It is commonly understood by return and reintegration practitioners that the type of return, namely whether a person returned voluntarily or not, can influence the overall reintegration process and, above all, its sustainability.
As underlined in IOM’s Policy on the Full Spectrum of Return, Readmission and Reintegration, “voluntary returns are always preferable because they take into account the migrant’s agency to make informed decisions, leading to consent; allow returnees to prepare for their return as owners of the process; and contribute to reducing the stigma and potential negative repercussions of forced returns, which can hinder successful reintegration and thereby their opportunities for human development”. Still, while voluntariness is considered a crucial element of return migration, limited comparative evidence has been gathered so far on how reintegration sustainability outcomes are de facto impacted by voluntary and forced returns.
For this reason, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) commissioned, under the EU-IOM Knowledge Management Hub, the combined research study Comparative Reintegration Outcomes between Forced and Voluntary Return and Through a Gender Perspective, designed and implemented by the Migration and Development Research Group at UNU-MERIT.
The study’s general objectives were threefold: to compare differences in reintegration sustainability outcomes in Afghanistan*, Bangladesh, El Salvador, the Gambia, Nigeria and Somalia, to determine individual, community and structural factors that affect these outcomes in countries of origin, and eventually to inform the design, implementation and evaluation of reintegration support programmes for returnees.The research is composed of two studies; one analysed differences in reintegration outcomes between forced and voluntary returnees across the economic, social and psychosocial dimensions of reintegration, in line with IOM’s Reintegration Sustainability Survey (RSS).
The RSS is a tool developed in 2017 by Samuel Hall in collaboration with IOM; through a series of questionnaires, the RSS generates composite reintegration scores and three dimensional scores measuring economic, social and psychosocial reintegration: the higher the score, the more sustainable is the returnee’s reintegration. The economic dimension investigates indicators such as returnees’ satisfaction with their economic situation, indebtedness and access to employment or trainings. The social dimension investigates, for example, access to services (housing, health care etc.), possession of personal documents and the level of children enrolled in school. Ultimately, the psychosocial dimension investigates indicators of personal well-being such as strength of social networks, sense of belonging to the community and ability to remain in the country of return.
Overall, results show that voluntary returnees generally had higher composite RSS scores across the case study countries; the statistical analysis corroborates that the type of return had a significant impact on reintegration scores, with forced returnees having lower scores, on average, than voluntary returnees when other individual factors (such as sex, age, situation of vulnerability, years since return) are considered. Findings suggested that statistical differences between the RSS scores of forced and voluntary returnees are mostly driven by differences in the economic and social dimensions.
Comparing economic, social and psychosocial reintegration outcomes
Across the different countries, voluntary returnees consistently had higher average economic and social reintegration scores, while analysis of the psychosocial dimension produced mixed data. In Afghanistan, for example, forced returnees scored particularly lowly on the question about their level of satisfaction with the economic situation: in the country’s overall sample, 79 per cent of respondents were satisfied but this was only the case for 46 per cent of forced returnees. Even though economic challenges faced by forced and voluntary returnees might be similar, the lack of preparation before return, social stigmatization and mental health issues linked to the deportation experience represented critical factors in lower reintegration sustainability scores of the former group, hindering forced returnees’ economic self-sufficiency. As a key informant in Nigeria explained:
“[…] the procedure of being woken up in the middle of the night, having to pick the things, not even being able to plan anything, just being put on a plane, that’s very traumatizing, especially if the families have children.”
Similarly, voluntary returnees scored higher in the RSS social dimension. The statistical differences were more evident in Somalia, the Gambia and Afghanistan, where forced returnees persistently indicated poorer access to social services than voluntary returnees. Common challenges for forced returnees were related to services such as housing, health care and financial support. In Nigeria, forced returnees oftenimmediately needed housing, personal documentation and other types of social support such as health care. Often facing family rejection, returnees reported that shelter was urgently needed for these people, which was confirmed by interviews with key informants. For voluntary returnees, the situation seemed less urgent, although still crucial, as they had had more time to prepare for their return and faced less stigmatization by family members and the wider community.
The analysis of the psychosocial reintegration showed mixed results for forced and voluntary returnees among the different countries. The statistical difference was considerable in Somalia for example, where 94 per cent of forced returnees indicated having a weak support network while this was 18 per cent for voluntary returnees. When returnees were asked whether they felt physically safe in their current location, 47 per cent of forced returnees felt unsafe, compared to five per cent of voluntary returnees. In Bangladesh, a female forced returnee described the psychosocial challenges of reintegration:
“It’s not like I have to face it once a month, I have to face it every day after waking up.”
In Nigeria, on the other hand, many psychosocial indicators yielded similar results for forced and voluntary returnees. On sense of belonging, the large majority of respondents indicated that they felt part of the community, and only around 30 per cent said they were rarely or never invited to social activities in the community — similarly for forced returnees.
Overall, difficult migration journeys, low levels of trust in institutions, family (or community) rejection and stigmatization may also negatively affect returnees’ psychosocial well-being, with a higher impact on those returned forcibly. In Somalia, disappointment by family or community members related to ‘failed’ migration was often mentioned by forced returnees.
Policy and programmatic recommendations for improving reintegration outcomes for voluntary and forced returnees
To improve reintegration outcomes for both voluntary and forced returnees, the study — targeting practitioners and stakeholders in the return and reintegration field such as donors, international organization and NGOs, among others — sets forth a series of recommendations addressing reintegration sustainability in general and the three dimensions of reintegration ( economic, social and psychosocial). The study contends that stakeholders and practitioners should improve outreach to forced returnees in host and origin countries, providing them with information on activities they could benefit from, strengthening referral mechanisms, as well as counselling services upon return.
At the economic level, for both voluntary and forced returnees, it is essential to assess of local market conditions in origin countries so that business or start-up opportunities do not create competition within the community. Monitoring of micro-businesses even beyond project timelines to conduct follow-ups was also crucial. In this, partnerships with local organizations can play a critical role for programmes implemented by international actors.
At the social level, partnerships between public and private organization should aim at facilitating access to temporary documentation and housing facilities, while at the psychosocial level, data collection should be improved to capture more qualitative evidence on mental health issue, that may have impacted returnees’ well-being. Finally, psychosocial support should always be complementary to any reintegration activity; future programming should combine economic reintegration support with psychosocial assistance and mental health care, particularly for those who had distressing experiences while abroad and during return.
This article was written by the EU-IOM Knowledge Management Hub
* It should be noted that the surveys and interviews with returnees in Afghanistan were carried out before the withdrawal of international forces from the country and the situation was relatively stable compared to the current circumstances, which should be kept in mind while interpreting the findings of this study. At the time of this paper’s release, and considering the prevailing insecurity across Afghanistan, IOM’s AVRR programme, as well as post-arrival reintegration assistance to returnees, have been put temporarily on hold. See IOM, Press release, “Safety of Afghans and Humanitarian Access Must be Top Priorities” (17 August 2021).
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.