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Open Access Research article

Mental health of returnees: refugees in Germany prior to their state-sponsored repatriation

Ulrike von Lersner*, Ulrike Wiens, Thomas Elbert and Frank Neuner

Author affiliations

Psychotrauma Research- and Outpatient Clinic for Refugees, University of Konstanz, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2008, 8:8  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-8-8

Published: 12 June 2008



Many refugees live for years in exile. The combination of stress in the host country, together with long-term effects resulting from traumatic stress usually experienced in the home country may affect mental health. Little is known, to what extent these and other factors promote or stall the willingness to return to the country of origin. Here, we investigate, as an example, refugees who will return to their country of origin after having lived in exile in Germany for some 11 years.


What is the mental health status of returnees before the actual return who have been living in exile for an extended period? We also asked, what are the current living conditions in Germany and what are the motives for and reasons against a voluntary return to the country of origin?


Forty-seven participants of programs for assisted voluntarreturn were interviewed about their present living situation, their view regarding their home country and voluntary return. These findings were compared to a group of 53 refugees who had decided to remain in Germany (stayers). Participants were recruited by means of advertisements posted in refugee centres, language schools, at doctors' offices and in organisations involved in the management of voluntary return in Germany. The prevalence of psychiatric disorders among respondents was tested using the structured interview M.I.N.I. The Posttraumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale (PDS) was used to assess PTSD in more detail and EUROHIS was applied to measure the subjective quality of life of participants.


We found a prevalence rate of 44% psychiatric disorders in the group of returnees and a rate of 78% in the group of stayers. We also recorded substantial correlations between the living situation in Germany, disposition to return and mental health. In almost two thirds of the participants the decision to return was not voluntary but strongly influenced by immigration authorities. The most important reason for participants to opt for a stay in Germany were their children, who have been born and raised in Germany.


Psychological strains among the study participants were very high. Traumatic stress, experienced during war and refuge, has left the victims vulnerable and not well equipped to cope with post-migration stressors in exile. It is noteworthy that the majority returned under pressure of the immigration authorities. The fear of an uncertain future after the return was substantial. These factors should be taken into account in programs designed to assist returnees, including those that offer support after return to the country of origin.