When Do Displaced Persons Return? Postwar Migration among Christians in Mount Lebanon

The forthcoming article “When Do Displaced Persons Return? Postwar Migration among Christians in Mount Lebanonby Kara Ross Camarena and Nils Hägerdal is summarized  by the authors below.

When Do Displaced Persons Return? Postwar Migration among Christians in Mount Lebanon

After wars end, there is great hope that people displaced by violence will be able to return to their homes and resume their lives. Provisions for return are often written into peace treaties. Governments set up departments devoted to helping returnees. Local and international organizations invest in helping returnees to rebuild their lives. Despite these efforts in many cases, few displaced persons return to their original homes. We study postwar migration among Lebanese Christians displaced during the 1980s, where only about 20% of the displaced returned to live in their villages of origin. Using variation in villages’ abilities to take advantage of the world olive oil boom and price shocks, we show that economic prospects in displaced persons’ original villages drive return. Further, even when there is little threat of violence, displaced Christians avoid returning to places where they would live among non-Christians

We challenge a definition of return that requires permanent residence. Many displaced Christians in Lebanon regularly visit their original homes but live and work in urban areas with more vibrant economies. These once displaced persons do not live in their original homes. They do maintain meaningful connections to their place of origin, and their displacement has a resolution. They become like labor migrants who live in a place with economic opportunity, but return home regularly for personal, familial, and social reasons.

Even taking into account that some people return home as visitors, there is variation in the return among Christians displaced from Mt. Lebanon. In some villages, nearly all the displaced returned permanently. In other villages they returned, but mostly as visitors. Other villages had little return of any kind. Economic opportunity is a key explanation for this variation. Using a natural experiment, we show that there is more permanent return to villages with growing economic opportunities. Nevertheless, there is a negative relationship between return and the original ethnic composition of a village; the more mixed the village, the less displaced persons return or visit.

One key implication of our study is that having displaced persons return as permanent residents need not be a postwar policy goal. When the displaced left areas of economic decline for vibrant urban locations, economic reconstruction may be more effective when targeted at displaced persons’ new surroundings. A similar logic pertains to transitional justice efforts. Displaced persons, who were once dispossessed by wartime violence but now return as regular visitors, are no longer deprived of enjoying their original homes. There is no obvious reason why policymakers should turn regular visitors—or persons who are happily settled and have no desire to return—into permanent residents. Transitional justice programs should not limit their evaluations to permanent resident return but also examine whether regular visitors indicate success in mending intergroup relations.


About the Authors: Kara Ross Camarena is Postdoctoral Researcher, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and Nils Hägerdal is Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Strategic Studies, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Their research When Do Displaced Persons Return? Postwar Migration among Christians in Mount Lebanon is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.