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What is the Right of Return?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The right of return is a concept in international law that supports the right of displaced people to return to their nations of origin. Many human rights activists support this idea, and want to see stronger international law upholding it and establishing international standards to make it easier to enforce. This right is also extremely controversial, as displaced populations are rarely displaced without political controversy and social upheaval.

Under the right of return, displaced persons have a right to return to the nations they were displaced from. Furthermore, their descendants are also entitled to this right; in other words, someone who has never visited a nation or established citizenship there could potentially have a right of return if he or she can prove a connection with a displaced ethnic or cultural group. The right is also theoretically invokable at any time.

People are displaced from their homelands for a variety of reasons. War is a common cause, but people may also be forcibly displaced, removed as slaves, or forced out by violence between ethnic groups that does not develop into full-blown war. The right of return recognizes the deep connections many people feel with their homelands, and stresses the idea that compensation for lost property is not enough for displaced people.

Some nations support the right of return; Israel, for example, has a process which allows people of the Jewish faith to become citizens, although same right for displaced Palestinians is not supported in Israel. Human rights organizations have also worked to support the right of return for individuals in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where people have been repeatedly displaced by violence and shifting national borders.

This concept is sometimes referred to as “repatriation” in international law. In some cases, the right of return may be slightly twisted; for example, some nations make it very difficult for their citizens to renounce citizenship, thereby ensuring that they can continue to tax citizens living abroad or call them up for military service.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948, there is a reference to the right of return, but the reference is vague and poorly defined, making it difficult to enforce. Some activists have suggested that this clause should be refined to more clearly define the concept, making it easier to promote repatriation through the work of the United Nations.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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