Assisted return instead of deportation: Questionable alternatives

What political developments are behind the trend toward assisted return, how is it being promoted in specific terms, and what does it all mean for the people who are being encouraged to return “voluntarily”? On the goals and content of the Rückkehr-Watch (Return-Watch) project.

by Ramona Lenz and Nina Violetta Schwarz, management of the research and documentation project Rückkehr-Watch.

Anyone who has fled war, poverty or a lack of prospects and have risked their lives along the way need nothing more than safety, security and peace and quiet. But instead of listening to the stories of refugees and carefully processing their asylum applications, in Europe they are increasingly being extended the questionable offer to leave “voluntarily”. Often this is done while the asylum process is still ongoing or immediately after their arrival, preferably even before, “at the earliest possible stage of the migration process,” as the EU's recently published policy paper “on voluntary return and reintegration” puts it. It’s also a cost issue: supporting a so-called voluntary return is much cheaper than deportation. And the sooner someone leaves, the more money can be saved.

Development policy in the service of domestic policy

Programmes to promote voluntary return and reintegration are nothing new. They exist in all EU Member States, including Germany. Since 2015, however, the political aim of sealing off Europe has been cranked up both at the EU level and in the member States, and a lot has been done to encourage people to return to their countries of origin. The German government, for example, is increasingly taking restrictive measures against refugees and migrants in the country. At the same time, it is increasingly investing in “voluntary” return. In his article, Valentin Feneberg takes a detailed look at the establishment of return assistance in Germany and explores its domestic political orientation - or rather the questionable use of development policy funds for domestic political objectives. Since 2015, return and reintegration have increasingly been supported with development cooperation funds. The joint return initiative of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Construction and Home Affairs (BMI) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) aims to establish a seamless process from return counselling in Germany all the way to reintegration in the country of origin. As a result, development cooperation is moving further and further away from its previous focus on poverty reduction. In this context, the “Perspektive Heimat” programme is being implemented by the GIZ in 13 partner countries on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

The collective notion of “fighting or mitigating the causes of flight” has become a magic word in development cooperation since 2015. It encompasses not only long-term economic and development investments in countries of origin, transit and host countries, but also border protection measures and the promotion of return and reintegration. Here, development cooperation prioritises countries from which relatively large numbers of people are making their way to Europe. It thus places itself at the service of domestic policy and the warding off of migration, while contributing to the expansion of the EU border regime. The number of returnees is still too low for the EU, however. It therefore wants to increase the effectiveness of the measures by introducing “a joint EU return system” with greater involvement of the border management agency Frontex. It is expanding Frontex's mandate so that the agency no longer only turns people back at the border and ensures deportations, but also advises them on voluntary return and implements it directly.

Rückkehr -Watch - the project

The research project " Rückkehr-Watch" critically examines the encouragement and funding of return and reintegration. It collects journalistic background articles and collates political positions. Two short films and numerous stories and portraits of returnees describe underlying conditions in an effort to promote return and show the diversity and complexity of return and reintegration experiences. Together with experts, we discuss the context of the trend toward return assistance, explain how German programmes for return assistance are structured and implemented in key countries of return assistance, how stakeholders experience applications and counselling for return, the complex situations in which they decide to accept these offers, and what difficulties they face after their return. Experts from Syria, Germany, northern Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, Egypt and Mali all provide input here.

At the heart of it all is the experiences of returnees from Morocco, Afghanistan, Iraq and northern Iraq, Nigeria and Mali. They make it clear that the people often do not make use of voluntary return and reintegration programmes of their own free will, but rather out of necessity and for lack of alternatives. Many returnees end up in hopeless and even perilous situations in their country of origin. The interviews with them show: A decision to return with the help of official programmes usually has little to do with voluntariness. Returnees leave because they cannot bear the uncertainty or because no one shows them any alternatives. Some, for example, do not know that an appeal against the decision rejecting their application would have good chances, as in the case of Adnan and Amira. The lawyer Maximilian Pichel points out, “The system of “voluntary return” assumes (...) circumstances in which asylum-seekers are not even close to being fully informed about their legal situation.” Others, like Hussein al-Māwardī from Baghdad, leave because their relatives are terminally ill and they want to see them one more time; or, like Khaled Rezaie and Yousif Salman, because the massively complicated family reunification process threatens to separate them permanently from their children and partners, respectively.

Systematic failure

The lack of independent and open-ended counselling combined with the expansion of state return counselling is a fundamental problem. Elise Bittenbinder, chairwoman of the Bundesweite Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Psychosozialen Zentren für Flüchtlinge und Folteropfer e.V. (BAfF), put it like this in an interview, “People are denied what they need most, which is protection and support.” They leave because they are stuck in refugee shelters under difficult conditions for an indefinite period of time. And they also leave because, like Hasim and Tahmineh Jafarzadeh from Erbil, they experience racism. Against the backdrop of a precarious asylum system, corresponding counselling centres find themselves in a dilemma: “People often have no alternative if they want to avoid deportation, and even the best counselling doesn’t change that: the lack of alternatives ultimately makes any psychosocial decision-making assistance absurd.” Not only in German so-called anchor centres, but also - as Valeria Hänsel reports - in the slum camps on the Greek islands or - as the portraits from Mali show - in the torture camps of Libya, people find themselves forced into a “voluntary” return. They don’t want to go back, but they can’t stand it any longer where they are. This is why Amoya Dassie and Nyima Kouyaté returned to Libya and Mali, respectively. Many agree to return, often under pressure, even if they risk their lives in doing so, as in the dramatic case of Adnan and Amira. Ansar Jasim of Adopt a Revolution and Abdul Ghafoor of the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization describe in their articles on Syria and Afghanistan the serious consequences return assistance can have for individuals and how it also contributes to the political legitimisation of deportations to war zones.

The country articles on Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Iraq and northern Iraq, as well as the portraits, show that reintegration programmes do not prove to be successful for people in the long term, if the pledged benefits can even be accessed in the first place. Some, like Hassan Al Mohamis from Erbil, had been advised to start their own business. But the business plan, developed in a crash course in Europe, has turned out to be woefully inadequate in the country of origin. Others, like Latifa Saouf, Benyounes Khattabi and Samir Ayadifrom Morocco, have been waiting in vain for the pledges made by reintegration programmes to be met. The story of Samuel Tosin Ayokunnumi from Nigeria shows that these are sometimes brutally broken already in Germany: He was just taking part in preparatory reintegration courses, when one morning he was suddenly brutally hauled away by the police and forced, without any explanations as to why, onto the next deportation flight to Lagos – upon the commission of the German authorities. 

The authors of the country articles describe the work of the migration counselling centres established by the GIZ. In cooperation with the respective state employment agency, returnees and those willing to leave the country are advised on local employment prospects and legal migration. The articles on centres in Tunisia and Morocco show that they have hardly any significant impact on long-term integration into the local labour market. Journalist Sofian Naceur in Tunis explains how the 2015 migration policy crisis fundamentally changed the development aid apparatus, and that the GIZ has since then been tasked with helping to reduce “migration pressure”. As one former GIZ staff member he interviewed puts it: “We all know very well that all these reintegration projects are useless. They are wastepaper.” Julian Toewe’s article makes clear that even in northern Iraq - no other region in the world saw more people “voluntarily” return from Germany in 2019 - programmes rarely match realities on the ground. For example, ideas for business start-ups developed in Germany all too often prove useless in the socioeconomic contexts of the countries of origin.

All in all, the analyses and reports can be distilled into one fundamental finding: If people do not despair, go underground or set out again after their “voluntary” return, this is only in exceptional cases due to successful reintegration assistance from Germany or the EU. In most cases, it is because they themselves still have viable contacts in their country of origin or have been able to plan their return in a self-determined manner for a long time (see the text by Stephan Dünnwald on Mali). This is true for very few of them, however.

“Subjecting as many people as we deem undesirable to unbearable living conditions, enveloping them on all sides day in, day out, inflicting countless racist blows and injuries to them again and again, depriving them of all rights they have acquired, “fogging the hive” and defaming them until they have no choice but to deport themselves.”

Achille Mbembe on our times, which he dubs “the age of nanoracism”

« Le retour volontaire n'est qu'une autre stratégie de déportation déguisée - une forme d'auto-déportation forcée par la pression administrative et la discrimination structurelle. Et les soi-disant programmes de réintégration, conçus loin des réalités locales des pays de destination, je les considère comme une aide au développement trompeuse. »

Rex Osa de Network Refugees4Refugees