.”

Economic, social and psychosocial reintegration

As the report shows, the RSS scores indicate that female returnees often face greater difficulties to reintegrate than male returnees. It is particularly in the economic and psychosocial dimensions that female returnees score lower. This is the result of mixed factors, some of them are linked to gender-based violence, while others relate to the limitation of available opportunities due to societal stereotypes and patriarchal norms. For example, in El Salvador and Bangladesh females often-times face stigmatization when they engage in employment, as they are expected to carry out domestic chores and childrearing. In addition, due to a continuing lack of resources, reaching economic self-sufficiency is confronted with several challenges. A Bangladeshi female respondent sarcastically expressed the extreme difficulty she was going through:

“What plans to make? If you have to write down something, please write, “Nothing left to sell but two children.” Now we’ll sell them… [..] please write, “She has no future and no plan.”

While one of the key informants for this study, who was interviewed in the Gambia, highlighted:

“The intention is there but the resources are not there to support.”

The interviews conducted with global-level experts on returnees with diverse SOGIESC clearly underline that the sustainability of reintegration depends on structural and cultural factors in countries of origin, as these aspects will be the ones shaping the rules, legislations and societal norms. Thus, a case-by-case analysis is required for the provision of reintegration assistance, as well as the strengthening of support networks that inform returnees about the context and their rights in countries of origin.

In his shop, Tate sells Mauritanian veils for women. She has developed her business, after a very difficult journey, by offering sails that she realizes herself. © IOM 2018 / Sibylle Desjardins

Good practices and programmatic recommendations for gender-sensitive programming

The country studies and interviews revealed that reintegration experiences differ widely across sex, while also highlighting gendered-related considerations of reintegration experiences. Designing tailored return and reintegration support programs is thus essential to address the different vulnerabilities and needs. Additionally, gender perspectives are still missing in current national policies on the subject, further contributing to returnees’ gender-specific challenges. the different vulnerabilities and needs. Additionally, gender perspectives are still missing in current national policies on the subject, further contributing to returnees’ gender-specific challenges.

Participatory design that includes returnees of all genders must be considered by future programming. At the same time all household members must be involved in decision making processes to balance situations in which men are the ones frequently involved in the process of reintegration assistance. It is also crucial to ensure safe and accommodating spaces for returnee women, and returnees with diverse SOGIESC, paying particular attention to aspects such as the physical privacy and confidentiality of returnees, to guarantee and sustain their participation.

As an expert on SOGIESC-related matters explained during a key informant interview:

“What it means building safe spaces? It’s not just a physical space […] saying we’re [the organization] committed and they can have a rainbow flag. That’s part of it, but it’s not entirely it. Capacity development is required and there’s a long way to go from the fundamentals to the more specific AVRR day-to-day.”

Another recommendation relates to the diversity of staff working in return and reintegration, where priority should focus on having ethnic and gender diverse caseworkers and service providers, to avoid discrimination and to better represent the composition of the target population. Finally, the report advises to collect data using gender-sensitive mechanisms that go beyond the binary options of “male” and “female”.

This article was written by the EU-IOM Knowledge Management Hub

* It should be noted that the surveys and interviews with returnees in Afghanistan were carried out before the withdrawal of international forces from the country and the situation was relatively stable compared to the current circumstances, which should be kept in mind while interpreting the findings of this study. At the time of this paper’s release, and considering the prevailing insecurity across Afghanistan, IOM’s AVRR programme, as well as post-arrival reintegration assistance to returnees, have been put temporarily on hold. See IOM, Press release, “Safety of Afghans and Humanitarian Access Must be Top Priorities” (17 August 2021).

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Official account of IOM, the UN Migration Agency.

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IOM - UN Migration

IOM - UN Migration

Official account of IOM, the UN Migration Agency.

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