Analysis & Opinions - Just Security

The Politics of Repatriation and Power of Community Reintegration in Peacebuilding

| Aug. 31, 2021

Repatriation of foreign fighters and individuals accused of association with designated terrorist groups —  whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere — is a highly contentious issue in international security, and also essential to deescalating conflict. Communities on the frontlines of conflict are confronting  head-on the challenges of integrating returnees and armed group affiliates at a massive scale. But our recent research suggests possible hopeful news: local communities — those most affected by fighting — may be remarkably receptive to the return of former armed group affiliates.

In post-conflict societies, humanitarians and the U.N. have long worked to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation by facilitating ex-combatant re-entry and the social reintegration of individuals affiliated with armed groups. Recently, Kazakhstan made headlines for welcoming hundreds of women and children back from detention camps in Iraq and Syria; many Balkan states have done the same. But many other countries have revoked foreign fighters' citizenship, refusing entry and due process.

Such wholesale exclusion is not feasible for the tens of thousands of fighters recruited within conflict zones, such as Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. But it seems especially improbable that communities still being victimized by active armed groups would welcome former fighters and associates to live amongst them. Repeated failures in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) campaigns are part of the reason conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan have lasted for decades. These programs have been criticized for being overstretched, under-resourced, unable to balance justice and amnesty, gender-blind, and more. Yet maximizing pathways out of armed organizations is essential to conflict de-escalation — those who fight must return to civilian life for violence to end. Families and communities play a critical role in preventing fighters' and associates' return to armed groups. Counterintuitively, new data from Northeast Nigeria's Boko Haram conflict suggests that community members are more willing to accept returning affiliates than is often assumed....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: O'Neil, Siobhan and Zoe Marks.“The Politics of Repatriation and Power of Community Reintegration in Peacebuilding.” Just Security, August 31, 2021.

The Authors