Tried and Trusted? The role of NGOs in the Assisted Voluntary Returns of Asylum Seekers and Irregular Migrants February – December 2013


This joint research project examined issues relating to the three modes of Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) for migrants in the UK: 1) the Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP); 2) the Assisted Voluntary Return for Irregular Migrants (AVRIM), and 3) the Assisted Voluntary Return for Families and Children (AVRFC). These programmes, which are administered by NGO Refugee Action and the IGO the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have specific eligibility criteria and come with different reintegration and financial assistance packages.

This research examined, among other things, the differing roles of those NGOs that administer AVRs and those that do not; how and why NGOs (and the Welfare Officers in Detention Centres they work with) advise on particular return modes; and also the place of ‘safe country’ determinations, the meaning of ‘sustainability’ in AVR advice to returnees, and the advantages and disadvantages of ‘directive’ and ‘non-directive’ approaches in NGO consultations with AVR applicants.

In addition, the research explored the wider NGO sectors’ perspectives on the current focus on programmed returns for asylum seekers (rather than irregular migrants) and foreign national prisoners and find out what information NGOs (including volunteers working with NGOs) need to support people faced with return. It also examined the relationship between those NGOs directly involved in administering AVR and the wider asylum/irregular migrant focused NGO sector.

Principal Investigator

Bridget Anderson, Derek McGhee (University of Southampton)


Sarah Walker (University of Southampton), Claire Bennett (University of Southampton)



Professionals' Advisory Group

Centre for Population Change (CPC), University of Southampton


Civil SocietyDetention and DeportationEnforcementPolicies




The project drew on two theoretical literatures. The first was theories about the relation between civil society and the state, and the relation between engagement and control; the second was the literature on voluntariness, unfreedom and choice. What are the different ideas of freedom and choice that are drawn on by different actors, and how can theories of free will and liberal individualism help us to understand these?


Using UKBA and NGO data, a database was created on the take up of AVRs (disaggregated by scheme type gender, age, single individual/family and country of origin), which was then compared with available data on UVDs and NVDs. In addition, individual interviews were undertaken with:  1) Refugee Action Staff in their four regional offices, IOM (London) staff, Welfare Officers, Refugee Action Migration staff, and IOM staff in Detention Centres; 2) representatives from UKBA and the Home Office. Furthermore, a national survey was conducted (focusing on AVR), which targeted grass roots voluntary organisations involved in supporting asylum seekers and irregular migrants.

Desk research comprised literature reviews, along with documentary analysis of UKBA policies, instructions and guidelines on AVR and other forms of removal, of any policy conference literature on AVR, of NGO literature and websites on AVR and other forms of removal, and of Hansard debates and other Parliamentary material on AVR. It also included an analysis of existing data. Fieldwork research involved the conducting an electronic survey of as many migrant organisations and NGOs as possible, as well as interviews with different stakeholders.


The key findings of the research were as follows:

  • The notion of choice was central to the AVR programme and how it was administered by NGOs. Importantly ‘choice’ brings with it ideas of ‘informed choice’, with information giving been an important element of NGOs’ role in the process.
  • Ideas of choice and agency then bring with them heavily individualised ideas of responsibility of being a “self-acting individual” who accepts consequences of their decisions. Thus one consequence of the model of ‘choice’ is that it makes the individual migrant responsible for the consequences of their return, and absolves the caseworker and the Home Office of any responsibility for the outcomes.
  • Ideas of freedom and unfreedom are crucial to the architecture of immigration controls. The distinction between immigration and asylum, between economic and ‘forced’ migration underpin the systems of global governance of mobility that have been established since the 1950s. The distinction between freedom and unfreedom is critical to managing the compatibility of immigration enforcement with human rights.
  • AVR is an attempt to make immigration controls and deportation compatible with liberalism.