Is ‘voluntary’ return the new way forward for managing irregular migration?

Published 21 February 2017 / By COMPAS Communications

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Recent headlines suggest ‘voluntary’ return as an approach to the management of irregular migration is making something of a comeback. Newspaper articles entitled Germany offers asylum seekers up to €1,200 each to voluntarily return to their home countries and ‘Bribed' to go home: illegal migrants given hugely generous packages to persuade them to leave UK suggest there is renewed interest in ‘voluntary’ return, especially to address large backlogs of irregular migrants, including refused asylum seekers.

The UK government has always indirectly encouraged irregular migrants to return ‘voluntarily’ to their countries of origin through the Assisted Voluntary Returns (AVR) programme, run until 2011 by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and then more recently by Refugee Action. The Home Office has now taken control of this programme by managing it directly through its Voluntary Return Services and is offering irregular migrants £2,000 and a flight home. So, why this new approach, and why now?

While this type of move in the UK would perhaps have been unimaginable a few years ago, it is now being introduced as an important part of the policy response to irregular migration. This represents a step forward for the Home Office, formally acknowledging AVR as a viable option for dealing with irregular migration and moving beyond an over-reliance on forced removals as their primary response to it. This is what we were hoping to see a few years ago when, together with my then colleagues at IPPR, I published a briefing paper outlining the benefits of AVR as a more humane and more cost-effective option and one that the UK was under-using at the time.

The Home Office decision to run the AVR programme in-house by incorporating it into their existing voluntary departures scheme instead of commissioning a third-party organisation to deliver it is significant and comes with a number of implications. Firstly, under this new scheme, impartial, non-directive advice will only be given to irregular migrants who meet a definition of vulnerability. Secondly, while AVR could be interpreted as a ‘softer’ response from the Home Office, it is part of a wider strategy by the government to intensify the ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants on the one hand, whilst, on the other, strengthening the incentives to return. Thirdly, some voluntary returnees, receiving cash but not broader reintegration support through independent institutions in the country of origin, may struggle to reintegrate and end up destitute back home, jeopardising the sustainability of their return.

In general, however, there seems to be agreement that AVR is a preferable option, both for European member states and for returning migrants. It is more dignified and more humane for the migrant, more cost-effective for the member states, more sustainable than forced return and it does not require the same cooperation between states that forced return demands. Although exact figures are difficult to establish, the cost of forced returns, particularly those requiring additional security, are thought to be around ten times greater than the cost of AVR. There are two reasons for the high costs of deportations. Firstly, forced returns usually involve charter flights due to difficulties using commercial flights for this purpose. Secondly, forced returnees have often spent prolonged periods in detention, further increasing the costs to the state.

While AVR programmes differ from country to country, they all offer payments to their beneficiaries. The majority offer this payment ‘in-kind’ only. So, rather than paying returnees directly in cash, funds are put towards a range of goods or services for them, including vocational training, help to start a small business or the purchase of tools and equipment. The Home Office’s cash offer of £2,000 is possibly one of the most generous AVR packages in Europe but does otherwise lack any focus on the reintegration of migrants in their country of origin, which is one of the most crucial elements in such programmes.

Reintegration is a critical step towards achieving sustainable return. In order to prevent further irregular migration, it is particularly important to address the factors that led migrants to leave their country of origin in the first place. Skills and access to a regular source of income are crucial to people’s ability to support themselves independently, but reintegration support also needs to reflect the importance of social reintegration: solid social support structures are essential for effective reintegration and provide a safety net beyond work.

Finally, it is important to note that even the most generous AVR packages cannot always help returnees to overcome systemic challenges back home, such as there being few jobs in their local area, a limited market for their start-up business, or prohibitively high school fees to educate their children. In the end, unless and until socioeconomic conditions improve in countries of origin, human nature dictates that, statuses aside, some people will seek out a better life in another country.