1A stimulating book, this “ethnographic study of refugee repatriation in Central Africa” – or rather of refugee mobility and settlement in places of refuge, followed by resettlement in similar places in the country of departure. Lardeux not only traces the itineraries of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Congo-Brazaville and Central Africa, then back to the DRC; he attaches importance to the relations that develop between trajectories, refugee “careers” and institutional policies, primarily those of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
2Laurent Lardeux followed refugees and repatriated refugees from the Congo basin from 2005 to 2010, literally moving alongside them through the urban and rural spaces they lived in. As shown by a map at the beginning of the book, he covered the distances between Kinshasa and Libreville, Yaoundé, Bangui and Brazzaville three times, each journey lasting six to seven months; points that were either close or far for persons leaving the RDC in the early 2000s. The violence of the war raging in that country at the time forced as many as 2 million persons to flee; the peak of the exodus was in 2002. Lardeux judiciously chooses to start his fieldwork in 2005, the year the UNHCR’s repatriation operation got underway.
3He first describes UNHCR policy in this connection, particularly how it changed over the period studied. Under pressure from state governments, the institution shifted its emphasis from receiving refugees in asylum zones or facilities and guiding and assisting them to promoting voluntary return and assisting in that. Lardeux describes UNHCR practices, which began with encouragement and incentives, then switched to constraint as refugee aid in the receiving country diminished, becoming aid for return to and reception in the departure country. While the voluntary nature of repatriation is repeatedly asserted in UNHCR texts, that notion proved extremely malleable; the border between free consent and forced return was an indistinct one. The policies implemented did contain incentives, attractive conditions for voluntary return, but they also counted on the negative incentives of outstaying one’s welcome in the country of exile, reductions in humanitarian aid and being poorly protected in reception zones. To underscore these ambiguities, the author speaks of “(in)voluntary repatriation.”
4But what of trajectory and migrant career diversity? Forced displacement generates singular trajectories whose determinants are many. The author distinguishes between “the time of exile” and “the time of return” and provides a particularly rich description of practical determinants and the types of social relationships that develop as well as their impact on migrants’ trajectories.
5He first describes the processes by which social and economic relations are established in exile. He describes and analyses “how refugees gradually set up and got organized in this new environment, going so far as to form ‘villages’ in which certain economic, social and migratory practices continued on the model of those already operative in this border region” (p. 92). This part of the book shows the extremely different ways of proceeding that developed prior to and then during UNHCR presence, and therefore the effects of institutionalizing refugee status, one of which was to isolate the refugees from their immediate environment and so break off the social relations that had been established with that environment. Lardeux also shows how refugee populations in rural surroundings differed from those in urban ones: the first sought to form groups by origin whereas in the urban environment people became so intermingled that origin no longer had much importance.
6The “time of return” is also described in great detail and demonstrates once again the diversity and importance of “life history crossroads,” moments when small changes can lead to sharp bifurcations in trajectories and “careers.” Lardeux studies “return” careers by focusing on these crucial “crossroads” moments that bring into play a structural framework (historical, etc.) and a subjective one wherein personal plans and projects are adjusted to a personal representation of the situation. While clearly distinguishing between two types of refugees – those whose return was organized by the UNHCR and those who returned on their own initiative – he shows the variety of situations and the many ways in which a return could be negotiated.
7The book offers a full, rich view of the diversity of trajectories that a single institutional framework may generate. The term “life history crossroads” refers to Abbott’s “turning points” but also to the research of Claire Bidart, who uses it and bifurcation. Two of the book’s major strengths are that it attends to the situations of individuals while discussing institutions, and “thinks” in terms of processes and bifurcations. It raises the question of continuities between structural and subjective frames, and apprehends in rich detail the roles played by social ties and the accumulation over several stages of various forms of social and economic capital that may or may not be called into play at different moments in the returning exile’s “career.” Last – though this important point is not made explicitly – we see how vague and floating the boundaries are between refugees and economic migrants and how they may even disappear altogether at certain moments in individuals’ trajectories. The book therefore shatters the analytic categories traditionally used in this area, opening our eyes to much vaster repertoires of mobility. It is a must-read for anyone interested in refugee migration, exile, return, and migrant trajectories in the broadest sense. Though it presents a specific (but important) case, the methodological approaches it uses are applicable to most situations of forced displacement.