4. Promoting voluntary return

Generally, voluntary return programmes target those migrant populations who have no legal right to stay, or a low possibility of obtaining such right, particularly where their prolonged presence presents considerable financial or social costs for the destination country. In practice, assisted return programmes studied in this project differed in the categories of migrants they target, ranging from a specific focus on rejected asylum seekers, a wider focus on all irregular migrants, to eligibility of permanent residents or recognised refugees who seek assistance in returning to their origin countries.

Most countries do not have clear estimates of their target group, i.e. of the number of potential beneficiaries of AVRR programmes. Depending on the categories targeted with AVRR, however, it might be possible to arrive at an approximate: where the target group of AVRR beneficiaries is limited to (rejected) asylum seekers, the number can relatively easily be construed based on available data on lodged asylum requests and rejected requests in particular (number of asylum applications, number of rejected asylum applications, and number of return decisions). The annual number in this category exceeds 200 000 in Europe, for example (Figure 4.1). Reliable statistics on stocks or flows of irregular migrants, on the other hand, are generally not available.

In all countries studied, the main focus of AVRR programmes was on asylum seekers – both during the procedure, at the point of rejection, and after final negative decision. Following the high increase in asylum applications over the past years, the number of rejected asylum seekers has, in turn, also significantly increased. As a result, many European OECD countries have emphasised the need to link the return policy to the asylum procedure as a priority action in this regard, targeting individuals during the asylum procedure, at the point of rejection, and once rejected. Sweden was the only country studied where target group of the AVRR programme were limited to asylum seekers who decide not to pursue their claims or who are found not to be in need of international protection. Switzerland also recognised refugees.

Programmes in Belgium, Germany, and Norway are designed to include migrants in an irregular situation who have never applied for asylum. Germany is the only country of those considered in the study that widens its eligibility criteria for AVRR to migrants with residence permits who seek support to return to their origin countries. Apart from the groups mentioned before, some programmes also address stranded migrants in transit to another country (e.g. migrants in Belgium or France transiting to the United Kingdom). Finally, many countries offer specialised AVRR assistance to migrants in vulnerable situations, such as victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, or migrants with health-related needs. Programmes must be tailored to meet these groups specific needs that stand in the way of return. The main vulnerabilities in programmes are victims of trafficking, primarily women trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The experience with AVRR over the past years has shown that while categories formally remain the same, the target group may nevertheless be in flux. After the increase in asylum applications in 2015-16 voluntary return went up, but decreased after the surge. Those returns that were more easily facilitated made up the majority of this surge. After those returns, target population of assisted return programmes was made up of those individuals that are hard to reach, avoid authorities, or have special needs (such as trafficking victims, medical cases etc.). Similarly, the composition of countries of origin might change, meaning that the target population consists of those with more structural issues impeding return, i.e. obstacles that are much harder to address through AVRR programmes. AVRR programming must be aware of and adapt to these changes in composition of target group.

One of the main justifications for offering return and reintegration packages in many countries is, as noted, a cost savings over removal or continued stay of migrants ordered to leave the country. Yet, in most countries, criteria for eligibility and magnitude of assistance are only broadly adjusted to the cost of non-compliance. Nationals of countries not subject to a visa requirement, for example, are generally excluded from most benefits, to prevent these from acting as a pull factor when migration costs are low.

Benefit packages are largely standardised without reference to the relative cost of non-departure or forced return. In practice, each case represents a different cost. Some cases may represent a high cost for the host country. For example, migrants subject to removal but who cannot be removed without cooperation in identification and obtaining a travel document are a costly category: detention may last a long time or they may be released. The country of origin may be recalcitrant and refuse to issue documents without the cooperation of the returnee, or pose other obstacles, making forced return impossible. Persons with expensive medical needs may also represent costly cases. On the other hand, forced return may be relatively simple for other groups.

Some degree of discretion in the level of support is available in most countries for cases of vulnerability. In Belgium in particular, for example, the amount to be spent on support for health cases is benchmarked to the cost of six months care in Belgium. This amount may be much higher than the standard package of reintegration assistance but is considered a costs savings. Belgium also grants some discretion in offering assistance to other vulnerable cases, such as persons living on the street.

Less discretion is the magnitude of the reintegration package available in cases of refusal to cooperate in obtaining travel documents, in part to avoid providing an incentive not to cooperate. In the European countries involved in the study, when the origin country refuses to provide documents to the cooperating migrant, other solutions – including regularisation of status – may be considered.

To the extent that returns with assistance are a costs-savings, there are several benchmarks to consider. For persons subject to forced return, the cost of forced return – including personnel costs, public opinion and relations with the origin country – is a key reference. For persons for whom forced return is impossible, and high costs associated with remaining, more margin to increase the package may be useful. As noted, the amount of the package does not seem to be the main factor in return decisions, but no evaluations have focused specifically on groups who are not facing prospect of forced return. A more targeted reintegration assistance package would address the relative costs represented by different categories of potential returnees.

A further issue for targeting is that some beneficiaries may not be priority for return but may reinforce nonetheless the legitimacy of return and the broader sustainability of the return system. For example, OFII in France has a mandate to assist the return of persons with an order to leave the territory. However, its support is also available to spontaneous returnees, including persons with a regular residence permit, such as international students concluding their studies. For this group, OFII can participate in a return project such as entrepreneurial activity, even providing cofounding along with other sources of capital. Support for this category of returnees is not about reducing the pool of persons obligated to return, but about changing the perception of returnees, expanding the network of contacts in the origin country and building goodwill.

As discussed before, the target groups of the voluntary return programmes are primarily for migrants who wish or need to return home, but require support to do so. In order to provide the means necessary to organise a return, an important pillar of return assistance are financial return packages that cover expenses during travel and immediately after arrival (Table 4.1). The eligibility criteria for return support, which includes transportation costs and cash benefits, vary significantly across countries. Generally, the group of beneficiaries is regulated based on nationality (often excluding countries with visa-free regime for entering the EU), legal status (migrants with residency, irregular migrants, rejected asylum seekers, refugees), type of return (forced returns are often excluded) and personal situation/vulnerability (victims of trafficking, medical cases).

In the United Kingdom, all individuals without lawful status are eligible for flight-only support via the Voluntary Return Services (VRS). Individuals who fall into one of the following three groups are eligible for cash/in-kind assistance of the maximum amounts: those who are deemed vulnerable (GBP 1 000), those who are/have been in the asylum process and their family members. Victims of modern slavery (including EEA/EU nationals) can gain return support as a vulnerable individual through VRS. The Home Office is currently looking at increasing eligibility and support for reintegration. Foreign National Offenders who have received a custodial sentence of up to four years (and occasionally beyond four years with exceptional agreement of the Director or by using Senior Manager discretion), can receive GBP 1 500 (if time serving) or GBP 750 (if time served) as well as in-kind support provided via IOM.

In Norway, asylum seekers with a pending asylum claim, rejected asylum application or appeal or a withdrawn asylum application, and those falling under Dublin regulations seeking to return to their home country, as well as any migrant not registered with the government of Norway and without a legal permission to stay in Norway are eligible for voluntary return assistance packages. Any migrants in Norway for purposes other than asylum (e.g. student, family reunification), citizen of any EU, EEC or visa-free country are ineligible. There is exceptional support for anyone assessed as being in a vulnerable situation, mostly victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors. Any of the above categories who are in country where ERRIN operates will receive reintegration in-kind support.

In France, return assistance covers foreign nationals with at least six months presence in the country, including persons with an order to leave French territory (OQTF) as well as irregular migrants without such an order. France further includes students and young professionals among eligible groups for AVRR, although they are not eligible for the countries that are covered by ERRIN (and URA2 in Kosovo). Germany offers assistance through REAG (Reintegration and Emigration Program for Asylum-Seekers in Germany) / GARP (Government Assisted Repatriation Program), a longstanding programme offering repatriation assistance and a cash benefit. REAG/GARP assistance amounts offered depend on nationality. If a person is eligible for REAG/GARP and application for voluntary return is made no later than two months after asylum application has been decided, individuals are eligible for an additional, one-off payment of EUR 500 in cash.

Other countries adapt the eligibility and/or the amount of support in order to set incentives for cooperation in a similar manner. A new decelerating benefits model was developed in Switzerland with the intention to increase, or at least speed up, assisted return uptake. Under the new approach, the longer an individual is in Switzerland, the less money they are entitled to for assisted return. A different, but similar approach is taken in Denmark, where migrants who refuse to consider voluntary return are moved into the “uncooperative track”, after which they are no longer eligible for return assistance. Similarly, Denmark temporarily introduced a time-limited specific intervention for Iranians, offering a higher amount in the first three months of programme; after this, Iranians only received a lower amount.

Among the programmes examined in the study tours, an open question was whether financial support incentivises the decision to return voluntarily at all, and if so, which amount is decisive. The evidence on the effect of financial benefits on return is inconclusive. Reflecting findings regarding the determinants of return, counsellors working with potential returnees held that financial incentives alone do not significantly influence return decisions, suggesting that most beneficiaries of AVRR had already planned to return, considering the funding as a bonus rather than a decisive factor. However, this observation needs to account for the characteristics of the informant and the moment in which the question is posed. In reporting on the reasons for the return decision, for example, asylum seekers, even after a final refusal of their claim, may be reluctant to attribute influence to the financial offer, since this may undermine the legitimacy of the asylum request. Nonetheless, even follow-up surveys of returnees in the origin country, who have less need to sustain the narrative underpinning their prior asylum claim show that reintegration support – cash or in-kind – was not the main factor in the return decision.

Countries have different approaches to set the ceilings for monetary return assistance. Denmark, for example, like most countries, does so in comparison with the assistance offers in other European countries. The UK currently seeks to determine the appropriate amount through target groups with potential beneficiaries. Feedback from beneficiaries, regardless of the amount of assistance provided, is generally that it is not enough. An important question for many actors devising return and reintegration programmes is setting the adequate amount of assistance in the first place.

A key consideration in setting the amount is preventing financial benefits from creating pull factors, incentivising migration in the first place. To this end, several countries exclude certain nationalities, those with visa-free regimes to Schengen in particular. Further, countries have monitoring systems allowing them to swiftly respond to potential spikes in assistance requests from particular countries. That said, most countries that do monitor for fraudulent activities find that this is an extremely marginal phenomenon. There is no evidence that reintegration assistance is an incentive for others in the origin-country community to migrate in the hopes of obtaining a similar package; just as the assistance is not the main factor in return, other considerations are much more influential in driving migration choices. It does not appear that returnees receiving assistance are in visibly better economic circumstances than they were prior to departure as to induce others to migrate. Indeed, reintegration assistance in many cases may appear to the community only enough to restore the returning migrant to a pre-migration status: for example, resuming a business activity sold to finance migration.

The shift towards in-kind rather than cash occurred in many European countries, although cash is sometimes used alongside or in alternative to in-kind services. A number of factors explain this shift. Cash can be politically more difficult to justify (Swan, 2017[1]), and it is consequently politically more compelling to publicise success stories when positive outcomes are related to in-kind services rather than cash grants. Swan (2017[1]) also notes that cash is not appropriate to “manufacture” a return decision – i.e. to pressure potential returnees into returning, but rather to accelerate return: in the Australian case, it led to a short-term uptick in recourse to return, but created no long standing increase in uptake.

No evaluations comparing the relative effectiveness of cash compared to in-kind assistance have been conducted, including on uptake of return and reintegration assistance, but a number of factors argue for the shift.

First, in-kind services require – but also promote – involvement of more partners, providing funds to implementers and building support for the programmes in participating civil society. Similarly, they may be a response to pressure at the international level to offer such services through intergovernmental agencies. Stakeholder support is increased as more actors are involved. In-kind support can contribute to capacity building in origin countries as well.

Cash may be seen as putting the returnee at risk from criminals or corrupt officials, if it is known that returnees have large sums with them at return, or will receive cash transfers in the following months. Cash transfers are less expensive than managing an in-kind programme, but may nonetheless come with high administrative fees, especially if a partner is required to disburse the sums following return once or more over a certain period. IOM, for example, provides this service, but the cost has increased in recent years.

The donor may have a priority in partnering with the returnee to create a sustainable livelihood, and want to ensure that transfers are invested in income-generating activities, rather than used to pay off debts, provide largesse to family and community, or support consumption. In-kind assistance also implies ongoing contact and relationships and allows for more opportunities for monitoring, evaluation and reporting.

Cash-based programmes may be more appropriate than in-kind services in certain circumstances, especially when the main objective is to secure cooperation from individuals who cannot be otherwise removed, where no partnerships are in place in the origin country to support reintegration assistance. This is the case for Israel, for example, which offers a USD 3 500 grant to eligible applicants (illegal border crossers who have applied for asylum) from Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia as well as from other countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Cash may also be effective in accelerating return decisions, especially when available only for a short window of time, as was offered by Denmark to Iranians as mentioned above.

Uptake of assisted return and reintegration assistance is hard to assess within countries and to compare across the countries reviewed in this project. As noted, eligibility for reintegration assistance may be limited for some nationalities who receive return assistance. Table 4.3 reports the number of beneficiaries of different forms or return and reintegration assistance in countries participating in the review. For some countries, only assisted return figures are available. The share of voluntary returns and assisted returns who receive reintegration assistance varies. In Denmark, for example, about 70% of the voluntary departures in 2018 applied for reintegration assistance. In France, the figure was closer to one in four. In Germany, returning migrants receiving return assistance from REAG/GARP have different eligibility levels for post-return reintegration support. Further, for many countries in Table 4.3, reintegration support may also be applied for following return, and these beneficiaries are not included here.

Outreach activities help to ensure that migrants who may be in need of return and reintegration assistance, as well as other information multipliers such as migrant communities, diaspora and other relevant civil society stakeholders, are aware of AVRR. Fostering awareness of return and reintegration assistance can, in turn, increase the uptake by the target group. There are different ways in which the countries studied in this project promoted information on their return and reintegration programmes. Standard means of communication reached from traditional media such as distribution of leaflets, posters, brochures, billboard advertisement, to information points including a free hotline, a return helpdesk and online websites targeted to people seeking information on voluntary return and reintegration (Table 4.4).

One issue identified in designing outreach measures in the countries involved in the study is that messages are adequately shaped to address identified information needs and are well understood by the target group. Further, since return is a sensitive issue, official messaging needs to be carefully framed to avoid backlash from immigrant communities or the general public. In a context where civil society and diaspora are often hostile to return, some countries have reported negative experiences with more broadly visible general-public campaigns on return, provoking backlash in public opinion. In response to such campaigns, publicly visible campaigns have been reduced, in favour of more targeted channels of reaching the intended public. The German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, started a campaign in 2019 over social media platforms such as Facebook and Google, targeting addressees through tools such as geolocation (identifying foreigners offices within a three-mile radius); tracking use of words such as “refugee” or “reintegration” in search engines to show ads of returnees speaking about their reintegration experience.

Trusted figures are, as noted above (see Section 2.2), influential in return decisions. Concrete examples of using trusted community figures for outreach have been operating for some time. In Belgium, such “native counsellors” are employed by Fedasil to reach migrants in precarious social situations and without legal residence status. In the past, social workers from the same national backgrounds (e.g. Moroccan or Polish, sometimes former homeless or irregular migrants who have become outreach counsellors) have been contracted to build relationships of trust in order to help migrants transition off the streets, connect them with their communities in Belgium, and ultimately to discuss potential return in long-term. Similarly, the UK Home Office works with community liaison representatives to provide counselling. These community liaison officers are not paid, nor are they charged with increasing uptake of return, but they are informed of possibilities for return and reintegration assistance and able to discuss it with potential beneficiaries. A different, but similar effort in trust building are the German “reintegration scouts” who link counsellors and potential returnees to partners in the origin country, which provide knowledge of and connections to the origin community and context and that seek to enhance existing counselling structures provided both by the state and civil society organisations. Some countries take community-based approaches to counselling in the origin country, with information passed to migrants in the host country. The German GIZ, for example, has conducted community counselling for the Ashkali community in Kosovo, discovering that information filters back to Germany and better informs members of the community there. A number of countries, including Germany, conduct specialised networking and awareness raising events.

Information campaigns have, as noted, moved away from underlining the risk of removal, due to negative perception. Most of the information campaigns focus on building a positive image of post-return integration, although the return decision is motivated by both the perception of opportunities at home and the difficulty of remaining, including the likelihood of forced removal.

In the same vein, reduced support for persons subject to removal – limited allowances, limited mobility, restrictions on employment – are a factor. A hostile environment, as noted, does play a role in return decisions, although no country has an explicitly stated policy to do this. Surveys of participants in return programmes underline the influence of difficult conditions (e.g. (Samuel Hall, 2018[2])). During the 2020 lockdown of the Covid pandemic, some countries saw an uptick in interest in return from persons who were working illegally and unable to meet their basic needs due to the informal labour market – for example, in construction or domestic work – drying up. This group was aware of return possibilities, but uninterested until alternatives became untenable.

In the particular case of asylum seekers, communication is structured by the process and the institutional contacts which occur throughout the process, as well as the setting in which they occur (see Figure 2.1). In principle, communication about return and reintegration occurs throughout the process. Information on voluntary return and reintegration options are provided, in principle, at the start of the asylum process in all countries. However, on the day the asylum request is lodged, most officials note that asylum seekers are not in the right state of mind to hear about return options. Nonetheless, most systems consider it important to inform early in the process and at different steps, to keep the information in the back of the mind of asylum seekers. As the process continues, especially for those who are unlikely to receive protection, the expectation is that they progressively become more amenable to hearing and processing information on possible return options.

Most return and reintegration systems are set up so that information on the availability of return and reintegration assistance is put in the back of the asylum seekers’ mind from the start of the asylum process, even if the asylum seeker does not consider it as an option for themselves yet. The first point of information is usually an information note provided at the point of application for asylum. During asylum interview and individual discussion, counsellors bring up the option of return and reintegration in more detail. Based on the asylum seekers’ reaction, these initial contacts determine the right moment to send the person to specialised return counselling services. Often, entities offering return counselling (often IOM or civil society organisations) are physically present in reception centres, providing individual counselling opportunities in on-site offices as well as group presentations.

France was an exception to this model of continuous institutional contact throughout the asylum procedure – in the French system, information on return and reintegration opportunities is provided at the first and last point of institutional contact. OFII agents provide information about return and reintegration to asylum seekers at the point of their application. During the asylum, as well as the appeals process (which can take up to one year), OFII does not interact with individuals. The target group is hard to contact – some are housed in accommodation for asylum seekers, where counselling is not actively provided; others live with acquaintances or relatives; some live on the streets. However, the return counselling process starts as soon as there is a final decision on the asylum case and rejected asylum seekers have received their obligation to leave the French territory (OQTF). On the OQTF paper, relevant OFII addresses and phone numbers are listed and there is information on assistance for voluntary return and return counselling offers.

Counselling goes beyond provision of information to individually address potential return migrants, ensure they understand their legal situation and options, and potentially to elaborate a vision of return in light of the assistance available. While information provision is passive, even when targeted to specific groups or characteristics of potential return migrants, counselling is interactive. All countries involved in the study tours – indeed, most countries in Europe (European Migration Network, 2019[3])– report having counselling procedures in place, but vary in terms of the extent to which counselling goes beyond provision of information and answering questions to working to bring about a clear understanding of legal obligations and what assisted return would mean for the migrant relative to alternatives.

Generally, the aim of return counselling is twofold: effective implementation of migration policies through compliance with return procedures, and ensuring that potential return migrants gain information about their situation, the different choices and options they have, allowing them to make an informed decision about their future. Making an informed decision about the future means addressing the possibility of return, which can be difficult. One example of this is the Swiss concept, defined as “a change of perspective”. Interaction is explicitly aimed at shifting asylum seekers from a presumed “asylum perspective”, preoccupied with a negative decision and unable to consider alternatives. The change of perspective is meant to bring them to think of return as an option. The concept considers a mind-set which sustains asylum seekers through often long and uncertain asylum procedures, but which militates against consideration of return. The Swiss approach is shared by many countries. For migrants facing the risk of forced removal, consideration of return may be obscured by anxiety, complicating any effort to discuss return as an option (Olivier-Mensah et al., 2020[4])

Building trust is imperative for counselling, especially where potential returnees have little trust in government-offered assistance. Successful return programmes are able to find the right moment to promote and build trust, in the system, the support offer and the different actors involved. Setting is vital.

Return counselling is best done in a non-directive atmosphere, as well as a safe environment. One means of achieving this is to separate AVRR counsellors from the threat of enforcement. In France, there is no link between return counselling and the police and law enforcement. Seeking counselling is only for information provision – until the person decides to avail themselves of AVRR, they can choose not to provide their details. For OFII, this creates trust, as potential returnees know they are free to leave counselling centres whenever they like. Furthermore, persons who have received an obligation to leave the country, can still use AVRR and may choose voluntary return once they have been apprehended (individuals in detention centres may now also apply for voluntary return). In the Belgian context, return counselling and enforcement are institutionally separate, as Fedasil is not competent on issues of forced return, but solely for assistance for voluntary departure.

Finally, once migrants have made the decision to return, it is not clear whether it is beneficial for them to remain in shared accommodation with other migrants, including (rejected) asylum seekers. For example, Swiss authorities try to let those deciding to avail themselves of return assistance stay in asylum centres, as a way to present the possibility and benefits of return assistance to other inhabitants. In other countries, there is concern that the decision may be reversed due to social pressure. More generally, shared accommodation allows potential beneficiaries to share information about programmes and procedures, comparing the kinds of assistance offered in different origin countries and to different categories of return. This can be an issue when return assistance differs – for example between return under national procedure and under Dublin procedures – distinctions difficult to explain but which can undermine trust and create conflict. Confidential and individual counselling therefore seems a more productive format in these contexts compared to presentations for groups or communities.

A number of countries rely on non-institutional actors to provide return counselling, or distance state institutions from direct contact with potential returnees during the counselling process. The location of counselling varies among countries, with an attempt in many to distance return counselling from institutions associated with enforcement.

In Belgium, return counselling is conducted in a separate office, set up as an information space to receive clients. This may involve contracting civil society organisations to participate in return counselling, as Germany does with different CSOs. In the UK, for example, community liaison officers, representing religious or cultural communities, work voluntarily with the Home Office on different issues, and are informed of reintegration assistance programmes so that they can advise those migrants for whom they see return as a positive option and orient them towards the reintegration programme. Recently, Swedish authorities have started to pilot a new means of information transmission specifically for unaccompanied minors, where trusted stakeholders including teachers and accommodation staff can discuss the possibility for return. The Swedish Migration Agency has seen that this can raise trust in their AVRR programmes. In a similar manner, the French authorities aim to open communication channels via service providers that have no link to the OFII, which, as part of the Ministry of Interior, is perceived to have a strong link with (enforced) return by migrants. Such actors include diaspora members, civil society actors (so-called “associations”).

However, this approach is often complicated by the fact that the stakeholders most trusted by migrants are reluctant to assist in facilitating return and often prefer alternative outcomes to enable migrants to stay in the country. Against this background, the most successful approach to cooperation between authorities and CSOs seems to be based on flexibility in outcomes of counselling, meaning that return is not pushed by all means. For example, Fedasil cooperates with and funds counsellors who work with their target group over longer periods, sometimes for months, before bringing up the possibility of return. While each contact with potential returnees lasts for at least two hours, the counsellor’s output in terms of return is low – about 1% overall, although these cases represent a high cost if they remain. Similarly, in Germany, SOLWODI, a CSO supporting vulnerable women, reports that its staff only engages in return for cases where they deem return the most suitable and in the best interest of the migrant, and continue to find options in Germany in all other cases. Thus, cooperation with trusted partners is most successful if they are allowed to continue to push alternative results if that is best for the migrant, aligning return counselling with the civil society organisation or the individual counsellor’s self-understanding and convictions.

Good counselling is not only about providing information about AVRR or guiding through the return procedure itself – it engages the potential returnee and counsellors in conversations where worries and open questions can be shared freely. Often, to begin to imagine life after return, it is necessary to address more general worries occupying a rejected asylum seekers’ mind before the individual is ready to discuss a potential return. In order to create a space where this is possible, return counsellors must be impartial in their counselling, have extensive knowledge of the asylum procedure and practices, and possess good conversation techniques and excellent social skills. Some countries train their counselling staff with specific techniques in order to make this possible. Denmark and Norway, for instance, are piloting the “Motivational Interview” method. Acknowledging that rejected asylum seekers may experience apathy and frustration and may have difficulties engaging in conversations about their future, counsellors start off with more general conversations, subsequently encouraging individuals to take smaller decisions regarding their own situation, before bringing up the question of return in later stages. In France, on the other hand, counselling opportunities provided by the OFII are limited to provision of information.

Trust in the local reintegration partners who facilitate the reintegration support in the countries of origin is important – especially when the programmes only offer in-kind support that is delivered in the country of origin. Trust in the programmes and the local reintegration partners depends among other things on the communication between the rejected asylum seekers and the return counsellors as well as on a good cooperation between the local reintegration partners and the Member States.

Reintegration in the country of origin is a process, which can start already while in exile. For reintegration programmes to be tailored to the individual needs of a returnee, an assessment of the persons’ needs, capacities and competencies must be made preferably well in advance of the rejected asylum seekers return. Comprehensive and holistic reintegration programmes are important to ensure dignified and sustainable return.

Counselling sessions with host-country counsellors work on shifting the perception of return in general, but are often unable to help develop a detailed picture of life after return. Contact with persons in the origin country can also help shift the narrative. For example, Denmark offers “go and inform” visits, where origin-country representatives can tell their stories. IOM has representatives in most origin countries who can be contacted to provide potential returnees with information about reintegration opportunities and the context for returnees; a number of countries rely on this possibility to get information. Germany’s GIZ employs “reintegration scouts”, intermediaries who help public and private actors providing counselling to link with origin country experts who can answer questions and help paint a picture of post-return possibilities for both counselling actors and the target group itself. However, most services acknowledge that counselling cannot necessarily convey realities of post-return life, and try to strike a balance between reassuring the returnee of opportunities to reintegration, while avoiding promising services, assistance or outcomes which are unavailable or unrealistic.

Partners in the origin country regarding the adjustment phase of returnees following return report that even with pre-departure counselling and contacts, many returnees do not fully understand the situation until they actually return. Entrepreneurial projects and expectations of living conditions and reception by families are some of the notions which have to be adjusted after return, even with pre-return preparation.

Counselling is different for certain vulnerable groups. Victims of trafficking are generally referred to specialised services, provided by IOM. Unaccompanied minors are also subject to a separate counselling regime, taking into account the approaching milestone of 18 and the legal consequences. Health cases also require special preparation and are entrusted to specialised support services. Families may also require assistance in preparing return, through pre-enrolment or scholastic orientation for children, to properly time return for continuity of education. Fedasil also addresses the return process for children by providing a workbook in which the child can prepare by assembling a scrapbook of the host country and elaborate expectations of the country of return.

Finally, despite efforts to separate enforcement and voluntary return in the person of the counsellor, and the emphasis on persuasion by providing a positive outlook on return, one can ultimately not deny that the mere threat of forced return is a driving factor in many return counselling conversations. When discussing an individual migrant’s options, return is almost always contrasted to the lack of opportunities should the individual decide to stay in the destination country irregularly, as well as the consequences of forced removal.

The possibility of further migration after return may also shift the perception of return, addressing concerns that return will immobilise the returnee in an unsustainable situation (Olivier-Mensah et al., 2020[4]). Persons with secure residence status can experiment with return through visits (such as UNHCR’s “go and see” visits) but this is not an option for those in the asylum process or facing removal. The various discussions with return counsellors during visits in project partner countries have shown that re-entry bans set for individuals forcibly removed are often discussed. During counselling, individuals showed great concern for potential bans on future legal entry. In France, there is a two-to three-year ban, the Interdiction de retour sur le territoire français (IRTF), for individuals who ignore their OQTF and remains in France. Where a person was forcibly removed from the United Kingdom, they are subject to a mandatory ten year re-entry ban. Depending on the specific reason for the ban, the entry ban ranges from one to ten years, but also includes the possibility of “lifetime ban”. One incentive to take up return is the prospect of a reduced visa ban for later return, but there is no guarantee that consular authorities will favourably view future visa applications from persons who previously faced removal, regardless of whether they benefited from AVRR, even when the re-entry ban has expired.

A further issue with counselling is that counsellors may be working against resistance to considering return from other actors also providing advice and support to potential returnees. In Sweden, for example, many of the actors working with asylum seekers sent signals during the asylum process that some solution would be found to stay and integrate; even after a final negative decision, other solutions were proposed to the potential returnee (Lindberg, 2020[5]). The study tours found that a similar ambivalence regarding return was common among actors working with asylum seekers, making counselling more difficult and a shift of perspective harder to foster.

The impact of return counselling on the return decision, and on the outcome of return, is difficult to measure. Some follow-up questions asked to returnees address the role of counselling in the return decision. For example, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees conducted a survey of returnees who had received the “StarthilfePlus”cash benefit; among respondents, counselling was reported to strongly influence the return decision in 31% of cases (Schmitt, Bitterwolf and Baraulina, 2019[6]). However, this survey does not cover non-returnees.

Even if there were consistent evaluation, counselling programmes differ greatly in the nature of the intervention. Each potential return migrant is in a different situation, and despite attempts to standardise intervention, the case work approach means that each contact between counsellors and migrants is unique. Outcomes also depend on timing and location; counselling provided to all residents of reception centres, for example, may see a high number of contacts, but while asylum seekers have not received a decision, leads to little uptake of assistance packages. Other counselling services work with people who have contacted them of their own initiative, reflecting an openness to return which predates the counselling itself. The challenge of monitoring outcomes of counselling was also identified by the European Migration Network, which surveyed EU member states and concluded “Most government providers of counselling were interested to measure its impact in terms of increased numbers of effective returns […] deemed particularly difficult to attain because of difficulties in establishing case-effect relations between counselling and the decision to return” (European Migration Network, 2019[3]).


[3] European Migration Network (2019), Policies and practices on return counselling for migrants in EU Member States and Norway - EMN Inform, European Migration Network, Brussels, https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/00_eu_inform_return_counselling_2019_en.pdf (accessed on 9 August 2020).

[5] Lindberg, H. (2020), Those who cannot stay: Implementing return policy in Sweden, DELMI, Stockholm, https://www.delmi.se/en/news/those-who-cannot-stay-implementing-return-policy-in-sweden (accessed on 11 August 2020).

[4] Olivier-Mensah, C. et al. (2020), Developing Lifeworld Oriented Perspectives for Return Migration: Needs, Vulnerabilities and Support of Refugees in Germany.

[2] Samuel Hall (2018), Supporting post-return interventions in Afghanistan-GIZ’s Programme for Migration and Development (PME).

[6] Schmitt, M., M. Bitterwolf and T. Baraulina (2019), Geforderte Rückkehr aus Deutschland: Motive und Reintegration. Eine Begleitstudie zum Bundesprogramm StarthilfePlus (Forced return from Germany: Motives and reintegration. Study accompanying the federal program StarthilfePlus), Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF), https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Forschung/Forschungsberichte/fb34-evaluation-starthilfeplus.pdf (accessed on 7 August 2020).

[1] Swan, G. (2017), Strengthening Australia’s assisted voluntary return program, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney.

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