Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) is a key component of migration management in many host countries and high on the agenda of EU policymakers. AVR is offered by host governments to migrants without a legal right to stay, such as rejected asylum seekers or irregular migrants, enabling them to return in dignity and often with a reintegration package to re-establish themselves in their country of origin. In 2013, over 46,000 people from more than 70 host countries took part in International Organization for Migration (IOM) programmes.
As stated by William Lacy Swing, IOM’s Director General, at the start of this event: “AVR is not without controversy”. There are several unanswered questions on AVR such as: why do people choose to participate? Is their return sustainable? Over the past year, Maastricht University has engaged with these questions on a project named ‘Comparative Research on Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration of Migrants’. Several members of the Maastricht migration team were actively involved in this project, conducting fieldwork in 15 different countries. On 16 January 2015, Prof. Khalid Koser and I presented the results at a roundtable event hosted by the IOM in Geneva, with guests from country delegations invited to discuss the implications of the study results.
This project was a collaborative effort between the Irregular Migration Research Unit of the Government of Australia’s Department of Immigration, the IOM, and Maastricht University. It was innovative in bridging the divide between research and policy to regularly have discussions regarding methodology, field challenges and results, while maintaining the independence of the research.
The research had three objectives of:
1) Understanding the decision to return
2) Developing a method to define and measure sustainable return
3) Examining the factors that determine sustainable return
This was achieved through the collection of 273 semi-structured interviews with migrants in Australia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Greece, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.
Why do migrants decide to return?
The factors that were most commonly cited in determining the decision to return were difficulties finding work or not having the right to work in the destination country and a desire for family reunification in the country of origin. It was surprising to us to find that conditions in the country of origin were not the primary factors in determining the decision to return; but those conditions in the destination country, individual and social factors were much more commonly cited. Further, policy incentives were also not commonly cited in return decision making.
How do you define and measure sustainable return?
In this project we propose that sustainable return be defined as: ‘The individual has reintegrated into the economic, social, and cultural processes of the country of origin and feels that they are in an environment of safety and security upon return.’
Through this definition we developed a return and reintegration index for measuring reintegration and sustainable return based on the three dimensions of economic, socio-cultural, and safety and security. Each dimension is comprised of five variables and in order to be reintegrated an individual must be positively associated with 3/5 of the variables in each dimension. Overall, we found that 37% of the returnees were reintegrated upon return.
What are the factors influencing sustainable return?
Two key summary findings can be inferred from the multiple factors influencing sustainable return. First, returnees who migrated for economic reasons were more likely to be reintegrated when compared to returnees who migrated for other reasons including political-security factors. Second, returnees who both have a sense of belonging to the community prior to migration and return to the same community after migration are more likely to be reintegrated. This suggests that although the reasons for migration are complex and often involve multiple factors, there can be a difference upon return between those migrating for economic purposes compared with those migrating for security and political reasons.
It was also unexpected that migrating via a people smuggler did not influence outcomes; however, the majority of participants in the sample had migrated via a smuggler leaving a small comparison group. This result is disconcerting as it suggests the normalising of migrating with smugglers from the countries studied. Further work would be required to understand the implications of smuggling for the return process.
‘Not without controversy?’
As AVR is not without controversy, the same applies to several results of this study. From the defining of sustainable return as a holistic process versus the common approach of focusing solely on the extent of re-migration, to the evidence suggesting that sustainable return is often beyond the reach of policy interventions. The report has been ambitious and Friday’s event highlighted the debates that will most likely continue beyond the roundtable.
Flickr / Ricymar Photography, IOM, J.Martin, D.Temps, E.Tjernström, US Army, M.Garten, M.Garrigues, B.Davies, M.Killjoy, J.Y.Can
Event images and videos: UNU / H.Hudson