The UN wants to support migrants in Europe who want to return to their country of origin. In practice, this scheme has forced asylum seekers to choose between deportation, indefinite detention in immigration centers, or destitution.

Migrants who have just arrived from Greece wait outside a UNHCR tent in a refugee reception center. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images)

The worst thing about being in Greek immigration detention for Ahmad* — even worse than the insalubrious conditions, casual police brutality, and not knowing when he would be released — was that he was totally cut off from the world. Without visitors or access to his phone, he lived with the fear of what would happen if no one knew where he was, worried sick about what his family in Afghanistan thought had become of him.

Ahmad’s only communication with the outside was with caseworkers from International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency. “They wore dark blue vests and lanyards, imprinted with the UN emblem,” said Ahmad. “And once or twice a week they would come and ask me, ‘Don’t you want to go home?’”

“Voluntary” Return?

The Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) program delivered by IOM aims to provide safe, dignified return to migrants; a crucial service for many stranded migrants who desperately want to go home but lack the means to do so. Nonetheless, of late the program has been plagued with questions surrounding its “voluntary” nature when it comes to refugees returning from the EU, especially Greece.

Jacobin spoke to an aid worker who has severe doubts concerning the voluntary nature of the scheme based on her experience in Greek camps. “An IOM caseworker was going around the camps targeting nationalities with high rejection rates, without any idea of what the human rights situation of each country is, or the proper way to do a voluntary return — he seemed randomly hired without correct training, totally unaware of the harm he could do.”

Training aside, she has concerns about AVRR when asylum seekers in Greece are so frequently forced to live in destitution and have no access to the asylum procedure. “Have they been forced to return? Absolutely not. But when a person is made so vulnerable by the conditions of the host country, with no prospects of asylum in Greece, then they really only have one ‘choice’ in front of them, which isn’t a choice at all.”

Now posted in Iraq, she sees the other side as Iraqi asylum seekers return from Greece. “When I began working here, I saw that every governorate, every ethnicity, every single profile of each person is different, and can pose a specific risk to a person upon return. Until 2019, IOM did their research on Iraq from a hotel in Jordan; how can they be sure the asylum seeker will be safe upon return?”

Jacobin also spoke to Juliette Malfaisan, a lawyer who founded Equal Legal Aid, who also doubts whether AVRR in Greece can be truly voluntary given how poor access to legal aid and understanding of the asylum system is. “When an asylum seeker is served their rejection papers, IOM gives them an AVRR leaflet in their mother tongue to take home,” she told Jacobin. “Meanwhile, information on how they can appeal or make a subsequent application to stay in the asylum system is, in theory, provided orally through a translator. Given the intense stress after a rejection, and how few translators are available, often this isn’t provided at all. It gives the impression that AVRR is their only option.”

“A Deportation Scheme With a Couple of Humanitarian Considerations”

For Hana Ganji, the vice president of the Afghan Community in Greece, the way Ukrainians are treated in Athens has confirmed her suspicions that AVRR’s purpose isn’t actually to provide a dignified voluntary return service. “IOM has led a really aggressive publicity campaign across Athens, putting up billboards in every language asking, “Have you thought about returning home?” So my question is: If return should be available for everyone, then why isn’t anything written in Ukrainian?”

Ahmad has similar concerns. When in prison, he had no access to legal aid — and when he asked the AVRR team for a referral to a lawyer to get him out of immigration detention and to begin his asylum proceedings, they said that it wasn’t within their mandate. “They only have one objective: to get people to return. It’s not a humanitarian scheme. It’s a deportation scheme with a couple of humanitarian considerations.”

Juliette, too, mentioned the scheme’s humanitarian blind spots. She doubts that the quality of casework is suitable for those who have complex circumstances requiring time-intensive casework.

“There are many cases where someone has a mental health issue — often exacerbated by living on the streets — that can manifest in violent behavior. IOM doesn’t bother returning these people in case they act out whilst they’re in IOM’s care, and so they’re left alone for their mental health to deteriorate. If IOM’s concern is to meet the needs of the most vulnerable who only stand to get more unwell in Greece, they should also create tailored mental health programs to help these people get back to their families at home.”

For the vast majority of people, lodging an asylum claim has become near impossible.

Furthermore, IOM requires either an asylum seeker’s card or a piece of identity from the country of origin to begin the AVRR process. Many asylum seekers simply do not have access to these documents. Last November, the Skype hotline where asylum applications could be registered was suspended. For the vast majority of people, lodging an asylum claim has become near impossible. In response to this, Juliette has found that IOM suggests undocumented asylum seekers travel to Athens to get emergency travel documents from their embassy. But any asylum seekers attempting to do so would end up exposing themselves to the danger of being rounded up in immigration raids and sent to to Turkey. “So many people have vanished this way,” she warned.

“Doing the EU’s Dirty Work”

Four of IOM’s employees felt the program had damaged the reputation of the UN agency. One described a general frustration across IOM staff toward AVRR, but since IOM has no “core” funding, it’s become reliant upon AVRR to cover basic operational costs such as rent and support staff across their country offices.

There was also a sense that, financial drivers aside, there was political pressure on IOM to undertake AVRR. The same IOM staff members had the impression that AVRR had become a precondition for any EU funding. This is not a new allegation; a leaked document from the European Commission suggests the bloc asked Afghanistan to accept voluntary resettlements of asylum seekers as a precondition for EU funding.

More recently, AVRR has been a cornerstone of the EU’s response to the crisis between Belarus and Poland. There, thousands of asylum seekers were directed to the EU’s external border by Minsk, and forced back to Belarus by Poland. In the last year of her chancellorship, Angela Merkel pledged her support to the IOM’s voluntary returns rather than backing the right of asylum seekers to have their claims processed within the EU.

Scholars have long pondered the discursive ramifications of the use of the term “voluntary return.” They have found that any program where “deterrence and force operate in the background” can only be soft deportation. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has reached the same conclusion. In a recent judgment, the ECHR concluded that the voluntary return of an Iraqi asylum seeker from Finland following his rejection in the asylum system could not have been a “genuine free choice,” and should be considered a forced return.

This resonated with an aid worker currently in Iraq, who spoke to Jacobin about other voluntary return programs operated by IOM following the liberation of ISIS-held areas. “They put in place ‘Go and See’ programs so internally displaced persons could see if they wanted to return home, but with movement restrictions around the country it often wasn’t realistic. We tried to get community leaders from the area of origin to the camp, but the visits were cancelled last-minute for the same reason. Risk analyses suggested that Arab Muslims would be accepted back in areas where they were a minority, but in reality they weren’t due to perceived affiliation with ISIS. Despite all their efforts, the voluntary returns didn’t end up being very voluntary.”

Reforming Return?

There are of course many cases in which IOM’s AVRR program is incredibly well designed, well received, and welcomed, especially when caseworkers go the extra mile. Speaking to an aid worker who works closely with IOM in the EU focusing on the return of Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, and Chinese migrant workers, she found that IOM provided a crucial service specifically for domestic workers in Europe, many of whom had been trafficked and had lost access to their documentation, or who didn’t have the money to return home having been kept in debt bondage by employment agencies who took a premium for facilitating their visa to Europe.

One Moroccan participant of the AVRR program, who had been waiting for the embassy to issue his emergency travel document for more than eight months, found IOM’s intervention crucial in speeding up the process so he could return home. Furthermore, aid workers in the Horn of Africa explained that the cash payment disbursed through AVRR was crucial for supporting community reintegration for returnees, many of whom face stigma upon return for having “wasted” their family’s money in their “failed” attempt to migrate to Europe.

This notwithstanding, bureaucracy often gets in the way of AVRR. A 2019 study found that several returned Nigerians didn’t receive parts of the cash assistance that they were promised, or that the payments for expenditure such as school fees were so delayed that the children had already been pulled out of education by the time the cash was received. A similar allegation was leveled in a 2021 study of Afghan returnees. As with any UN agency, both studies find that IOM’s ability to respond to the deeply heterogeneous needs of each returnee is likely to be hampered by the bureaucracy that is built into any UN body.

Jacobin spoke to Lou Calvey, the former head of safeguarding and services at Refugee Action, which won the tender from the UK government for voluntary return. She argues that voluntary return “can’t be separated from the asylum determination process,” and therefore built a voluntary return program that first and foremost established why an applicant was seeking return. She describes creating a “safe bubble” for asylum seekers that established what the drivers for return were, and if these were lack of documentation, financial support, or decent housing, Refugee Action would address these so that any decision to return would be “rooted in principles of empowerment and the right to self-determination.”

Asylum seekers signed the return papers without having understood the contents, relying on one of their fellow passengers to translate.

Lou made the point that when voluntary return is coercive, it works contrary to the benefit of the UK government too. “If you remove someone to a country they don’t want to be in, they just remigrate,” she explained. “If you want to have a system of border enforcement,” which she doesn’t support but has to confront in her daily work, “you also need to have a fair asylum procedure and dignified voluntary return so that people trust the outcome. Cruelty costs — detention and removal are eye wateringly expensive and there’s no point in doing it unless it’s a fair and transparent process.”

The risk of remigration following return was corroborated by other accounts. Jacobin spoke to Maurice Stierl, who reported on the return of dozens of Bangladeshis in 2019, having been allegedly pressured by IOM to sign a voluntary return paper or risk arrest. He reports that none of the Bangladeshis who were returned were able to apply for asylum in Europe — including even the unaccompanied minors on the boat. These asylum seekers signed the return papers without having understood the contents, relying on one of their fellow passengers to translate. “I’ve learned that some of those who returned to Bangladesh aren’t even there anymore,” he told me. “This suggests the scheme itself fails to live up to its own objectives, namely, to offer returnees a future in their country of origin.”

Reform, Not Abolition

Ahmad is now in France, having spent three years undocumented in Greece after he was released from immigration detention. He never applied for AVRR in the end — although in his darkest moments he says he felt tempted, just to leave detention. Three of his cellmates in detention did end up returning with AVRR — he immediately lost contact with them once they got back to Afghanistan. He thinks they made the wrong decision and wonders if they are safe now.

Ahmad is cynical about AVRR, but lays the primary blame with the Greek state. To his mind, the government created the awful conditions he was forced to live in. The majority of aid workers who spoke to Jacobin, though, felt that AVRR, when applied somewhere like Greece, condoned the awful conditions imposed by the state, and risked breaching the humanitarian commitment to do no harm. They worried about the ethical ramifications when the most functional humanitarian program for refugees in a given country was one that entailed return.

There should always be safe passage to the country of origin for migrants, and so AVRR must exist — but with a recommitment to the political independence that is so central to the humanitarian identity. This would entail addressing who funds AVRR, integrating legal aid for asylum processes into the process, and combining it with much more far-reaching advocacy with the EU, conditioning AVRR to better reception conditions for asylum seekers. Otherwise, it’s doubtful IOM’s AVRR difficulties will ever go away.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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