Voluntary? Give me a break!

Those who have fled war, poverty or a lack of prospects, made their way to Europe and applied for asylum, hope for peace, security and the prospect of being able to stay. But more and more frequently government authorities are making a dubious offer to arrivals encouraging them to leave “voluntarily”. Sometimes this happens after an application for asylum has been rejected, but often it occurs during ongoing proceedings or even before. The bait: Whoever leaves will receive money and assistance with which to start a business career in the country of origin. The veiled threat: Those who stay may one day be forcibly returned.

Programmes promoting voluntary return and reintegration are nothing new. In recent years, however, they have played an increasingly key role in European asylum and migration policy. The German government, for example, is not only resorting to restrictive measures against refugees and migrants at the borders and within the country, it is also investing more in return assistance. The aim and objective: As many refugees and migrants as possible are to leave, as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, as smoothly as possible – and in a manner that is accepted by the public. This is because deportations cannot be implemented in the desired numbers and sometimes trigger public criticism. Return assistance comes across as more humane, especially since it is increasingly being linked to development policy measures: Return is to lead to successful reintegration, a new start at home. “Return in safety and dignity” – that is the promise.

The research project Rückkehr-Watch (Return-Watch) looks behind this lurid rhetoric. It takes a critical look at return and reintegration and collects and collates the knowledge of experts from Germany as well as countries of origin and return. In addition, those persons who are the subject of the book have been given a say: those people who have returned. Their stories illustrate what the background texts generally underscore: return is almost never “voluntary” in the sense of a free decision between alternatives. People leave out of desperation, because they are lured by false promises or because they are subjected to enormous pressure; because the restrictive conditions of the asylum system have worn them down and return programmes have raised hopes that the whole thing could have a positive outcome after all following return. In reality, however – and this too becomes patently clear – successful reintegration is achieved in only a very small number of cases. At the end of a long journey, returnees are often worse off than before. The policy of voluntary return does not challenge any of this. After all, every person “driven to return home” increases the departure rate. Rückkehr-Watch documents the progressive leveraging of development policy to prevent migration. At the same time, the website assembles and collates criticism of, and resistance to, these programmes. Because the desire and the right to a life in security and dignity cannot be driven away.


What now? What should be done?

Even and especially people seeking protection have a “right to rights”. This includes the right to an asylum procedure based on the rule and due process of law as well as an examination of individual cases. Return programmes undermine this right by urging or inducing people to refrain from asserting their rights before or during ongoing procedures. The same also goes for already completed procedures: If deportations are not carried out, there are good reasons for this – such as the insecure situation in the country of destination or the situation of the individual. Here, too, there is a valid right to protection. This is disregarded by return programmes when they persuade people to leave the country “despite everything”. Ideally, the right to protection is at the heart of the asylum system. The focus of return programmes is on domestic political interests in having as few or as fast procedures as possible and high numbers of departures.

Return programmes could be improved in many places. Authorities could provide more comprehensive information and counselling centres could advise people more openly, business plans could be drawn up more in line with needs, on-site support could be provided on a more long-term basis, and so on. But all this would not lead to a free choice for those affected. This is because return assistance takes place in a political, legal and administrative context in which the right to protection and all attempts to assert rights are systematically undermined. From the increasingly narrow interpretation of legitimate grounds for protection, to the prohibition to work, to the compulsion to live for years in mass shelters and social isolation: Under such conditions, an offer is never just an offer. It is always a means of pressure. Accordingly, return assistance is not a counter-model to a restrictive system to prevent migration it is part and parcel of this and warrants criticism as such.

As long as domestic political motives rather than the rights and legitimate interests of stakeholders stand at the forefront, criticism cannot be limited to support structures and practices. A system that focuses on sealing off Europe and encouraging returns is no basis for free choice. What is needed are significantly more safe and legal routes to Europe and prospects for staying here. Discussing the causes of flight and how to eliminate these must no longer mean “localising” all the problems of the globalised world in distant places and keeping people away through measures such as return assistance. Instead, Europe’s responsibility in creating the causes of flight must be taken into account, and this must be our point of departure. For the right to stay, for the right to go.

The task of development cooperation is to “develop” better living conditions in partnership. The focus is on political, social, cultural and economic processes, structures and conditions both here and there. If development cooperation is successful, it can help to prevent people from being forced to flee and migrate. Development cooperation is misused and abused, however, when it seeks to make migration fail and to reverse its flow. It is misused when its resources are applied to persuade people to leave Germany and Europe. It is instrumentalised when the provision of funds is linked to a willingness on the part of recipient countries to cooperate in blocking migration routes or taking back migrants. Development cooperation must not be absorbed into a border protection policy and take back seat to domestic political interests.


No development cooperation for restrictive border policies.