The Right of Return: Why We Want to Come Home

Researchers have long understood why people leave their homelands. But what happens when they decide to go back?

A photograph of a bird in flight.

In February 2020, Global Affairs Canada warned Canadians living or vacationing abroad that flight cancellations and local restrictions might leave them stranded for longer than they had initially anticipated or budgeted for. When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, on March 11, Canadians received a more urgent message from Global Affairs: “Find out what commercial options are still available to return to Canada. Consider returning to Canada earlier than planned if these options are becoming more limited.”

And so began the largest repatriation effort in modern Canadian history. Between March 14 and 20, about 959,000 Canadian citizens and 43,890 permanent residents came back to Canada after prime minister Justin Trudeau “made a public plea for their quick return,” the Toronto Star reported, citing figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency. Of those, an estimated 449,000 crossed the Canada–US border by land and about 553,000 flew home.

Almost every employee of Global Affairs Canada turned into a travel agent with one task in mind: bring Canadians home. “Staffers who used to write ministerial briefing notes are now booking hotels, buses and flights,” the CBC reported in March. Global Affairs doesn’t break down travellers by category, but a look at news reports and social media posts from the period paints a picture of those who found themselves stranded. Some were stuck abroad while on vacation or visiting family. Snowbirds were spending the winter in sunny climates and holiday spots. Many had been working abroad while others divided their time between two homelands.

The largest number of repatriated Canadians came from India, which shut down its airspace on March 22. Stories of Canadians trying to come home from South Korea, Lebanon, Somalia, and the Philippines, among other places, also made headlines. Many others gave up trying to catch one of the government’s repatriation flights and decided to wait for travel restrictions to lift in host countries. In a statement in late March, a Global Affairs spokesperson acknowledged that “it will not be possible to ensure the return of all Canadians who wish to come home.” Some countries offered Canadians seats on their national carriers, while Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines shuttled Canadians from different airports in South Asia and Africa, respectively.

To its credit, the Liberal government made no distinction between racialized Canadians who had returned to their home countries and their compatriots who were temporarily working or living abroad (think of the mostly white English teachers in South Korea, Taiwan, or the United Arab Emirates, for example). Contrast this with the grudging effort of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to repatriate Canadians of Lebanese origin following the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. At an estimated cost of $85 million, the operation brought home about 15,000 of the roughly 50,000 Lebanese Canadians living in Lebanon. The operation gave rise to the term “Canadians of convenience,” coined by Conservative MP Garth Turner, and even some Liberal MPs talked about the burden to taxpayers.

While many other countries called their citizens back in early 2020, perhaps the most dramatic illustration of a mass homecoming took place not across international borders but within a single country. When India announced its lockdown, on March 24, thousands of daily-wage migrant workers who had left their villages to seek opportunities in the country’s booming urban economies found themselves abandoned by their employers and the country at large. The lockdown affected factories, offices, schools, and domestic and international travel routes. Work dried up instantly. Trains and buses were cancelled. The World Bank estimates that at least 40 million of India’s 130 million migrant labourers experienced the worst of the pandemic’s economic impact in its first few weeks.

The vast majority of those workers began the long walk home, covering hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres—many with children and spouses in tow. Some died on the road. Others arrived at their destinations, traumatized, only to discover that remote villages aren’t immune to the coronavirus. Thousands more travelled on emergency trains provided by the government. Dubbed the Shramik Specials (after the Hindi word for “labourers”), these trains became contagion zones and spread the virus to different parts of the country. Despite government promises to screen passengers before boarding, few were tested. According to a late 2020 report in the New York Times, the trains “disgorged passengers into distant villages, in regions that before had few if any coronavirus cases.” India is, as I write this, home to the second-largest number of coronavirus cases after the United States.

This home-return journey became probably the biggest mass movement in India since Partition, in 1947, when the former jewel in the British Crown was divided into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. More than one-tenth of the country’s 1.3 billion people are believed to be migrant workers earning, on average, just six US dollars a day. Those who survive the virus will not be returning to Delhi or Mumbai any time soon, putting their own livelihoods and India’s economic recovery on the line.

The pandemic has left a mark on every aspect of modern life. It has also shone a light and galvanized thinking on what homeland returns look like and what they mean in global and regional contexts.

Immigrants, no matter our origins or skin tones, share a common delusion: we think we take pieces of our homelands with us and leave parts of ourselves behind. The truth is that those homelands, lodged in our memories, in our brains, and in our DNA, loosen and tighten their grips on us at will. Homelands dictate when we leave and predict when we return. Author Elif Shafak, Turkish by birth and British by citizenship, describes homelands as castles made of glass. “It is easy to forget they are there . . . and go on with your life, your little ambitions and important plans, but at the slightest contact the shards will remind you of their presence. They will cut you deep.”

History, politics, critical theory, literature, and social sciences have given us multiple, even definitive narratives and theories about why people leave their homelands. Returns, however, remain underexplored.

In an influential study of diasporas, globalization scholar Robin Cohen identifies a return movement as an essential step in establishing international communities organized around a shared national or ethnic origin. There’s no migration without return. Still, it’s the outward journey that takes precedence when researchers document global movements. Within the burgeoning field of diaspora and migration studies, return is a relatively new addition.

In Return Migration: Journey of Hope or Despair?, immigration scholar Russell King calls return “the great unwritten chapter in the history of migration.” In the essay collection Homecomings: Unsettling Paths of Return, anthropologist Anders H. Stefansson writes that, for the better part of the twentieth century, “returns of immigrants, refugees, and exiles were hardly noticed by scholars, or at least not seen as phenomena of much academic interest.” Terms like “understudied,” “conspicuously absent,” and “little understood” regularly appeared whenever researchers broached the subject of return migration at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Returns, I’ve come to realize, are complicated because they challenge much of what we think we know about migration patterns and our entrenched notions of identity, home, hybridity, globalization, and multiculturalism, among other Big Subjects. They upend and show the cracks in many popular stories that migrants and governments like to tell about themselves.

Many liberals in the Western world think of immigration as a unidirectional process. Individuals or families leave their countries of birth or an intermediate setting to find a permanent home in the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, to name four of the most popular destinations for global migration. The host country benefits materially, from the newcomers’ labour and brain power, and reputationally, as a land of opportunities and new beginnings.

The safe-harbour narrative gains additional power when the new arrivals are refugees fleeing intolerable conditions, as suggested by the nonstop shoulder-patting that Canada engaged in when it opened its doors to thousands of Syrian refugees. But the total number admitted to Canada between 2015 to 2017? Just over 40,000. By comparison, Germany had taken in more than 500,000 Syrian refugees by 2018. When some of these same people later decide to go back to where they came from, migration observers begin to question the benevolent role of the host country. Suddenly, the country that opened its doors is perceived as hostile, literally and emotionally cold. Whenever I’ve asked Canadians who returned to their homelands what they remembered most about their time in this country, they’ve cited racism, followed closely by inhospitable winters.

By their very nature, returnees seek a reconnection to a past life, a former identity marked more often than not by a single language or a single cultural frame of reference. We go back to what we know, including our native tongues. This process of reclaiming a homogenous existence runs counter to multiculturalism on a societal level and hybridity on an individual level. Aren’t we supposed to be complex, hybrid creatures containing multitudes? What about the concept of multiple belongings promoted by such internationally successful authors as Elif Shafak and Zadie Smith? On paper, where it mostly lives, this concept sounds ideal. “Multiple belongings are nurtured by cultural encounters but they are not only the preserve of people who travel,” writes Shafak. “It is an attitude, a way of thinking, rather than the number of stamps on your passport. It is about thinking of yourself, and your fellow human beings, in more fluid terms than solid categories.”

I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that returns imply a repudiation of a complex view of identity or of globalization, but they force us to think of movement in multidirectional ways. Some returnees find that the life they thought they would have back home is a fantasy, so they make their way back to the host country. Homeland returns remain unpredictable in part because, despite their historical contexts, they don’t have the clear road maps and narratives that outward migrations enjoy.

Above all, returns question what we think we know about homes and homelands and the connections between the two. Indeed, some researchers assert that returns have proven thorny because of the contested nature of homelands themselves. A return gives people licence to redraw boundaries and reclaim spaces that were once denied or lost to them. A home, a physical structure that literally stands for their presence, is an essential part of their plan to turn a homecoming fantasy into a reality.

Although the idealization of a homeland can feed into dangerously nationalist notions about sovereignty and borders—the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden, or “blood and soil,” connects racial purity with the land in essentialist ways—return helps soften the hard edges of nationalism because the people engaged in it slip in and out of state-sanctioned definitions of citizenship and residence. It brings dual consciousness to states where a single story has dominated for too long.

While the desire to reconnect with one’s roots is elemental and for the most part universal—people who lack a homeland-founding myth, such as the Roma and various nomadic tribes, are notable exceptions—the frequency and intensity of that desire have been aided by technological advances in the first two decades of this century.

The internet and social media have given people around the world the means to research family trees and locate long-lost relatives. The physical distance between the homeland and the adopted home also seems to vanish with easy access to news, music, TV programs, films, and other cultural traditions that were left behind. The word nostalgia derives from the Greek nostos, or “home,” and algia, or “longing.” The internet has turned nostalgia into a way of life for many members of diasporic communities. Is there a song that you danced to in the 1950s or 1960s in Sri Lanka or Argentina or Poland or Senegal and thought you’d never hear again? Well, someone, somewhere, has just uploaded it to YouTube. If you can’t travel back physically, you can at least travel back in time. YouTube has turned into a global warehouse of homeland and diasporic memories.

But, while the return path may be getting clearer, or at least more accessible, thanks to technology, it faces serious challenges from climate change and, if epidemiologists’ readings of COVID-19 are accurate, the possibility that global pandemics will become a once-in-a-decade instead of a once-in-a-century event. As deforestation continues and humans encroach on spaces that were once the habitats of wild animals, we’ll face more zoonotic viruses to which we have no immunity, resulting in more infections. While some may be contained at a local level, others will likely spread to create pandemics like the current one.

If and when that happens, we can’t always assume that governments will mount as robust a repatriation effort as the one in 2020. Countries like Canada, with universal health care and capable public health agencies, may see fewer people leaving for their homelands.

Climate change will likely force more people from the global South to seek refuge in the northern hemisphere in order to escape rising water levels and scorching temperatures. The most conservative studies put the probable number of climate refugees at 80 to 100 million by the end of the century. The house in the homelands that many returnees dream of may not survive the floods, heat, or fires that are becoming the new normal. People born in the Middle East or South Asia may learn to be grateful for Canadian winters after all.

Excerpt from Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From by Kamal Al-Solaylee © 2021. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Kamal Al-Solaylee
Kamal Al-Solaylee (@KamalAlSolaylee) is the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which won the 2013 Toronto Book Award. His second book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. He is Director of the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia.