The politics of voluntary returns

The politics of voluntary returns


Written by: Frances Webber

Outrage greeted French prime minister Sarkozy’s description of the mass expulsion of Roma as ‘voluntary’ – but what is the reality of voluntary return programmes in the UK?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body which implements most voluntary return schemes, received around £70 million from the Home Office since 2005 (including money from the EU Return Fund, its Refugee Fund and its Integration Fund) to operate a number of schemes, which since 1999, have (according to IOM’s website) ‘assisted more than 34,000 people to return to some 140 countries’.[1] But do the current schemes for ‘voluntary return’, in the context of the government’s accelerated deportation programme, offer a genuine, informed choice, or are they merely the alternative to forced deportations? What are the schemes, how do they work, and are they genuinely voluntary?

The schemes

The Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) has been in place since 1999 and is co-funded by the European Refugee Fund. Under VARRP, IOM, working with its UK partner, the charity Refugee Action, provides advice and help with obtaining travel documents and booking flights, and financial help with resettlement in the home country to current and former asylum seekers, up to a total of £1,500 per person. The package of help (to set up a business, a job placement, education or training) will be agreed while the applicant is still in the UK. Applicants (who must have made a claim for asylum which is either pending or has been rejected) are expected to leave the United Kingdom within three months of their application being approved. They must sign a declaration agreeing to the information on their file, including medical information, potentially being shared with the UK Border Agency and other UK government departments, agencies, local authorities, law enforcement agencies if needed to help those bodies to carry out their functions. By returning, they withdraw their asylum application in the UK, and are warned that they may be subject to a re-entry ban to the UK for up to five years. They have to sign an indemnity declaring that IOM is not liable for personal injury or death during and/or after their participation in the IOM programme.[2]

Assisted Voluntary Return of Irregular Migrants (AVRIM) was a programme for illegal entrants and overstayers, which provided help leaving the UK (including in obtaining travel documents) and reaching a final destination in the home country, but generally did not provide financial resettlement assistance. The scheme was closed at the end of August 2010.

Assisted Voluntary Return for Families and Children (AVRFC) is a new programme which started in April 2010. It is available to any non-EEA citizen with at least one child, whether they have ever applied for asylum or not, and to unaccompanied children, and consists of a cash relocation grant of £500 per person and a package of reintegration assistance of up to £2,000 per person.

Anyone returning under one of these voluntary return programmes is normally banned from returning to the UK for five years under the immigration rules.

Facilitated Returns Scheme (FRS) is a voluntary returns scheme for foreign national prisoners (FNPs), and accounts for nearly a third of all FNP removals. The scheme was introduced in 2006. Since October 2009, the package given to non-EEA prisoners who agree to leave the UK at the end of their sentence includes a £500 cash payment and a reintegration package worth up to £3,000 – or up to £5,000 for those who leave before the end of their sentence, either under the Early Removal Scheme or by applying to continue their sentence in their home country. The reintegration package is paid in kind, and is used to set up a business, or help in education or accommodation. According to Home Office evidence to the Home Affairs Committee,[3] the scheme, which has cost a total of £4.3million since its introduction, saves the government an estimated £14 million a year in freed-up prison and detention centre places, as well as unquantified UKBA caseworking costs and legal aid saved in not having to fight deportation appeals. Those agreeing to return voluntarily under FRS have as little prospect of return to the UK as those who are deported. Deportees have to wait on average ten years before they can apply to have deportation orders revoked, but the Home Office claims that foreign national prisoners removed under the facilitated returns scheme are not allowed to return to the UK except in the most exceptional compassionate circumstances.

The IOM in Europe and Africa

Assisted voluntary return schemes are not unique to the UK. Such schemes were common in Europe in the 1970s as a means of disposing of unwanted ‘guest workers’. The Dutch government introduced a scheme in 1974 for guest workers from Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, and schemes were introduced in France in 1977 and in Germany in 1983. The schemes all suffered from a very low take-up rate, and some were discontinued in the 1980s, but they have made something of a come-back in recent years, and by 2009, eleven EU member states and Switzerland had programmes, all administered by the IOM – which also runs programmes in transit countries such as Libya, funded by European governments and the European Commission.[4] A recent Council of Europe report called on member states to use more voluntary return programmes as an alternative to expulsion, highlighting in particular the financial savings (a ‘voluntary return’ with re-integration assistance costs on average just one-third of the cost of a forced expulsion, and even less if detention costs are taken into account), and pointing to the UK’s programmes as examples of successful schemes.[5] But at the other extreme, the French government’s attempt to label as ‘voluntary’ its mass expulsion of over 1,000 Romanian Roma (all of whom, as EU nationals, had the right to stay in France), by giving them each 300 euros in exchange for signing a declaration that their deportation was ‘voluntary’, was rejected in strong terms by European justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who likened the expulsions to Nazi-era deportations.[6]

Not sustainable

Assisted voluntary returns are sometimes presented as a way of achieving justice for those forced out by war or persecution, or as ways in which migrants can take back skills learned in the host country for post-conflict reconstruction efforts at home. But studies have shown that these justifications for returns programmes do not match what actually happens to those returned.[7] The assistance the IOM provides returnees is by its nature very short-term and piecemeal. The IOM cannot reverse illegal expropriations or otherwise ensure that justice is done in returnees’ home countries. Nor can it ensure political stability or personal security for those returning home. Its website, while celebrating individual success stories, acknowledges that it does not monitor voluntary returnees (though if an individual receives reintegration assistance on return, contact is maintained for up to a year). The governments which fund the voluntary return programmes do not monitor returnees’ reintegration and success either. But a 2009 study of forty-eight voluntary returnees to Sri Lanka by the Migration Development Research Centre (DRC) found that nearly all twenty-nine Tamils in the sample had suffered racial harassment from police or other officials since their return, and four had suffered serious human rights abuses. Forty-four of the forty-eight in the sample had started businesses, but twenty had closed and another twenty provided a living at or below subsistence level. Only four generated a profit above subsistence level.[8]

According to the Migration DRC, historically, most government schemes to promote return that are linked with investment in small business have been viewed as failures, The short-term and limited nature of the assistance provided, and the lack of monitoring, makes the IOM’s claim to ‘contribute to a more sustainable return’ somewhat hollow.


The most important determinant of refugees’ ability to return is security in the destination country – political stability and personal security. But in the aftermath of conflict, the different experiences of war and exile among those who stayed and those who fled intensity ethnic, religious or tribal divisions. Frequently, the authorities and the local people in the country of origin are very hostile to returnees – particularly if they are from ethnic minorities. Seeking asylum abroad may be seen as akin to disloyalty, inviting official suspicion and racism. A study of returning refugees conducted by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE),[9] which consulted refugee community organisations in five European countries as well as conducting field trips to countries of origin, found that repatriates from Belgium to Russia with no family to help them are ‘beaten up in the streets where they try to sleep at night; they are driven away from entrance halls of apartment blocks where they seek warmth; they are driven away from railway stations and airports, too. Many of them turn into hobos (people without permanent addresses and homes) and eventually die’. Internally displaced (IDP) Chechnyans in Ingushetia who were provided with assistance to set up small businesses found their livelihoods destroyed by deportation or by destruction of their businesses within a relatively short time, making the prospects for successful (re)integration remote.

Such a combination of difficulties appears to have been behind the Iraqi authorities’ refusal to accept three-quarters of the Kurdish passengers on the first forced-removal charter flight from the UK to Baghdad in October 2009. The head of immigration services in Baghdad was reported as saying that the Kurds would be at physical risk in Baghdad and he would not be responsible for their safety. It seems wholly unrealistic to expect any Kurd to volunteer for return to such conditions – yet the government’s efforts to induce Iraqi Kurds to return to central Iraq, by hook or by crook, continue unabated.

Not voluntary

But there is a more fundamental objection with the ‘assisted voluntary returns’ programmes, which is that they are not genuinely voluntary. This matters most in relation to asylum-seekers, including rejected asylum-seekers. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in its guidelines on voluntary repatriation, states that the ‘principle of voluntariness is the cornerstone of international protection with respect to the return of refugees’, and it must be viewed in relation to both (a) conditions in the country of origin (calling for an informed choice) and (b) the situation in the country of asylum (permitting a free choice).

Virtually none of the schemes currently operating as ‘voluntary return programmes’ from the UK meets these criteria for voluntariness. Voluntary return is frequently offered as a less painful alternative to continued destitution followed by (inevitable) compulsory return, and it is generally impossible for the returnee to have an informed choice about the country they are returning to.

The way that voluntary repatriation schemes are presented to parliamentary committees and to the public – as measures enabling the government to get rid of people who are not wanted – reveals the true rationale of most returns programmes, and is the key to the main problem with them. They are generally devised in response to a perceived need to remove excessive numbers of asylum seekers, irregular migrants or foreign national prisoners back to countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe, rather than as a response to the desire of particular communities to return home. The priority is a governmental one, of saving money – whether it be on detention costs, as in the FRS scheme, or on asylum and social services support, as in the AVRFC and VARRP schemes.

For example, AVRFC has been put in place as the government seeks to make massive cuts in the support provided to vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, who at present are allowed to remain in the UK up to the age of seventeen and a half. Recent reports indicate that the coalition plans to end this by removing lone children from the UK. In early 2010, the Home Office revealed plans to set up a ‘reintegration centre’ in Kabul so that failed Afghan child asylum-seekers could be returned home.[10] Having such centres in place make it easier for the government to begin withdrawing support from children whose asylum claims have been rejected, and then to start forced removals (which at present are impossible under human rights law, because of the lack of reception and care facilities in the home country). The likelihood is that children and young people in need of protection, facing the prospect of forced removal and the reality of withdrawal of financial and social services support, will opt for ‘voluntary’ removal.

The IOM’s main ‘client base’ is thus not the migrants it transports and resettles, but the governments on whose behalf it does so.

Informed choice: knowledge of conditions in the country of origin

Refugees and other migrants who have been away from their country of origin for some time need thorough, unbiased and detailed information about conditions that will affect them if they return. Information from UKBA, or from the IOM, is inevitably tainted in the eyes of refugees as not disinterested. Refugee Action, a charity which has worked with the IOM on voluntary returns since 1997, provides information to asylum seekers considering return. But while the voluntary return programme, rather than being concerned with durable solutions for refugees, remains part of enforcement strategy (a position which Refugee Action itself condemns), its association with UKBA and the IOM means that the information it provides, however impartial, is likely to be viewed as suspect.

Genuine choice to leave or to stay

UNHCR’s second criterion for ‘voluntariness’ is that the choice to leave must be genuine and not induced. This generally requires that the ‘volunteer’ has a legal basis for stay in the host country. A 2003 survey of Afghan attitudes to returning home, prepared for the IOM and Refugee Action, found that immigration status was the most important personal factor affecting the desire for return, with those with secure status most interested in return.[11] Settled status gives confidence and the ability to make choices, secure in the knowledge that return to Britain is possible if things do not work out. The groups targeted by the return programmes – asylum seekers and others with insecure status, were least likely to want to return to their countries of origin. ‘When consent to return is elicited as a result of lack of effective protection in the host country or because of an imposition of sanctions, this cannot be classified as voluntary repatriation’, says ECRE.[12]

In other words, repatriation cannot be termed ‘voluntary’ where the alternative is utter destitution, with denial of accommodation, basic support and the opportunity to work, or the prospect of children being taken into care, or months or years in detention. Nor can it be ‘voluntary’ where the prospect of obtaining recognition as a refugee has become remote because the system for the determination of asylum claims and appeals is deliberately under-funded, depriving increasing numbers of asylum seekers of any legal representation for this supremely important legal decision.

This is the situation that obtains for asylum seekers, particularly rejected asylum seekers in the UK. In ECRE’s words, ‘the … Home Office has consistently and for many years resorted to measures that force asylum seekers to agree for voluntary repatriation …These include taking away legal rights and welfare payments or denying basic facilities.'[13]

Explore and prepare

Of the IOM’s ‘voluntary’ schemes, then, the only schemes which could truly be classed as ‘voluntary’ were the ‘Explore and Prepare’ programmes which funded refugees from certain countries such as Kosovo (1999-2000) and Afghanistan (2002-8) to go back on exploratory visits for up to a year without prejudice to their entitlement to come back to the UK. These programmes offered people a realistic chance to assess whether return home was feasible or not, and if not, their continued stay in the UK was assured. (Even these schemes were however somewhat compromised in that they took place in a climate of increasing pressure to return, where humanitarian leave was not being renewed and forced removals were taking place.)

But there have been very few such schemes. Other AVR programmes do not allow return to the UK if things go wrong, forcing the desperate and destitute to gamble everything on a safe return to their country of origin.

The lack of a system of monitoring of returnees, and their inability to return to the UK after voluntary assisted removal, are features which might explain the very low take-up on voluntary return schemes. Zimbabwe is a classic example. Zimbabweans have been in a particularly desperate situation in the UK for some years. Although the Home Office did not enforce removal to Zimbabwe, it refused to grant status to more than a small proportion, despite recognition by the courts of the dangers facing all Zimbabwean deportees on return, with the rest often surviving on the charity of friends. But despite the increase in the amount of assistance on offer for ‘voluntary return’ from £4,000 to £6,000 in February 2009, only ninety Zimbabweans had signed up for voluntary return in the first eight months of 2009. The reintegration assistance was changed from ‘in-kind’ to cash in October 2009. It is too early to say whether this additional ‘bribe’ will make a difference to the rate of voluntary return, but it is unlikely – the fear of return outweighs the attraction of the incentive package.

While long-term refugees with settled status or even British citizenship might find the idea of return to their homeland attractive, more recent asylum seekers who have risked life and limb, and spent vast sums of money, to reach safety and some sort of life in the UK, and do not have the security of settled status, generally see the idea of ‘voluntary return’ as anathema. One Afghan asylum seeker interviewed in 2003 summed up the widespread disgust at the idea of being paid to go back under a voluntary returns scheme: ‘It is as if our lives are being bought for £600. If the situation improves, we will not need £600 to go back’.[14]

[1] UK Border Agency response to Freedom of Information request, FOI 13808. The response also details other IOM projects funded by UKBA, including irregular migration management in countries as diverse as Angola, China, Djibouti and Libya, strengthening the capacity of the Nigerian immigration service, reception for forced returns in Somaliland and voluntary returns in Kyrgystan, 'sensitisation' in the DRC, and the Calais project, which involves voluntary returns and 'tackling migratory flows at source and transit points'. [2] Application form for VAARP, at [3] Lin Homer to HAC, 4 February 2010,, DEP2010-0354. The removal statistics do not break down 'voluntary removals' from other removals.[4] See Briefing No 20, September 2009, Migration Development Research Centre, University of Sussex, 'Voluntary assisted return (AVR): An opportunity for development?'. [5] Council of Europe Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population: 'Voluntary return programmes: an effective, humane and cost-effective mechanism for returning irregular migrants', June 2010. The Centre of Studies and Documentation on Migration, Racism and Xenophobia (MUGAK) published a critical response, see Statewatch News, 4 October 2010, 'The fiction of migration control policies'. [6] See Guardian, 14 September 2010, 'Roma deportations by France a disgrace, says EU'. [7] The 'restoration' argument falters on the evidence that most returnees never get back to their previous home, because it has either been destroyed or expropriated, while the lack of mechanisms for matching returnees' skills to the needs of reconstruction renders the 'human capital' argument invalid. See Blitz and Sales, 'Non-Voluntary Return? The politics of return to Afghanistan', Political Studies 53:1, March 2003. [8] Briefing No 20, see note 4 above. [9] ECRE, 2005, 'Increasing refugee participation in the field of voluntary return'. [10] See Al Jazeera, 8 June 2010, 'UK plans to deport Afghan children'. [11] Blitz and Sales, 'Non-Voluntary Return? The politics of return to Afghanistan', Political Studies 53:1, March 2003. This finding replicated earlier findings presented to IOM in the context of voluntary return programmes to Africa. [12] ibid. [13] ibid. [14] Cited in Blitz and Sales, op cit.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

4 thoughts on “The politics of voluntary returns

  1. Frances Congratulations on a well thought out article – there was much in it that rings depressingly true. Inevitably I disagree with your comments about RA’s involvement in voluntary return. I don’t want to get in to a detailed public argument about it, but I do need to clarify a few of the things you’ve said: 1)RA does not ‘actively encourage’ anybody to take up voluntary return, we give confidential, non-directive and impartial advice to people who have a complex, restricted and difficult decision to make. Crucially, we support people to make their decisions, we do not influence or push people towards a particular course of action. 2)Being able to give this impartial advice is one of the fundamental reasons for being involved in the programme. I wish people didn’t have this decision to make. I wish it wasn’t, for all the reasons you give, such a restricted decision – but it is a decision, and a difficult one – which is why we at RA believe so passionately that people should be able to receive information and advice around it. 3) I also wish it were true that ‘lawyers advise on the options, the pros and cons’ but we both know that, in this area, they don’t. The experience of our many thousands of clients a year is mainly one of receiving no or poor quality legal advice (for all the ‘legal aid funding’ reasons you outline). Even where good legal advice is present, it cannot cover the detailed, specialised and often long term advice people need around voluntary return – put simply, legal advice for asylum seekers is, rightly, about protection issues, our voluntary return advice is about giving the holistic and wide-ranging advice people need to decide whether voluntary return is in their best interest. Far from trying to provide a nosegay then, we at RA would say that it is precisely because the reality facing our clients stinks so much, especially at point of final asylum refusal, that it is important that organisations like ours strive to support and advise them through it. In this context then, I simply disagree that our contract to provide voluntary return services means RA is ‘acting to legitimise and to enforce Home Office policy.’ However, clearly this debate, and indeed the issues raised in the IPPR report are more complex than I’ve outlined here. If you’d like to discuss these in person, I’d be more than happy to meet up, my office number is 0203 176 2511. Dave Garratt CEO Refugee Action

  2. I would like to say that the now defunct I.O.M AVRIM scheme,was a back door deportation set-up when the Authorities would failed to find legitimate ways to force people out. Having been a victim of this deception myself, I can testify that I.O.M is NOT independent of the client states where they operate, and are therefore stooges of these countries. I’m absolutely convinced, that I.O.M works in tandem with mainly western Governments to remove people of certain races from their populations by lying to the unwitting deportees, that the programme is benign and that they may re-apply to return at any time, as long as they meet the threshold. THIS IS A COMPLETE HOAX!!


  4. Question to N above:

    We’d like to ask how your son came to the UK when only 5 years old please, and who supported him for ten years until he accepted the return package – perhaps as soon as your son became too old for UK state childrens’ welfare payments to whoever cared for him, he was sent back?

    I am sorry for your family’s problems and may God help you all. Please assist us to expose these schemes.

    Before changes to visa systen in 2009, any SA citizen could stay for a year visa free, whilst claiming UK child welfare payments for any child in his custody – so using children to get a free ride in UK with no thought for the child they abandon when he is too old for the UK welfare childrens’ welfare payment.

    Thank you.

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