Property and Return Migration

My most recent research has been on post-conflict return migration, specifically the question of who comes back to their homes and community after violence forces them to leave.  When I started the project  I was solely focused on land issues.  I wanted to know whether property restitution mattered in people’s decisions to return home.  The deeper I got into research on the topic (in Liberia, Uganda and Kosovo) the more I realized that property restitution was only one piece of a very complicated decision –making process that has as much to do with household needs and characteristics, length of displacement and opportunities elsewhere, as with property restitution.

Customary Law

Many places around the world allocate land on the basis of customary law –  a system of rules in which people typically have a claim to land rights because they are members of a group.  For example, because I am Acholi and my family is from northern Uganda, I am a member of a particular lineage with a right to the land that lineage ‘owns’ in northern Uganda.  The specific land I can claim will be determined by lineage or community leaders.  My property right comes from my identity rather than from a deed or title.  In most cases customary law is not written and property rights are not formalized (although that is increasingly changing).

Customary Land Tenure after Conflict

The average length of time people are displaced as a result of violent conflict is 17 years (a depressing statistic!).  Lots of things change in 17 years including the composition of households as family members are born, die, emigrate, etc.   Community leaders also change and new leaders do not necessarily know or remember who lived where or had claim to what land.

Laura Meitzner Yoder and I address some of the challenges of return migration to areas with customary land in the most recent issue of Development and Change.    While I have research experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, Laura has worked and studied land in Timor-Leste.  We combined our expertise to address the role of customary land in post-conflict migration.  We address the different ways in which post-conflict return can happen (synchronized or punctuated) and also the disconnect between the rights one can claim under customary law (a right to some part of the lineage land) and the rights guaranteed in international public policy on return migration (a right to a specific piece of land or home from which one was displaced).

Customary law creates a different context for property restitution in post-conflict settings.  It can be more flexible than formalized land holding, but it is highly dependent on the leaders who interpret and enforce it.