3. Institutional context of return and reintegration

With policy makers under growing public pressure to manage migration, questions of how, when, and under what conditions irregular immigrants and rejected asylum seekers can be returned to their origin countries received increased political attention in the past years. In several countries covered by the project, regulations have been modified in order to increase the efficiency of return, both voluntary and forced.

In Switzerland, recent policy development was influenced by concern over the possible negative consequences of lengthy asylum procedures. This concern was reflected, for example, by a 2016 “Postulat” to parliament, charging the government to commission a report on the nexus between integration and return. The Postulat was driven by a hypothesis that integration during the asylum process hinders return following a negative decision. The introduction of the new Swiss Asylum System on 1 March 2019 entailed an accelerated asylum procedure. Under this accelerated process, the asylum procedure must be finalised within 100 days, including appeal and deportation where an application is rejected. The revision of the asylum procedure has had implications for when and how voluntary return is promoted in Swiss asylum centres.

Germany, too, has seen several parliamentary requests for information from the government – regarding its return and reintegration activities. The German government passed a set of eight bills on immigration in 2019. The package included the “Orderly Return Law” (Geordnetes-Rückkehr-Gesetz) – which facilitates the return of failed asylum seekers and expands related powers of police and immigration authorities. The new law’s aim is to “significantly increase” the proportion of successful deportations.

In 2017, Norway released its second “5-year Return Strategy”, developed by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security (MoJ). The current strategy, to run through 2022, stresses the facilitation of rapid and effective returns through readmission agreements, international cooperation and country-specific strategies as the main goal of Norwegian return policy.

In September 2019, Denmark transferred the responsibility of registering asylum seekers from the National Police to the Danish Immigration Service in the Ministry of Immigration and Integration. From August 2020 onwards, a new return agency in the same ministry handles rejected asylum seekers including voluntary return previously also under the mandate of the National Police.

Ensuring that returns of irregularly staying third-country nationals take place effectively, and stepping up the European Union’s (EU) return rate has also been a political priority at the European level in recent years, especially since the 2015 peak in arrivals of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants (Box 3.1).

Following prior policy statements, the European Commission identified the effectiveness of EU return policy as a key element in reducing the incentives for irregular migration in its 2015 European Agenda on Migration. Although the Commission has put several initiatives in the area of return forward since the adoption of the agenda, the EU return rate (the number of returns relative to the number of orders to leave the territory of EU countries) has fluctuated. Aiming to increase the rate, the Commission presented a proposal for a targeted revision of the EU Return Directive, the main piece of legislation establishing harmonised standards and procedures to be used by Member States for returning third-country nationals staying irregularly on their territory.

Beyond the increased pressure on facilitating returns, both voluntary and forced, many European OECD countries are increasingly willing to adopt a longer-term approach to returning rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants, through linking return with reintegration and development assistance. It reduces incentives for re-migration and makes the acceptance of return more likely, both for the migrants concerned and for the origin communities.

Interdepartmental coordination is an emerging approach in most European countries implementing return and reintegration policies. Some countries have well-developed mechanisms of cooperation: at headquarters and within the partner country. Some countries have made whole-of-government approach a priority but are still working on aligning expectations and establishing cross-government cooperation, although in early stages. In other countries, the whole-of-government approach is subscribed to but has translated into at best limited cooperation in practice.

The governance of return and reintegration policies across OECD countries reviewed within this project is characterised by complex relationships between the various actors involved in coordinating counselling and support from pre- to post- return stages. One important level of coordination was identified between increasingly diverse actors in the administration of the destination country involved in migration policy (Table 3.1). Return policy has implications for various policy areas within destination countries, ranging from domestic policy interests and enforcement of immigration law to international cooperation and development concerns. With development funding shifting towards activities overlapping with migration management, development and foreign affairs have emerged as important actors in the design and delivery of return and reintegration policies.

In several countries, interdepartmental cooperation has been evolving as a result of top-down political pressure for cooperation, particularly against the background of a rise in asylum requests in a number of European countries. Among the countries studied, Germany and Switzerland are the two countries where the cooperation between the development and interior sides are comparatively advanced. Within the Swiss Federal Administration, the “whole-of-government” approach and interdepartmental coordination are emphasised strongly – including matters of return and reintegration, acknowledging its cross-cutting nature. At headquarters, the Swiss Inter-Ministerial Cooperation (IMZ) Structure constitutes the main coordination instrument between the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SCD). Within the partner country, interdepartmental coordination is coordinated through the Embassy of Switzerland.

In 2015, the German government announced a “coherent approach” to migration policy, involving both development and home affairs actors in response to a spike in arrivals of persons seeking international protection. Since then, all relevant federal Ministries and the Chancellery meet on a regular basis to discuss and coordinate cooperation with partner countries in the area of migration. The area of return and reintegration is no exception to the renewed focus on “whole-of-government” approaches in migration-related work. The Interior and Development Ministries jointly cover the spectrum of pre-return support and reintegration assistance, with the Federal Ministry of Interior, Community and Building focusing on return counselling and supporting voluntary return and fostering the sustainable reintegration of returnees in the respective partner countries, which is achieved together with the work of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development which also focuses on the development perspective.

In both these cases, successful coordination seemed to hinge upon strong commitment at the political level, which goes hand in hand with concrete working -evel mechanisms such as joint commissions and regular working groups. The involvement of different actors can, however, also lead to conflicting policy priorities. Interior ministries and justice departments charged with immigration enforcement may stress return and the rule of law, cost-effectiveness and prevention of revolving-door phenomena, while development cooperation emphasises the developmental effects for the returning migrant as well as for their origin country and community. Home affairs and migration agencies also target different groups than they would without the development side involved in return and reintegration programming. Similarly, there are differences in methodology, as the individual approach of migration management goes counter to the logic with which development assistance functions.

Another difficulty experienced in countries where development and home affairs actors coordinate is related to a certain stigma that migration management-related work carries among many development actors. For one, development actors might be unfamiliar with the range of activities of migration agencies, not knowing that many do not only support AVR, but also have (or seek to have) a much more holistic approach. In the practical area of recruitment, development cooperation staff may be reluctant to work on return and reintegration of persons subject to removal. One example of a response is the effort by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to discuss and explain why the development side is engaging in return and reintegration, especially towards civil society: on one hand to the part of the public committed to integration and on the other hand to development NGOs. The effort involved awareness raising and information campaigns on the approach, organised jointly with BAMF and IOM. Finally, there are potential frictions at the political level regarding concern over development cooperation becoming a political bargaining chip to obtain cooperation on migration management with origin countries.

In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the whole-of government approach is strongly emphasised but still in its early stages. The UK Home Office is working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for International Development (DFID) – now integrated into a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to develop a cross-government approach to reintegration. The Home Office interacts directly with returnees and manages their safe and dignified return, whereas DFID contributed the relevant programmatic experience ‘on the ground’ to share expertise. The FCDO aims to leverage and increase diplomatic capital by demonstrating the UK’s approach to reintegration whil the Ministry of Justice should manage the Foreign National Offender population and are heavily involved with their returns. Concrete mechanisms for cooperation had not yet been established. The situation is similar in Norway, where all return activities are administered under the Norwegian Directorate for Immigration (UDI). Despite a whole-of-government mandate on return and reintegration evolving on paper, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) is not yet involved in this area in practice.

In France, all return and reintegration activities are exclusively administered on the interior and migration agency side, with no cooperation between migration and development agencies. The responsibility for the voluntary return and reintegration system is situated solely under the French Ministry of the Interior, where all activities are implemented by the French Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII). While the French development agency, the Agence Française de Développement (AfD), has recently acquired a mandate on migration, their work does not cover the return and reintegration issue. In Sweden and Belgium, return and reintegration are also located with the respective migration agencies, the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA) and Fedasil. Until today, Fedasil has only sporadically cooperated through select reintegration projects with their development counterparts, the Belgian Development Agency ENABEL.

Forced return and removal is generally kept at arms length or thematically and institutionally distant from the bodies responsible for promoting and managing assisted return and offering reintegration support. This distance is important for the credibility of services – the ability of potential returnees to receive information on return without risking removal. In some cases, especially in reception and reporting centres, the two functions coexist under the same roof, with efforts to distinguish between the two. The return decision, however, is strongly influenced by the prospect of forced return. The thematic separation of the two policy environments is functional for the operation of return assistance, although coordination at the strategy level may help better inform the target group on the prospects of removal.

One of the consequences of separation is that persons who accept to return can refuse return right up to the moment they are boarding a plane for the origin country. At this point, they are generally transferred to the authorities responsible for removal; most countries will not reconsider their request for later voluntary return without exceptional circumstances. Similarly, persons in removal may also request voluntary return, although a deadline for decision may be imposed before the returnee is tracked for removal or has their eligibility reduced or withdrawn.

Many AVRR programmes have come to interlink pre-departure and post-arrival support and reintegration assistance. Such a transnational approach to return and reintegration can only work in cooperation among key actors along the continuum of support. Several publications to guide policy makers and practitioners in the design and implementation of AVRR state the need for engagement and capacity-building of key stakeholders, while calling for stronger mechanisms for coordination.

As AVR is increasingly complemented with support for the reintegration of returnees in their countries of origin, there is increasing demand for cooperation between different political actors in destination countries. Many European destination countries stress the importance of whole-of-government approaches and interdepartmental cooperation. This often involves several parts of the administration, including the development, interior, justice and foreign affairs side. In practice, the coordination among these actors may be complicated by conflicting priorities, especially between domestic political demands and development policy principles (Biehler and Meier, 2019[1]).

Beyond cooperation within destination country administrations – the Whole of Government approach discussed above – international coordination among destination countries is increasing, notably among European countries. ERRIN is one platform that offers opportunities for knowledge exchange and coordination of approaches. It enhances programme coordination to maximise access for beneficiaries from different European countries, and currently leads an initiative to link beneficiaries of reintegration assistance to existing development initiatives. Similarly, the Return Expert Group of the European Migration Network (EMN) provides a platform for practical cooperation between Member States, bringing together key stakeholders from administrations to share good practices and develop common standards and guidelines for an integrated European approach.

European return policy is a legislative area in transformation: among recent developments are a proposal for a recast of Directive 2008/115/EC (Returns Directive) and a transfer of mandates from ERRIN to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2019[2]; Council of the European Union, 2019[3]).

The majority of countries work, at least in part, with IOM to implement their AVRR programmes. With over 40 years of experience, IOM has developed into a main actor in implementing AVRR programmes, providing support through individualised counselling and cash or in-kind support upon return. The return assistance provided by IOM has grown beyond Europe to include host countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Beneficiaries of the IOM AVRR programmes may include stranded migrants in host or transit countries, irregular migrants, regular migrants, and asylum seekers who decide not to pursue their claims or who are found not to be in need of international protection. IOM in many countries works directly with national and local governments and may partner with civil society organisations, the private sector as well as development assistance bodies, in a wide variety of partnerships.

Civil society organisations, both in destination and origin countries, are a crucial implementing partner of AVRR policies. Most programmes rely on CSOs for implementation of service provision. In some cases, these CSOs have long been engaged in return support and reintegration. CSOs are especially important when dealing with the return of vulnerable groups, particularly unaccompanied and separated migrant children. The European Reintegration Support Organizations (ERSO) network offers a platform to exchange and collect expertise, best practices and information concerning voluntary return and reintegration. It seeks to build up capacities of local organisations working in the field of reintegration and has, in practice, become a platform for service providers.

Many actors are aware that diaspora experiences and insights can help design adequate return and reintegration policies. Policymakers, therefore, engage with the diaspora and incorporate their input when designing return and reintegration policies. In some cases, the diaspora may also help to build trust and obtain access to migrants, in order to better address their concerns regarding possible voluntary return to their country or origin (IOM, 2015[4]). Different diaspora engagement strategies are proposed for destination country agencies designing AVRR programmes, in cooperation with the country of origin (IOM, 2019[5]; Haase and Honerath, 2016[6]). Cooperation with the diaspora is common practice in many European countries’ return and reintegration efforts. For example, the German GIZ structures diaspora cooperation in its “Programme Migration and Diaspora”, although it also works with diaspora organisations in other programmes. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office liaises with and provides funding to community and faith organisations to advise return and reintegration programmes to their members. Similarly, the Norwegian migration agency (UDI) has a long-term relationship through anonymous “user meetings” addressing all concerns of community members, with the aim of discussing the issue of acquiring credibility with diaspora communities which facilitates mention of return down the line. Often, policy documents on good practices in the economic reintegration of returnees promote cooperation with the private sector. In particular, they recommend private – public partnerships to set up demand-oriented skills’ development programmes. The private sector could support reintegration in many ways, e.g. through apprenticeship schemes, on-the-job learning schemes, or mentoring of returnees (IOM, 2019[5]). However, cooperation with the private sector remains sparse and one point which emerged in the study tours is there are few examples of successful partnerships. One reason is the limited formal labour market in many origin countries. However, where destination country firms are active in the economy in the origin country, the possibility is opened for direct relationship with the Chambers of Commerce of businesses of the destination country. Examples of such contacts include the German-Tunisian and German-Kosovo Chambers of Commerce, which have partnered in facilitating the employment of returning migrants with specific skills. Another obstacle raised in the study tours is a negative perception of returnees in general. Return may bear a stigma, due to associations with possible criminal activity, or due to stereotypes about unrealistic expectations in terms of wage or working conditions.

In order to ensure that return and reintegration services are effectively delivered to (potential) returnees, most countries work with a broad range of actors as implementing partners – from the return preparation to the reintegration stage. Mapping the different service providers used by different countries from pre-return, return, to reintegration phases helps lay out benefits and potential drawbacks of different partnership approaches. The comparison between different European countries’ systems reveals different partnership models and ways to divide tasks and duties between national authorities and implementing partners/service providers (Figure 3.1).

Within the project, France was the only country studied which implements its return and reintegration policies entirely through its own authorities, via OFII. In-house counselling by OFII agents is administered in the 31 local OFII offices in France. Reintegration support in the origin country is implemented by OFII country offices abroad, in countries of origin (Morocco, Tunisia, Armenia, Cameroon, Mali and Senegal). OFII in France regularly exchanges with origin countries through an internal information system. OFII contracts service providers for business support in the origin country through regular tenders (every three years). Ideally, OFII seeks to find one service provider to put in charge for support across different geographical regions and sectors. This is not always possible, which means that in practice, OFII works with several service providers of business support per origin region.

In all other countries, the implementation of most aspects of return and reintegration is outsourced to an implementing partner or service provider. Many government authorities in the countries studied mandate large CSOs or international organisations as their return counselling providers or implementing partners, most commonly IOM. Other countries work with a multitude of smaller partner organisations, including CSOs, private sector organisations and chambers of commerce. In providing reintegration support, some countries partner with national institutions, e.g. employment agencies. As discussed later in this chapter, the choice of implementing partner can have an effect on the populations programmes can reach, how well return migrants’ needs are addressed, as well as how programmes are perceived by migrants.

Of the countries studied, Germany has the most complex network of partners delivering return counselling and reintegration support. Due to the federal system, these include both state return counsellors, as well as return counsellors from civil society, frequently funded by the federal states. German federal states each choose actors to implement return counselling. Most state or local authorities cooperate with return counsellors drawn from civil society as well as implementing partners of pre-return qualification measures. Partnerships on the reintegration side are equally diverse, where measures are implemented in close cooperation with political partners in the country of origin – these include ministries in charge of employment promotion and reintegration as well as the related subordinate authorities (e.g. national employment agencies). In countries of origin, training conducted by German authorities is based on enlarging existing programmes of development assistance at community-level, to which they are increasingly adding reintegration components. Partner structures are country-specific and include, beyond political partners, own government agencies (development agency GIZ), CSOs, IOM, as well as private sector organisations (e.g. German chamber of commerce).

The Swiss Secretariat for Migration (SEM) coordinates its Return Counselling Services (RCS) on federal level and trains implementing partners wherever there are new return and reintegration projects in new countries. While the SEM offers financial compensation for return counselling partners, each canton may choose their preferred implementing partner; these are mostly CSOs such as Caritas or the Red Cross, although at least one canton also works with private sector partners. Within most Federal Asylum Centres (FACs), IOM is the main partner carrying out return counselling activities, although cantonal RCS partners may be responsible in some cantons. SEM has mandated IOM to run all its reintegration operations, as well as pre-return counselling. The amount and type of assistance is determined by destination country, and may include a mandate for processes such as monitoring visits.

In the United Kingdom, the Home Office contracts the CSO Migrant Help to provide counselling to all individuals who have received a negative asylum decision on their options going forward, which includes conversations on voluntary return. Government officials working in reporting centres also conduct voluntary return conversations. Following a negative asylum decision, potential returnees are approached by different service providers within the CSO-run “alternative to detention pilots” currently run by the Home Office, testing whether counselling by faith and community groups can provide better outcomes. Return conversations with individuals outside of the asylum process are also held by community leaders engaged to highlight and discuss the possibility of return and options for support. Whilst the Forced Return Service does not have individual return counselling as such, immigration staff embedded within the prison estate have a discussion with foreign national offenders during prison inductions about their return and reintegration and this is ongoing during their time in detention. Return assistance and reintegration support are currently provided by the IOM.

The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) regional offices conduct individual return counselling sessions with rejected asylum seekers in Norwegian return centres. For the provision of return counselling, the UDI is assisted by the CSO Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS), whose staff provide counselling on both options in asylum process as well as options for assisted return and reintegration support. Each asylum reception centre in the country offers individual return counselling, together with more general information on assisted return and reintegration, by individual staff running these centres. The Norwegian authorities also partner with IOM, who may provide pre-return counselling, and arrange returning migrants’ travel back to their origin country. IOM is mandated with implementing the reintegration process and dispensing assistance in the origin country.

In Sweden, a high caseload relative to staff and a lack of partners committed to discussing return mean that potential returnees are offered little pre-return counselling or preparation. There is a “return meeting” after negative asylum decisions on information about benefits and how to get them, which is conducted by officers of the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA) and in some cases by the Swedish Red Cross. SMA officers receive one internal training on return counselling, mostly on technical details (such as re-entry bans and other legal aspects). Police authorities of the Swedish Border Police (SBP) assist the SMA in implementing Assisted Return measures for detained individuals. The Swedish reintegration programme is implemented through the IOM, as well as the ERRIN network for some countries.

The Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration has contracted out both counselling during the asylum process and return counselling to be handled by the CSO Danish Refugee Council (DRC) under different contracts, with separate mandates and organised independently. There is a daily presence and open counselling by DRC staff at transit and departure centres, as well as early counselling at reception centres around the country. The DRC further provides counselling in prisons and detention centres. Return counselling offers by the DRC are complemented by IOM pre-departure counselling, transportation and post-arrival assistance. Following return, the Ministry of Immigration and Integration provides reintegration support in a range of countries through the ERRIN and ERSO networks (Box 3.2).

In Belgium, Fedasil works with two partners, IOM and Caritas, on a split contract. Each is responsible for phases from counselling to reintegration in the origin country. In order to improve programming, Belgian authorities created CONEX, a network linking municipalities and CSOs, with the idea that stakeholders closest to migrants can best determine return assistance needs. The feedback system relies on CONEX partners on the ground – who, for example, identify immigrants of certain nationalities in precarious situations – to provide a signal to Fedasil return desks, who then liaise with their AVRR implementing partners Caritas and IOM to mandate a specific return and reintegration programme addressing the needs of the communities concerned. Then, Fedasil provides funding and information to municipalities and CSOs to inform on the newly created projects. In addition to this continuous loop between municipalities, CSOs, Fedasil and IOM or Caritas in the destination country, CONEX seeks to create a network in origin countries to adequately address the reintegration needs identified by CONEX partners, e.g. assist migrants with alcohol issues by referring them to rehabilitation programmes in origin countries.

The choice of implementing partners and the partnership model has implications for return and reintegration programmes. For one, it might affect the quality of services. There are potential drawbacks to working with only one large organisation, which might lack expertise in working with different populations, or not have the reach and experience with vulnerable populations that a specialised organisation could provide. At the same time, the need to coordinate among several partners makes decision making more costly in a multi-partner environment. The greater demand for coordination requires a corresponding investment in project management but also quality control and individual case management.

Multiple partners, and large projects, make it more difficult to ensure quality control. As noted, among the countries reviewed in the project, German authorities rely on the most diverse network of partners. This is in part related to the distribution of competences, and the patchwork of institutions and partners may yield some variation in standards and practices (Rietig and Günnewig, 2020[7]). To contribute to shared standards, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) published a guideline for federal return counselling on its website, which it recommends as guidance for different implementing partners. The guidelines should be complemented by a practical tool in the near future.

Capacity building efforts for implementing partners are also a means to extend quality standards. Through Integplan, the German development agency GIZ organises origin country-specific trainings for return counsellors to establish a better understanding for specific needs of the target group and available offers and referral systems in countries of origin. Fedasil also organises an annual conference of implementing partners to share practices and standards. The European Commission is considering the development of quality standards for implementing partners in origin countries.

To coordinate among implementing partners, data exchange is essential; this is particularly true across international boundaries and when different partners have different needs – case management, monitoring and evaluation. To address this, Fedasil has developed a tool, RIAT (Box 3.3). RIAT provides feedback on cases and allows an overview of caseloads, but is not designed for monitoring and evaluation.

Coordination of in-kind benefits requires payment of fees to the implementing partner responsible for coordination, but this cost does not appear very elevated. In the countries covered, the overhead for managing in-kind support paid to implementing partners or for administering referred cases was not particularly onerous. In Belgium, for example, it was 15% of the reintegration grants (ranging between EUR 150 and 400). In France, the OFII programme pays a fee of up to EUR 1 300 (EUR 720 in the case of programmes implemented with ERRIN partners). GIZ imposes a fee of 14% on cases it manages. This is not much higher than the fees charged for disbursal in cash programmes: in Sweden, the cash establishment support carries a 7% fee. In the projects covered, the fee to implementing partners is in addition to programme costs, which include the entire counselling, referral and data management systems described.


[1] Biehler, N. and A. Meier (2019), “Rückkehr und Reintegration. Rückkehrförderung zwischen innenpolitischen Ansprüchen und entwicklungspolitischen Grundsätzen”, SWP-Aktuell 2019/A 50, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

[3] Council of the European Union (2019), Frontex Programming Document 2020-2022.

[2] European Parliamentary Research Service (2019), “Recasting the Return Directive”, EU Legislation in Progress, European Parliament.

[6] Haase, M. and P. Honerath (2016), Return Migration and Reintegration Policies. A primer, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.

[5] IOM (2019), Reintegration Handbook: Practical guidance on the design, implement ation and monitoring of reintegration assistance, International Organization for Migration, Geneva.

[4] IOM (2015), Reintegration: Effective approaches, International Organization for Migration.

[7] Rietig, V. and M. Günnewig (2020), Deutsche Rückkehrpolitik und Abschiebungen: Zehn Wege aus der Dauerkrise (German return policy and deportations: Ten ways out of the permanent crisis), DGAP (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik), Berlin, https://dgap.org/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/dgap-analyse-2020-03-de_0.pdf (accessed on 29 September 2020).

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