Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': focus on returning migrants

12 May 2020
The German Ministry of the Interior offers financial support to migrants willing to return voluntarily to their countries of origin.
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Stefan Jaitner/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A little discussed element of the EU’s African migration strategy is the return of migrants to their country of origin. Do you think this strategy is likely to be successful?

Returns are complex. They can be individual or en masse. And they can be voluntary, compulsory or forced. The African Union is taking a firm line against forced returns, insisting that African states can't accept returns unless migrants want to return voluntarily. For African states it's a human rights issue as well as a logistical and financial issue. And then there are the political costs. Take the example of Mali. Its government did agree to take forced returns and paid a hefty political price. It ended up reversing that policy because there was a domestic backlash from Malians largely positive about the benefits of migration and often unaware of the distinction between regular and irregular migration. I think that reflects the importance of migration to communities as well as a grassroots perception that elites are taking big payoffs from Europe to take people back against their will. There is a price to be paid for that politically.

The return of migrants to their country of origin is part of the EU policy towards African migration, alongside increased development assistance. Rising populism has led to European politicians, parties and pressure groups demanding that migrants be returned to where they came from if they are not granted the right to remain in Europe. Fear-mongering about the number of migrant arrivals has underpinned the recent electoral success of populist parties. However, with the number of migrants arriving in Europe declining since 2015, populists need to come up with new issues to bolster their political base. One issue that populists are currently focusing on is returns. The issue is being raised in fora you wouldn’t expect. In trade discussions that have nothing to do with migration, you're seeing European politicians raising the issue of returns.

You also see the returns issue linked with activities funded by the EU Trust Fund. The EU are, essentially, leveraging development assistance. They're calling these activities ‘projects’ but they are really an anti-migration strategy. The price tag is huge. The EU often incorporates returns into a broader package of securitisation measures required as a quid pro quo for increased development assistance. I think at the end of the day, a lot of these measures are very short-term. They also reflect short-term thinking. Forced returns involve substantial due process, logistical and financial elements, so European states should carefully consider the costs and benefits of expanding return programmes and turning them into formal policy. There have been some – I'm going to call them unofficial – agreements on returns. A few people have been returned through them, but not nearly enough to have an impact.

It seems that African states, especially West African states, are resisting returns. As I point out in a report on returning migrants from Europe, returns to Africa from the EU are low in comparison to other parts of the world. In 2017, only 5% of all returns were to Africa. And while the return rate – the number of returns ordered divided by the number of actual returns – is 36% for all returns from Europe, it is just 9% for returns to Africa. This reflects resistance to Europe’s return policy from African states, together with the practical difficulties of accurately identifying African migrants’ nationalities. Difficulties in making an accurate identification are exacerbated by migrants not declaring their nationality on arrival. In 2015, 17% of asylum seekers arriving in Europe were categorised as from an ‘unknown country’. That makes it hard to send them back. I see this as a resilience strategy.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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