The challenges faced by returning migrants

Returning migrants at Beitbridge Border Post


September 2020 HARARE. Over 17 000 migrants have returned to Zimbabwe as COVID-19 continues to take its toll. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that a total of 20 000 migrants are expected to have returned to Zimbabwe from neighbouring countries in the next few months. The returnees (COVID-19 related or otherwise), face several challenges affecting their smooth reintegration into society and the labour market. Action is required to cushion them and the receiving communities from inevitable shocks. With tailored individual, community and structural support, returning migrants can successfully reintegrate into their countries of origin.

Return is the process of going back to one’s own culture, family and home. Reintegration is a process that enables individuals to re-establish the economic, social and psychosocial relationships needed to maintain life, livelihood and dignity and achieve inclusion in civic life (IOM, 2019). IOM asserts that reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers (IOM, 2017). Such reintegration often depends on circumstances beyond the returnees’ control. In the Zimbabwean context, those returning will encounter a deteriorating economic situation, exacerbated by a debilitating liquidity crunch, foreign currency shortages, rising inflation, spiraling basic commodity prices, erosion of disposable incomes, high unemployment, lack of institutional finance and poor social safety nets. Returnees are often ill-prepared for their return because they have limited access to the information required to equip them to navigate the changes that could have occurred in their home countries while they were away.

Returning migrants their return and reintegration stories.


Sylvia[1] ran a successful tour operating company but decided to leave for the UK when the tourism industry took a dip in 2003. She settled there well and found a job relatively easily. Although she was disappointed with the money she earned, she supported her family in Zimbabwe and built her home. She always intended to return to Zimbabwe and when she could no longer bear being away from her children she decided to go home. Although she spent a year preparing for her return, Sylvia was worried about how far her savings would take her and whether she could restart her business. “After living in the UK for many years, a person accumulates a lot of property. It would’ve been handy to have some embassy assistance in transporting my property home”, she said. She lamented not having received any post arrival assistance and having to navigate the changing environment herself. She exclaimed, “Some money [to help with settling in] would have been nice, or even a free medical examination”.

Sylvia found settling in very difficult as many things had changed, including the currency. She struggled to get a job which she attributed to the fact that she was a little older than the average jobseeker. The area she returned to had very little infrastructural development, something she believes made reintegration difficult. Although she had a business plan in place, she believes she would have benefited greatly from government assistance for entrepreneurship. She is still in the process of trying to register her business and says she remains stuck at the paperwork stage because you either must ‘know someone who can help you or pay a bribe’. In terms of social reintegration, she points out that family and friends were very excited to see her when she first arrived as they expected to receive gifts. “After the money [and gifts] are finished, that’s it, they don’t want to know” she said. Her church played an integral role in her reintegration as she did not know anyone else and had no friends. That community helped her navigate some of the things she found most difficult. When asked whether the difficulties in reintegration would push her to consider migrating again, she was adamant that she no longer wanted to live anywhere else.


After having graduated from university, Lazarus spent three years job hunting and after failing to secure a job, decided to migrate. He migrated to South Africa because it was closer to Zimbabwe and cheaper to migrate to. He found it very difficult to integrate because of the complex immigration laws and procedures to acquire a work permit. Decent accommodation was expensive, and the language barrier made settling in difficult. Once he’d found a job, he was pleased with the level of professional development and critical skills that he acquired. Lazarus supported his family financially, mainly using cash remittance services. He found sending actual groceries risky as items were often stolen. He always intended to return to Zimbabwe. His plan was to work for a few years in the host country to raise enough money to start a company in Zimbabwe.

Asked why he had returned he explained, “I returned to Zimbabwe because of Covid-19 outbreak, I was too scared to continue living in foreign lands whilst there was such a pandemic”. Be that as it may, his decision to return was a difficult one because he knew it would be tough to get a job. He feared not being able to sustain himself. He prepared himself psychologically for the mandated quarantine and could not bear to think or plan for anything else after that, as he had very little savings. The returnee didn’t feel as though he needed any pre-return assistance but appreciated the accommodation and basics supplied at the quarantine centre. Having worked as a professional in South Africa, he had hoped he could’ve been linked to government departments or organisations dealing with COVID-19. He would have wanted to use his knowledge and skills in the national COVID-19 response.  Asked to share some of the biggest challenges he faced, the returnee said he found settling in difficult because of the challenges of power cuts and poor infrastructure. He explained that these challenges hindered his capacity to work. Lazarus said that a lot of productive time was lost as he needed two hours a day to fetch water from his nearest neighbourhood borehole. He explained his frustration, “In Zimbabwe [contacting] office bearers in government departments, NGOs and the private sector is challenging. I would have liked to share my ideas. Unlike in South Africa where meeting a company boss or office bearer is a very east process. In Zimbabwe you need to be connected for you to even present an idea which might help the whole country”. Although he could find jobs, he didn’t take any of them as his salary expectations were much higher than what companies were offering.

Considering what would have made his reintegration smoother, Lazarus said returnees should be empowered with more practical skills to help them solve the country’s many problems. With capital assistance and linkages to possible clients; he believes that he could grow his business. Because of the endless bureaucracy of starting his own company he has had to offer his services to companies on a consultancy basis, something he would rather not do. The psychological support from family and friends was invaluable especially since there was some stigma surrounding COVID-19 and concerns that he was returning from a country with high infection rates. The challenges he has faced mean that given the opportunity, he would migrate again.

The way forward.

Given that the number of migrants returning to Zimbabwe is predicted to increase it is crucial to recognise the challenges faced by returnees and consider ways in which to resolve them for smooth reintegration. This is matter of utmost importance to IOM Zimbabwe Chief of Mission, Mario Lito Malanca, who emphasizes the importance of the socio-economic surveys of returning migrants and their communities to assess their livelihood needs in coordination with UN agencies based in Zimbabwe. “This assessment will guide operations and inform the humanitarian-development agencies and the international community of the needs on ground. We continue to advocate for a humanitarian management of borders that considers the vulnerabilities and realities of migrants, their health concerns as well as the protection and promotion of human rights and dignity”, he said.   From pre- and post- arrival assistance, to psychosocial support and skills training, returnees require support in order to ensure smooth and sustainable reintegration.  IOM and other organisations have carried out reintegration projects covering a vast number of areas including the provision of temporary shelter, medical services, food, psycho-social and counselling support. Such support could and should be extended to cover training for entrepreneurship, access to finance and possible job placements. Ultimately receiving communities should also be equipped to receive and accommodate returnees for society’s greater good.


Established in 1951, IOM is the leading UN agency in the field of migration which works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners. IOM is dedicated to promoting safe, humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. IOM works to promote cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need.


For more information contact Fadzai (Penny) Nyamande-Pangeti at IOM Zimbabwe- telephone +263242704285 email: [email protected]


[1] Not her real name.