The right of return is a principle in international law which guarantees peoples' right of voluntary return to or re-enter their country of origin or of citizenship. A right of return based on nationality, citizenship or ancestry may be enshrined in a country's constitution or law, and some countries deny a right of return in particular cases or in general.
The right is formulated in several modern treaties and conventions, most notably in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1948 Fourth Geneva Convention. The Geneva Conventions, it has been argued, have passed into customary international law and that the right of return is binding on non-signatories to the conventions.
The right of return is often invoked by representatives of refugee groups to assert that they have a right to return to the country from which they were displaced.
There are various recorded cases in ancient history where people who had been deported or uprooted from their city or homeland were allowed (or encouraged) to return, typically when the balance of military and political forces which caused their exile had changed. However, in these cases the exiled populations were granted the option to return, it was never recognized that they had an inherent right to return.
A well-known example is the return to Zion, which King Cyrus the Great granted the Jews expelled from Judah to the Babylonian Exile to return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. Recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Book of Ezra and Book of Nehemiah) this case is often cited as a precedent by modern Zionists and also inspired other groups seeking to pursue their own return.
During the Peloponnesian War, Athens expelled and scattered the inhabitants of Melos, Aegina and other cities (some of them being sold into slavery). Following the victory of Sparta, the Spartan general Lysander in 405 BC made a concerted effort to gather these exiles and restore them to their original cities.
The first codified law guaranteeing a Right of Return can be found in the Magna Carta:
Concurrently with making all Protestants resident in France into full-fledged citizens, the law enacted on December 15, 1790 stated that:
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and expulsion of the Huguenots had taken place more than a century earlier, and there were extensive Huguenot diasporas in many countries, where they often intermarried with the population of the host country (see Edict of Potsdam). Therefore, the law potentially conferred French citizenship on numerous Britons, Germans, South Africans and others – though only a fraction actually took advantage of it. This option for Huguenot descendants to gain French citizenship remained open until 1945, when it was abolished - since after the Occupation of France, the French were unwilling to let Germans of Huguenot origin take advantage of it.
In the aftermath of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, the previously Danish-ruled territory of Schleswig became part of Imperial Germany. A significant number of inhabitants, known as "optants", chose to retain their Danish citizenship and refused to take up a German one. Consequently, they were expelled from the area by Prussian authorities. Half a century later, following the German defeat in the First World War, a plebiscite was held in 1920 to determine the future of the area. The Danish government asked the Allied Powers to let these expelled ethnic Danes and their descendants return to Schleswig and take part in the plebiscite. This was granted, though many of the optants had in the meantime emigrated to the United States, and most of these did not actually come back.
The right of return principle has been codified in a number of international instruments, including:
Hague Regulations (HR), article 20:
It has been argued that if the HR require the repatriation of prisoners, then it is "obvious" that civilians displaced during conflict must also be allowed to repatriate.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), article 13:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) article 12(4):
Fourth Geneva Convention, article 49:
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, article 5d(ii):
Some controversy exists among scholars on how these articles should be interpreted.
The landmark Nottebohm case of 1955 is often cited as staking out more criteria as to what "ones country" should be. Among them were "a close and enduring connection", "tradition", "establishment", "interests" and "family ties".
Some disagreement exists on whether the right of return is applicable to situations in which whole ethnic groups have been displaced or not. Ruth Lapidoth from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has argued, by citing Stig Jägerskiöld from his 1966 commentary of ICCPR, that the right was not intended to protect groups of displaced people:
... [it] is intended to apply to individuals asserting an individual right. There was no intention here to address the claims of masses of people who have been displaced as a by-product of war or by political transfers of territory or population, such as the relocation of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe during and after the Second World War, the flight of the Palestinians from what became Israel, or the movement of Jews from the Arab countries.
Hurst Hannum has made a similar argument:
Few cases have dealt with the right of return principle. In 1996, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in a landmark case known as Loizidou v Turkey. Mrs Titina Loizidou was a Greek-Cypriot refugee displaced from Northern Cyprus and prevented from returning by Turkey. The court ruled that Turkey had violated Mrs Loizidou's human rights, that she should be allowed to return to her home and that Turkey should pay damages to her.
In a similar case, petitioners for the Chagossians asked the ECHR in 2005 to rule about their removal from Diego Garcia by Great Britain in the 1960s. The court ruled in 2012 that their case was inadmissible and that by accepting compensation, the islanders had forfeited their claim:
Circassians are an indigenous ethnic group originating from the northwestern Caucasus. Throughout the 19th century, the Russian Empire adopted a policy to eradicate Circassians from their ancestral homelands, pushing most surviving Circassians into the diaspora. Many Circassians have expressed an interest in returning to Circassia, particularly Circassians fleeing the conflict in Syria.
During Abkhazia's war of secession in 1992-1993 and the second Abkhazia war in 1998, 200,000-250,000 Georgian civilians became internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. Abkhazia, while formally agreeing to repatriation, has hindered the return of refugees both officially and unofficially for more than fifteen years.
During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 40% of the Greek-Cypriot population as well as over half of the Turk-Cypriot population of the island were displaced. The island was divided along ethnic lines and most of the Greek-Cypriot displaced persons were not allowed to return to their homes in the northern Turk-Cypriot side and vice versa.
Plans for a solution of the conflict has centered around bilateral agreements of population exchange, such as the Third Vienna Agreement reached in 1975 or the proposed Annan Plan of 2004. In these plans, the right of return was to be severely limited with respect to Greek-Cypriot internally displaced persons/refugees to districts such as Kyrenia, Morphou, Famagusta, and parts of Nicosia, despite judgements of the European Court of Human Rights in cases such as Loizidou v. Turkey, and numerous UN resolutions recognizing the right of return (such as SC 361 and GA 3212). Two referendums on the Annan Plan were held in April 2004, separately along ethnic lines. The Annan Plan was overwhelmingly rejected in the Greek-Cypriot referendum.
The right of return continues to remain a stumbling block to the settlement of the Cyprus problem.
The Chagossians, an ethnic group residing on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, were expelled to Mauritius in the 1960s, in connection with the erection of an American strategic military installation on the island. Ever since, the Chagossians have been conducting a persistent political and legal struggle to return to Diego Garcia. As of 2007, their right to return was recognised by several British courts but the UK government failed to actually implement it (see Chagossians, Depopulation of Diego Garcia, Order in Council#United Kingdom).
Palestinian refugees argue that international law guarantees them a right to return to their former homes in Mandatory Palestine and a right to property they left behind in what is now Israel. Israel's Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was reported as saying in June 2017 that his government will not allow any Palestinians to settle in the lands claimed by them and currently part of Israeli territory.
Article 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia (1995) provides that "[i]ndividuals of Armenian origin shall acquire citizenship of the Republic of Armenia through a simplified procedure." This provision is consistent with the Declaration on Independence of Armenia, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Armenia in 1989, which declared at article 4 that "Armenians living abroad are entitled to the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia".
From the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 until 2011, about 25,000 Ingrian Finns moved from Russia and Estonia to Finland, where they were eligible for automatic residence permits under the Finnish Law of Return. In 2010, however, the Finnish government decided to stop the remigration, so Ingrian Finns seeking residence are now treated in the same way as any other foreigners. There are still about 15,000 people in the remigration queue.
In October 1985, French President François Mitterrand issued a public apology to the descendants of Huguenots around the world. A right of return to France was ensured for Huguenot descendants all around the world.
German law allows (1) persons descending from German nationals of any ethnicity or (2) persons of ethnic German descent and living in countries of the former Warsaw Pact (as well as Yugoslavia) the right to "return" to Germany and ("re")claim German citizenship (Aussiedler/Spätaussiedler "late emigrants"). After legislative changes in late 1992 this right is de facto restricted to ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union. As with many legal implementations of the Right of Return, the "return" to Germany of individuals who may never have lived in Germany based on their ethnic origin or their descent from German nationals has been controversial. The law is codified in paragraph 1 of Article 116 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, which provides access to German citizenship for anyone "who has been admitted to the territory of the German Reich within the boundaries of December 31, 1937 as a refugee or expellee of German ethnic origin or as the spouse or descendant of such person". Those territories had a Polish minority, which also had German citizenship and after World War II lived in Poland. These Polish people are also Aussiedler or Spätaussiedler and came especially in the 1980s to Germany, see Emigration from Poland to Germany after World War II. For example Lukas Podolski and Eugen Polanski became German citizens by this law. Paragraph 2 of Article 116 also provides that "Former German citizens who between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored".
The historic context for Article 116 was the eviction, following World War II, of an estimated 9 million foreign ethnic Germans from other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Another 9 million German nationalsformer eastern German territories, over which Joseph Stalin and eastern neighbour states extended military hegemony in 1945, were expelled as well. These expellees and refugees, known as Heimatvertriebene, were given refugee status and documents, and - as to foreign ethnic Germans - also the German citizenship (in 1949), and resettled in Germany. The Discussion of possible compensation continues; this, however, has been countered by possible claims for war compensation from Germany's eastern neighbours, pertaining to both Germany's unconditional surrender and the series of population transfers carried out under the instruments of Potsdam.
Various phenomena throughout Greek history (the extensive colonization by classical Greek city states, the vast expansion of Greek culture in Hellenistic times, the large dominions at times held by the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, and the energetic trading activity by Greeks under the Ottomans) all tended to create Greek communities far beyond the boundaries of modern Greece.
Recognizing this situation, Greece grants citizenship to broad categories of people of ethnic Greek ancestry who are members of the Greek diaspora, including individuals and families whose ancestors have been resident in diaspora communities outside the modern state of Greece for centuries or millennia.
"Foreign persons of Greek origin", who neither live in Greece nor hold Greek citizenship nor were necessarily born there, may become Greek citizens by enlisting in Greece's military forces, under article 4 of the Code of Greek Citizenship, as amended by the Acquisition of Greek Nationality by Aliens of Greek Origin Law (Law 2130/1993). Anyone wishing to do so must present a number of documents, including "[a]vailable written records ... proving the Greek origin of the interested person and his ancestors."
Albania has demanded since the 1940s that Greece grant a Right of Return to the Muslim Cham Albanians, who were expelled from the Greek region of Epirus between 1944 and 1945, at the end of World War II – a demand firmly rejected by the Greeks (see Cham issue).
In 2010, Hungary passed a law granting citizenship and the right of return to descendants of Hungarians living mostly on the former territory of the Hungarian Kingdom and now residing in Hungary's neighbouring countries. Slovakia, which has 500,000 ethnic Magyar citizens (10% of its population) objected vociferously.
The Law of Return is legislation enacted by Israel in 1950, that gives all Jews, persons of Jewish ancestry up to at least one Jewish grandparent, and spouses of Jews the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel and obtain citizenship, and obliges the Israeli government to facilitate their immigration. Originally, the law applied to Jews only, until a 1970 amendment stated that the rights "are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew". This resulted in several hundreds of thousands of persons fitting the above criteria immigrating to Israel (mainly from the former Soviet Union) but not being recognized as Jews by the Israeli religious authorities, which on the basis of halakha recognize only the child of a Jewish mother as being Jewish, or a proselyte to Judaism. Moreover, some of these immigrants, though having a Jewish grandparent, are known to be practicing Christians. People who would be otherwise eligible for this law can be excluded if they can reasonably be considered to constitute a danger to the welfare of the state, have a criminal past, or are wanted fugitives in their countries with the exception of persecution victims. Jews who converted to another religion can also be denied the right of return. Since its inception in 1948, over three million Jews have immigrated to Israel.
From the Constitution of Lithuania, Article 32(4): "Every Lithuanian person may settle in Lithuania."
Sephardi Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Despite the requirement by general rule for obtaining Spanish nationality after five years of residence in Spain, by Royal Decree on the 20th of December 1924, Sephardi Jews can obtain Spanish nationality with two years of residence in Spain. From 1924 until 2015 Sephardi Jews living abroad could also ask the Spanish Government for a conferment of Spanish nationality, but the Government enjoyed full discretion as to the decision whether to grant Spanish nationality. On June 24, 2015, the Spanish Parliament approved the 12/2015 Act, the Law Granting the Nationality to Sephardi Jews, that grants the Spanish nationality automatically to Sephardi Jews living abroad, provided they can prove that they are descendants of the Sephardi Jews expelled in 1492.
In 2007, the Spanish Parliament approved the 57/2007 Act, the Law of Historical Memory. The 57/2007 Act provides for the descendants of Spaniards living abroad that left Spain because of political persecution during the Civil War and Franco's dictatorship — that is the period between 1936-1975 — to obtain Spanish nationality.
Finally, following the British conquest of Gibraltar in August 1704, the original Spanish population of Gibraltar was expelled and established in the surrounding area called "Campo de Gibraltar". The expelled population established the Gibraltarian institutions, the census and the archives in the City of San Roque, which officially is still "Gibraltar in exile". Despite claims to the right of return by the association of descendants of expelled Gibraltarians, neither the Spanish Government nor the British Government have recognised any right of return for the expelled Gibraltarians.