Returnees' lives in (e)motion: Investigating the emotional dimension of return migration through the cultural notion of reesheh (roots) in the case of Iran

Sara Hormozinejad, University of Toronto

This article offers insight into the emotional dimension of voluntary North-South return migration by examining returnees’ own understanding of their return trajectories. In the study of voluntary return migration, scholars have directed substantial attention toward the economic determinants, guided by the rational choice theory and the modernist discourse. The economic models, however, are often universalist and overlook the nuances of North-South return shaped by non-economic factors and culturally specific criteria. To gain a nuanced understanding of how migrants’ perception of return shapes their return trajectories, this paper moves beyond the economic models and investigates the seemingly puzzling case of return migration to Iran, wherein migrants engage in returning from a prosperous host country in the Global North to the challenging living context of their homeland in the Global South. Such return migration experiences offer a rich and complex field for research on migration and emotion. Despite the evident difficulties of living in Iran, there exist Iranians who, after undergoing the often time-consuming and resource-intensive emigration process and residing in Global North host countries with stable socioeconomic and political conditions, choose to return to their homeland. Similar to the main trend in migration studies, which has been greatly focused on assimilation and integration, the study of Iranian migration has been concerned with Iranian migrants’ relation to the host society and the ways in which they form and negotiate diasporic identities and navigate racism and anti-Muslim resentment, particularly in their Global North host countries. I assert that not only scholarship about return migration to Iran is notably limited, return as an integral subprocess of international migration is undertheorized. To investigate the often-overlooked dimensions of return, this study draws on semi-structured, in-depth interviews with fifteen Iranian return migrants and asks: How do migrants make sense of their voluntary North-South return migration? What do culturally meaningful notions reveal about their return? How do they explain the role of emotions in shaping their decision-making process? Departing from the economic cost-benefit analysis of cross-border movements and adopting a bottom-up approach that considers migrants’ perception of return, this article shows how culturally meaningful notions can reveal the emotional dimension of return migration. The Iranian return migrants who shared their experiences with me referred to the culturally relevant and symbolically important notion of reesheh (roots and rootedness) as a key reason for motivating them to return to Iran despite the challenging living circumstances in their home country. This nuanced Persian concept embodies a strong sense of emotional attachment to the homeland and encompasses a range of sentiments, including love, belonging, responsibility, care, and hope. This article posits that emphasizing the salience of emotions in return migrants’ narratives prompts a re-examination and expansion of three commonly-held rationales in the scholarship and public discourse about North-South return migration: 1) North-South return is a matter of life course factors such as age and duration of stay abroad; 2) Parents may hesitate to return from their Northern hostland to their Southern homeland; 3) Women may manifest a reluctance to partake in North-South return migration. This article underscores the emotional aspects that underlie North-South return migration, highlights migrants’ notable agency, and rejects the modernist portrayal of emotion as epistemologically subversive.

This paper will be presented at the following session: