Debates on return migration

Scholarly Approaches to Return Migration

Jean-Pierre Cassarino

While scholarly approaches related to return migration can be traced back to the 1960s, there is no question that, with hindsight, it was in the 1980s that stimulating scientific debates among scholars took place upon the return phenomenon and its impact on origin countries. This debate culminated in the production of several volumes and critical essays, and in the organization of conferences (Kubat 1984; Council of Europe 1987).

There is no question that such debates intensively contributed to the development of the literature on return migration, together with the growing concern over “co-development”, the “voluntary repatriation of third-country nationals”, the emergence and implementation of bilateral readmission agreements between sending and receiving countries, and the link between international migration and economic development in migrants’ origin countries.

It has to be said that the increasing variety of scholarly analyses, together with the resilient politicisation of international migration movements, have been incidental on the ways in which return migration and returnees have been understood and analysed. Oddly enough, just as Mary Kritz (1987, 948) noted there exist conceptual problems regarding the definitions of the immigrant – such definitions having a bearing on the formulation of national immigration policies – there also exist several definitional approaches to return migration, and to returnees that are playing a crucial role in orienting, if not shaping, the perceptions, taxonomies and policies adopted by governmental and intergovernmental agencies.

As a prerequisite to exploring how return has been addressed by international migration theorists, it is important to stress that the theoretical insights discussed below have, in various degrees, included return migration as a sub-component of their analytical approaches. While some of these insights are the outcome of empirical studies, others stem from the collection of fragmented official quantitative data, based on given definitional criteria of the returnee.

The critical review focuses exclusively on the theories which have attempted to propose a set of variables aimed at better understanding the magnitude and dynamics of return migration to origin countries. Whatever their views and interpretations, all the theories presented below yield valuable insights. They do so insofar as they differ from one another in terms of level of analysis and with respect to the salience of the issue of return in their respective analytical frameworks.

The below synoptic tables epitomise the main assumptions of each school of thought, while taking into account five variables ranging from the way in which return migration is viewed to the role of the returnee, the returnee’s motivations, the impact of financial capital and human capital. To obtain more details on the various disciplines which are presented here, please click the highlighted links in blue.


Neo-classical economics New Economics of Labour Migration Structuralism Transnationalism Cross-border Social and Economic Networks
Return migration



Those who stay in receiving countries are those who have succeeded. Return is an anomaly, if not the failure of a migration experience. Return is part and parcel of the migration project (seen as a “calculated strategy”). It occurs once the migrant’s objectives are met in destination countries. Core/periphery dichotomy. Return to home countries occurs without changing or compensating for the structural constraints inherent in peripheral origin countries. Return is also based on incomplete information about the origin country. Return is not necessarily permanent. It occurs once enough financial resources and benefits are gathered to sustain the household and when “conditions” in home country are favourable. It is prepared.  Return has a social and historical background. Return is secured and sustained by cross-border networks of social and economic relationships which convey information. Return only constitutes a first step towards the completion of the migration project.


Neo-classical economics New Economics of Labour Migration Structuralism Transnationalism Cross-border Social and Economic Networks
The returnee


Embodies the unsuccessful migrant who could not maximize the experience abroad. Embodies the successful migrant whose goals were met in destination countries. The returnee is a financial intermediary and  a target earner. The returnee (neither a successful nor a failed migrant) brings back savings to home country. Return expectations are readjusted and adapted to the structural context at home. “Behavioural divergence” occurs on return. Only, the ill, old, retired and untalented return, i.e., the cost of return is limited. Belongs to a globally dispersed ethnic group (i.e., a Diaspora consciousness). Succeeded migration experience before returning. The returnee defines strategies aimed at maintaining cross-border mobility and linkages embedded in global systems of ethnic and kin relationships. A social actor who has values, projects, and his/her own perception of the return environment. Gathers information about context and opportunities in origin countries. Resources are mobilized before return. Belongs to cross-border networks which involve migrants and non-migrants.


Neo-classical economics New Economics of Labour Migration Structuralism Transnationalism Cross-border Social and Economic Networks
The returnee’s motivations


The migration experience failed. Need to return home. Attachment to home and the household. Goals are met. Attachment to home and the household, nostalgia. Motivations are readjusted to the realities of the home market and power relations. Attachment to home and the household. Family ties are crucial. Social and economic conditions of return are perceived sufficiently favourable to motivate return. Embedded and shaped by social, economic and institutional opportunities at home as well as by the relevance of one’s own resources.


Neo-classical economics New Economics of Labour Migration Structuralism Transnationalism Cross-border Social and Economic Networks
The returnee’s
financial capital
No income or savings are repatriated from abroad. Remittances constitute an insurance against bad events. Assist the household members. Savings and remittances have no real impact on development in origin countries. The household members monopolize financial resources. No multiplier effect. Pensions and social benefits are part of remittances. Financial resources are used according to institutional conditions at home.  Transform the economic and political structure of sending areas. Remittances and savings constitute just one type of resources. May be invested in productive projects aimed at securing return.



Neo-classical economics New Economics of Labour Migration Structuralism Transnationalism Cross-border Social and Economic Networks
The returnee’s
human capital
The skills acquired abroad can hardly be transferred in origin countries because they do not match local needs. Human capital is wasted. The acquisition of skills varies with the probability of return. Skills acquired abroad are wasted owing to structural constraints inherent in origin countries. Social status does not change. Improved skills and educational background gained abroad allow upward mobility. Skills acquired abroad, as well as knowledge, experiences, acquaintances, and values, are contributory factors to securing successful return.

The development of this section related to scholarly approaches to return migration, from various disciplines, draws extensively on a paper published by Jean-Pierre Cassarino, “Theorising Return Migration: The Conceptual Approach to Return Migrants Revisited.” International Journal on Multicultural Societies, 6, no. 2 (2004), UNESCO, Paris, p. 253-279.