Financed departure instead of development aid?

Return assistance programmes are intended to increase the number of departures and contribute to the reintegration of returnees in their countries of origin. They are based on cooperation between regulatory and development policy and are at the same time characterised by a conflict between the two approaches.

by Valentin Feneberg, research associate at the Integrative Research Institute Law & Society at Humboldt University Berlin.

As a result of the “long summer of migration” in 2015, a widespread view gained currency in German migration policy to the effect that deportations of refugees to their countries of origin must be supplemented by measures of “assisted return” in order to achieve the regulatory goal of increasing the number of departures. Somewhat misleadingly, but discursively successfully, this is officially referred to as “voluntary return”, designating assisted or subsidised departure: By financially supporting travel costs in combination with start-up aid, incentives are created for people to leave Germany before they are forcibly repatriated.

A “marriage of purpose” between regulatory policy and development cooperation

These measures are by no means new: The most important return assistance programme to date, REAG/GARP, was launched as early as 1979, and structures for return counselling by governmental and non-governmental actors in the German Länder have been in place on a larger scale since the 1990s. The most significant political innovation was therefore not the focus on subsidised departure as such, but a realisation that reintegration of returnees in their countries of origin also needs to play a greater role. The most structurally visible outcome of this insight is the "joint return initiative" in interior and development policy and thus cooperation between the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

This "coherent inter-ministerial approach" thus complements the domestic policy focus on departures along with reintegration of stakeholders, which is intended to succeed in tandem with help from development cooperation. The central measure of this new linkage is the "Perspektive Heimat" programm, which has been implemented by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) since 2017. A total of around EUR 606 million from the federal budget has been earmarked for the programme from 2017 to 2021. It is currently scheduled to run until 2023. Despite the assessment of the programme as "a sort of philosophical work" setting out the course for German development cooperation, the swing towards the topic of refugee return migration was also tantamount to a paradigm shift for GIZ. The company had already launched a sectoral project on "Migration and Development" in 2006, but without containing any provision for returnees at that time. Today, the GIZ's work is increasingly being performed in the service of a restrictive migration policy.

At the operational level, “Perspektive Heimat” is first of all being implemented in connection with a "Germany component", in which,for example, reintegration is to be assigned a greater weight in the return counselling process: GIZ “reintegration scouts” are supporting counselling centres in Germany with international expertise and contacts in the countries of origin. In addition, the GIZ is delegating “reintegration preparation measures” to private and civil society organisations to attend to the professional qualification of potential returnees. Secondly, the GIZ is implementing reintegration measures in 13 hand-picked countries of origin. To this end, existing local government development cooperation programmes have been opened up to the target group of returnees and “migration counselling centres” have been set up. They are not only to supervise the reintegration of returnees, but also to inform the local population about employment opportunities in the respective countries of origin in order to reduce “irregular” migration, as well as to provide information about possible paths of legal migration to Germany.

Rejected asylum-seekers as a target group

The official target group of return assistance programmes in Germany are rejected asylum-seekers. The credo is that the asylum system will only work if those persons whose application for protection has been rejected leave the country again. The number of rejected asylum-seekers is repeatedly and wrongly equated with the total number of people obliged to leave the country. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development also legitimised the "Perspektive Heimat" programme with this inaccurate statement when it wrote in a 2019 position paper that all those obliged to leave the country are rejected asylum-seekers. As of 31 December 2020, only about 65 per cent of the 280,000 persons obliged to leave the country were rejected asylum-seekers, the majority of whom have a so-called toleration. This means that deportation is temporarily suspended, for example because a person is not fit to travel, because no passport is available or because no deportations are carried out to a country in principle due to the security situation. Only about 20,000 rejected asylum-seekers are not in possession of a toleration.

The assumption that it is mainly rejected asylum-seekers who take advantage of the programme is incorrect, as is demonstrated by funding statistics. Since 2016, about one-third of those persons who left Germany with return assistance were persons whose application for asylum had not yet been decided. Since the other two-thirds also include persons who have expressed a request for asylum but have not yet applied for it, the percentage is probably even higher. This observation shows that the strategy of encouraging people to leave the country before the asylum procedure has been legally concluded is working. In practice, this is being implemented, for example, by informing people about return as early as when they apply for asylum and by promising a financial bonus as part of the return assistance if the application for asylum is withdrawn.

Retroactive effect on asylum procedures and deportations

The fact that return assistance programmes such as REAG/GARP and "Perspektive Heimat" also have a concrete impact on the outcome of asylum procedures is shown by a recent development in German case law: since 2017, the administrative courts have increasingly cited return programmes in judgments they have handed down, primarily in decisions rejecting a claim for protection. REAG/GARP in particular has been cited, for example, in more recent case law involving Afghanistan as part of the reasoning why a return would not result in a humanitarian emergency and therefore no ban on deportation applies under § 60(5) of the Residence Act (Aufenthaltsgesetz). It is argued that persons can take advantage of these measures if their application is rejected and thus resist deportation without any support. Return assistance is thus held to make possible "a life at the edge of the subsistence level". Programmes for return after theasylum procedure thus already become a fact relevant to the decision in this procedure. Courts that, on the other hand, take a more critical look at the implementation of the programmes (recently, for example, Administrative Court) come to the conclusion that these by no means provide protection against existential hardship. Contrary to the political claim regarding the measures, hardly any court assumes that they actually make reintegration possible beyond the first months of return. For a deportation decision, however, it is sufficient for the courts to consider the measures as transitional assistance.

The need for evaluation

The fact that return policy is primarily a restrictive instrument wielded by the asylum administration leads to a certain basic tension in the cooperation between a domestic policy for which the departure of refugees cannot be early and fast enough, and a development policy which also needs to emphasise the voluntary nature of departures to avoid tarnishing its reputation. The latter frequently tries to ease this tension by adopting a pragmatic approach, referring to the “concrete need for reintegration” in the country of origin, even if the return is “reluctant-voluntary”.

If one takes this pragmatism at its word, this broaches the question as to the success of “Perspektive Heimat”. No comprehensive external evaluation is in sight, however. The scanty information publicly available is limited to mention of a few key figures on the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and GIZ homepages and the shallow explanations they offer in response to parliamentary questions. It almost seems as if the responsible actors are satisfied with the display of image films with background piano music describing successful return stories (a genre of national and international return policy that has long been popular) as a substitute for real evaluation.

The quantitative data mentioned above aim to communicate the programme’s success to the outside world by means of a few key statistical figures: For example, there have been about 800,000 “individual assistance measures” carried out so far, covering every action from counselling meetings to job placement; about 250,000 people have found a job under the programme or have been supported in starting their own business. One does not have to doubt these figures to criticise their worth. After all, the figures do not provide more precise information regarding the type of employment found or its sustainability. The only low proportion of returnees from Germany in these measures and the fact that no information is collected on how many people are actually advised at the “immigration counselling centres” on legal migration paths to Germany (officially a core task of the centres) show that in practice the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the GIZ primarily place the focus on the development policy side of “Perspektive Heimat”. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the programme as part of German return policy as well. In order to facilitate a critical appraisal and thus strengthen the credibility of such an evaluation, it needs to be conducted by external actors. The GIZ and Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development have recently indicated their openness in this regard with an analysis of the target group in "Perspektive Heimat". As far as actual reintegration is concerned, it would be important to involve local academic and civil society actors who possess the necessary expertise.

Such an evaluation should also take into account the connection with the return programmes sponsored by the Federal Ministry of the Interior. The fact that the first major evaluation of the Federal Ministry of the Interior measure "StarthilfePlus" does not analyse the connection with “Perspektive Heimat” either empirically or conceptually means that a coherent interdepartmental approach is lacking. It would make sense not only to invoke this approach, but also to evaluate whether it actually has an impact in practice (and what “impact” precisely means in this context). Furthermore, in order to situate “Perspektive Heimat” in the broader context of migration policy, it should be seriously examined how counselling centres in the countries of origin can actually promote migration to Germany, especially in connection with the Skilled Workers Immigration Act (Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz), which entered into force on 1 March 2020.

Personal responsibility first

Instead of subjecting the lofty claim of “Perspektive Heimat” that it offers “all returnees from Germany a job in their country of origin” to a reality check, the Federal German Government notes that it is ultimately up to returnees’ themselves to take advantage of support offers. This responsibility on the part of stakeholders is thus not only emphasised by invoking the mantra of “voluntariness” at the level of the return decision. These people themselves are also largely held responsible for the success of the post-return programmes. This pattern also surfaces in the above-mentioned case law when courts hold that the asylum-seekers are responsible for understanding use of the measures as a way to prevent destitution after return.

The emphasis on the voluntary nature of the programme and the personal responsibility of stakeholders can at the same time disguise the actual lack of coherence in interdepartmental cooperation between domestic and development policy. In practice, the regulatory priority of increasing the number of people leaving the country still comes first and thus conflicts with the structure-building aspirations of development cooperation.


“After escaping adverse living conditions and surviving a flight along dangerous routes, many refugees in Germany experience targeted non-integration in the form of rejection of their desire for family reunification, accommodation in collective housing and exclusion from health care, education and work. This wears them down. Offering them ‘voluntary’ return in such a hopeless situation is immoral.”

Ramona Lenz is a desk officer working in the area of refugee and migration at medico international. 

“Many asylum-seekers are traumatised by the effort to surmount huge walls and blockages. Asking them to return voluntarilyshortly after being denied protection disregards their basic need for security and all the struggles these people have gone through to find that very security.”

Tejan Lamboi is co-founder of the Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers in Sierra Leone and is in charge of the project Strong Against Discrimination and Violence at the Bund für Soziale Verteidigung, Minden.