RPN 21 published April 1996

12. The impact of return migration : the case of Chile By Helia Lopez Zarzosa

Following the military coup of September 1973, as many as 500,000 Chileans went into exile. These refugees began to return in 1976. According to the National Bureau of Return (Oficina Nacional del Retorno ONR), the highest rate of return was registered between 1990 and 1992. Their experiences, both as exiles from and returnees to Chile, were traumatic.

Returnees' emotions upon reencountering Chile

As pointed out by Salamovich and Dominguez, returnees encountered contradictory emotions upon return, coming in two clearly acknowledged phases. First, the former exile felt initial euphoria, filled with the sensations of finally accomplishing the much desired return to the homeland, family, roots, stability, security and social network, coupled with the possibility of resuming unfinished projects. This phase was followed by a period of depression that, in some cases, was quite extreme. The returnees felt that they were living in a sort of internal exile, feeling the same sensations as in the country of exile. They had to endure feelings of being a stranger, of not belonging, of a loss of people, of places and situations no longer existing, of projects finished without them. The encounter with the unexpected produced distrust, threat, insecurity and fear, which most often turned into regressive attitudes, feelings of inability to control reality and the overwhelming need to 'start again'.

A structural view of the return migration

Although the general impact of return has been generalised from a psychological perspective, it is imperative to provide a sociological view of the problem, as the particular experiences of the different social classes and categories of the returnees are different.

Class and return

According to the data available, the return to Chile is mainly a middle class experience. Data published by LlambiasWolff and taken from the ONR shows that 68 per cent of registered returnees were professionals or technicians, while only 15.6 percent declared themselves as manual workers. This trend has been corroborated by a study carried out by Lopez in 1993 in the province of Concepcion, showing the same social distribution. Workingclass returnees face more problems adapting than middleclass ones. They usually do not bring back from exile any assets or skills, such as higher degrees, specialised qualifications, savings or personal contacts. They reenter the strongly nepotistic Chilean culture at best on the same level as when they left, but with the society having moved on in their absence. Workingclass returnees reenter the Chilean class system disadvantaged in relation to their middleclass counterparts.

Returnee women

Returnee women, particularly those who were exiled in industrialised countries faced ever greater difficulties. They adapted to countries where gender subordination has been challenged, and they came back to a 'machista' society where individual opportunities are subject to compliance with an accepted feminine behaviour. Merit only counts after being approved by the patriarchal canon. When in open opposition to these rules, women are labelled as seeking conflict and become marginalised.

As Gissi has rightly pointed out, many women within the Chilean society endorse 'machismo', consciously or unconsciously. In other words they subscribe to the societal ideology that keeps them oppressed, thus limiting their opportunities for selfrealisation. As for returnee women, this situation meant greater isolation and lack of gender solidarity and support.

Children and forced migration

Involuntary refugees is the term Lopez uses to refer to children of the Chilean refugees who grew up during the exile of their parents. They also face difficulties with the adaptation process. They feel exiled in their parents' country of origin. In most cases, they were brought back to Chile involuntarily. Few were really consulted about return, and most of those consulted felt that they had been cheated. The country they arrived in did not seem to fit the image which their parents dreamt about while in exile and promised them. Lopez calls them forced immigrants.

Yes, we did say yes etc..., but over there one cannot imagine how it is to live in this country, in this society,... at the beginning it was voluntary but I arrived to an unknown world, what that meant is that I did not arrive to the Chile that they (my parents) had told me about, I arrived to another world, that is as if the plane had not landed in Chile and I was left in another place, therefore I felt that I was forced to come, I didn't feel as if it had been voluntary.

(Boy from France, 18 years old, 15 when he arrived)

Children had not been prepared to face the problems involved in their forced migration. Very few had attended Saturday Schools in the host countries and far less had been prepared in a realistic way by their parents. For example, on arrival, most children spoke and understood Spanish, but still experienced language difficulties at school: their level of day to day communication was adequate but their vocabulary was poor and they lacked basic writing skills.

In 1992, conscious of the problem, the Ministry of Education and the ONR attempted to ease the integration of returnee children into mainstream Chilean education. This joint programme was well intentioned but produced little in the way of results. It was only implemented in the three major urban centres of the country Santiago, Valparaiso and Concepción and within those centres it seems to have reached a very limited number of teachers. In the province of Concepcion, for example, only 12 teachers out of approximately 5,000 in primary and secondary education attended in full the sixSaturday course provided by the programme.

According to a study by Lopez on school adaptation, children not only had to face different teaching and learning strategies, teachers' attitudes and modes of leadership, but also a very classist, racist and sexist society which permeates the educational system. The teachers expected them to conform and accept both pedagogic policies and practices, and organising principles. The study shows that adaptation was not considered to be a process which, in some cases, would take a long time, and the system failed to acknowledge that some children would never get over the initial period of total rejection. In addition, in several cases, children felt excluded from their peer groups.


As briefly outlined in this paper, returning to Chile has been a painful and traumatic experience. Many families felt as if they had become alien once again, at a time when they believed their exile to be at an end. The Chilean society to which they had returned was not the one which they had left nor the one of which they had dreamt. However, not all returnees live the same experience; because their opportunities are linked to the structural factors described earlier, the ways they cope are different.

The ordeal of returning did not always end the migratory cycle. On the contrary, in extreme cases, it marked the beginning of a further migratory cycle, with 'another return'. As their expectations were not fulfilled, many returnee families migrated to the country where they had sought refuge. The problems the children faced at school, coupled with a generally difficult integration of the younger generations, played a decisive role in the determination to leave Chile again.

Helia Lopez Zarzosa, a refugee for 15 years, returned to Chile for three years but is now back in the UK. She is a social scientist who specialises in Development Studies and Educational Sociology.


Gissi J, 'Mythology about women, with special reference to Chile' in Nash J and Icken Safa H, Sex and class in Latin America, women perspectives on politics, economics and the family in the third world, JF Bergin publishers, inc, USA, 1993.

LlambiasWolff J, 'The voluntary repatriation process of Chilean exiles' in International Migration Quarterly Review, Vol XXXI, 4, 1993.

Lopez H, 'La problematica de la adaptación escolar de los hijos/as de las familias retornadas en la VIII region' in Foro Educativo, Numero 1, 1995.

Lopez H, 'Special education needs' in Finlay R and Reynolds J, Children from refugee communities, a question of identity: uprooting, integration or dual culture, Refugee Action, 1987.

Salamovich S and Dominguez R, Elementos de la Experiencia Psicológica del Retorno: la instancia grupal, una respuesta de salud mental, Mimeo, Santiago, 1984.

Weinstein E, 'El retorno de los exiliados, sus caracteristicas y tareas vitales' in FASIC Exilio 19781986, Amerinda ediciones, Santiago, 1986.

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October 1996