Questioning the Narratives Underpinning Voluntary Return Programmes: Evidence from the IOM Morocco Return Scheme

Published 7 February 2023 / By Sabina Barone, PhD candidate, University College London (UCL)

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What happens to refused asylum seekers, migrants without status, or those ‘stranded’ on migratory routes? Most states would like to forcibly remove them but must comply with bi- or -multi-lateral legal agreements. Returning migrants with their personal cooperation provides a seemingly viable yet disputed alternative.

States have increasingly adopted voluntary return programmes for those without regular immigration status to fund their return flights and, sometimes, support reintegration assistance in their country of origin. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is often relied on to carry out various return programmes, with one such programme known as assisted voluntary return and reintegration, or AVRR.

Disputed and competing narratives justify the role of return schemes. On the one hand, they are associated with migration control. Removing rejected asylum seekers and migrants with unauthorised residence is presented as an exercise of national sovereignty, preserving the integrity of the asylum and immigration system. On the other hand, return programmes are framed within humanitarian and development narratives. The IOM’s latest framework (2018) presents returns as a humane way out for vulnerable migrants aimed at their sustainable reintegration into their country of origin. This notion, spelt out in Objective 21 of the Global Compact for Migration, substantiates the link between return and development and has since been appropriated by the IOM and EU states.

Yet, when examining how AVRR performs, the picture does not confirm those narratives. Firstly, the picture is partial as relevant information is missing. Annual IOM reports on AVRR only present the number of return trips carried out, with lists of the main host and destination countries, without mentioning the number of beneficiaries of reintegration assistance, the availability and types of economic aid and the medium-to-long-term attainment of sustainable reintegration (IOM 2022). Secondly, the limited data publicly available, complemented with that of my doctoral research on the subject, draws attention to inconsistencies within those narratives.

The case of Morocco is a prime example. In 2021, the IOM’s AVRR returned the fifth-highest number of migrants worldwide (2,372) from Morocco to West-Central Africa. This region had the highest number worldwide of intra-regional returns and returns from other regions (22,143) (IOM 2022). Hence it is apt to test the policy narratives underpinning return schemes.


AVRR and the narrative of migration control

In the context of Morocco, this narrative envisions the role of AVRR as that of contributing to the policy objective of keeping irregular migrants out of Europe. The AVRR is viewed as one of the tools for the externalisation of EU migration control policies (Gazzotti 2021; Alioua and Rachidi 2017).

However, the performance of AVRR in this field has yet to be comprehensively assessed, one major obstacle being the lack of reliable data about the total population of migrants with unauthorized status in Morocco. As a way to estimate it, I use the statistics of irregular arrivals to Spain from Morocco. Comparing the flow of migrants going back via AVRR with that of migrants reaching Spain during the last seven years shows that the former is negligible:


Overall, IOM returnees amount to a mere 4% of the total migrant population reaching Spain irregularly. In the pre-covid five-year period 2015-2019, IOM returnees were on average 1,500. If AVRR is a measure to counter onward movements towards Europe, it has no significant impact.


AVRR and the narrative of development

Achieving development through AVRR is far from guaranteed. Various factors can hinder sustainable reintegration, namely: insufficient economic aid (if available at all), delays in aid delivery, short-term accompaniment, not tailored to personalised needs, and the instability of the countries of origin (Samuel Hall and University of Sussex 2020; Flahaux 2017). My doctoral research found those obstacles at play for 65 IOM returnees from Morocco to West-Central Africa whose trajectories I followed for three years (2020-2022). As a result, all returnees considered their reintegration precarious, so much so that eleven re-migrated, one twice, through the same irregular routes and conditions of their first migration.

Further research and comprehensive IOM data sharing on reintegration are needed to better assess AVRR. However, the data shown suggests that, whatever the goal, migration control or sustainable reintegration, the actual implementation of the AVRR from Morocco appears to insufficiently achieve either of them. As a counterweight to onward migration, returning migrants performs a short-lived gain in a Sisyphean exercise of returning over and again individuals whose mobility aspirations are far from extinguished, despite their temporary desire to return. As a humanitarian and development tool, the reintegration supports are a drop in the ocean to meet the needs and adverse contextual factors upon return.

Despite little evidence on their actual achievements, the appeal of return programmes remains untarnished in widespread policy debates that construct migration as a problem. Return seems a likely antidote to migrants’ alleged "invasion" and reintegration a credible incentive to keep migrants in their place (Bakewell 2009). The narratives justifying AVRR display pseudo-causal policy reasoning whereby the semblance of plausibility overrides the dearth of evidence (Zaun and Nantermoz 2022).


Rethinking the premises of return programmes 

Discrepancy between narrative and practice is common in policymaking and is often glossed over with calls for renewed efforts to improve implementation. In the case of return programmes, this translates into the reiteration of the same narratives, complemented with additional funding.

Yet, interrogating that discrepancy could be productive and lead to a major rethink of the role of AVRR and the premises of migration governance shaping it. Research has stressed that return programmes need to adapt to migration cycles and support returnees’ preparation to return  through different migration frameworks (Monti and Serrano 2021, Cassarino 2020). The 2022 Spanish Migration Act is an example of the possible steps toward an alternative scenario of migration governance, setting up unprecedented legal avenues for circular migration and residence, and accommodating multiple returns.

Substantially increasing legal migration routes, the portability of social rights and access to circular migration for all migrants, including those (problematically) categorised as ‘economic’ or ‘low-skilled’, would allow individuals and their families to plan their onward and back mobilities in dialogue with institutions, rather than being induced into mobility choices constrained by precarious social contexts and restrictive legal frameworks. There is a need for migration and return policies that place the interests of migrants on an equal footing with those of states and other actors.