Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Do not dismiss the voices of returned migrants: a response to the IOM

Policies in practice are rarely the same as they are on paper. The IOM would do well to remember that.

Sine Plambech
Erlend Paasche May-Len Skilbrei Sine Plambech
18 December 2019, 10.46am
A woman selling fufu at a market in Abuja, Nigeria.
Milo Mitchell/IFPRI/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-sd)

In April this year we published the op-ed ‘What happens after victims of trafficking return to Nigeria?’ on openDemocracy. Our piece outlined some flaws in the design and implementation of the return and reintegration programme from Norway to Nigeria that is operated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It was based on an empirical evaluation commissioned by the Norwegian immigration authorities, and has been elaborated as a peer-reviewed article in the Anti-Trafficking Review.

The IOM’s Chief of Mission in Nigeria, Franz Celestin, responded to our op-ed by suggesting that our critique is based on “inaccuracies” and “misunderstandings”.

Firstly, the IOM takes issue with our observation that female victims of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution in Norway appear more likely to be considered “vulnerable” than other vulnerable Nigerian migrants and receive additional reintegration assistance. He mistakenly reads our claim as suggesting that the IOM “has a preference on the type of exploitation” and finds this “offensive”. Yet our claim was empirically based on data from interviews with immigration authorities, frontline personnel and Nigerian migrants. More broadly, it is well documented in research on the implementation of anti-trafficking policies that conceptions of vulnerability are heavily gendered and that there is a bias towards sexual exploitation. Victimhood and vulnerability are often associated with femininity. It is hardly surprising that this is observable in the allocation of labels and resources in the field of return migration.

It is also not surprising that such bias occurs even though the policy on paper is neutral. The whole point of evaluating policy implementation is to analyse how formal policies translate into practice regardless of official preferences. To deal with gendered biases and blind spots in the field of return and reintegration is imperative, but then they must first be acknowledged.

To deal with gendered biases and blind spots in the field of return and reintegration is imperative, but then they must first be acknowledged.

Secondly, the IOM true to form rejects the notion that it takes part in migration control. Aside from the agency’s branding of itself and its carefully crafted official rhetoric of “sustainable reintegration” and “dignified return”, this premise is not up for scholarly debate. Assisted return programmes operated by third actors have become remarkably popular in European states since the turn of the millennium, primarily because they help to remove undesired migrants.

Thirdly, the IOM objects to how we describe the assisted return programme. Our response to a select few of these objections follow.

“[The] article paints a rather outdated landscape of how the AVRR programme in Nigeria works.”

We are happy to hear that the system we studied in 2016 allegedly has improved. However, we find it curious that none of the IOM officials interviewed at the time in Norway and Nigeria mentioned that major changes were underway. Nor did any of them state a reason to dramatically improve programme effectiveness.

“The article suggests that a returnee’s preference for cash is indicative of the failure of the AVRR programme, however we find that to be a short-sighted conclusion.”

The superior effectiveness and desirability of in-kind assistance vis-à-vis cash depends on a host of situational characteristics. It should never be simply assumed. While in-kind assistance is often celebrated by the service providers who benefit from higher transactional costs, there is little research to suggest that it is more effective for reintegration than cash. As experienced in the humanitarian field, no-nonsense cash handovers can often more flexibly accommodate the diverse needs of individuals in contexts where in-kind assistance is slow and unreliable. This is all the more plausible in places of endemic corruption, partly because programme risks increase with operational complexity and partly because anti-corruption measures complicate service delivery.

“It is also important to note that, contrary to the article’s claims, the type of support given to returnees is duly conveyed to them all along their reintegration process, putting their rights and needs at the forefront. To hint at a deliberate attempt by IOM to deceive returnees and raise false expectations is dangerously untrue. This speaks against some of the anonymous testimonies presented in the article, which show returnees expressing dissatisfaction with the way they had received their reintegration support. For example, the article includes the following quote: “it was only when I landed here I realized that this was not going to be cash in hand”. We find this difficult to believe.”

Putting returnees’ rights and needs at the forefront is a praiseworthy objective, but there was little evidence of its fulfilment in our data. We find it difficult to respond to the fact that the IOM here seems to imply that our interviewees are lying. The voices of migrants designated as vulnerable, almost entirely absent from public debate, should not be so easily dismissed.

Going beyond this particular programme, we believe the IOM could learn something from the UNHCR in this regard, more specifically its history of Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) reports. These have often been highly critical and authored by UNHCR staff. In PDES reports, refugees’ “anonymous testimonies” have been considered valuable data that can potentially help the UNHCR to strengthen its operational effectiveness and enhance its capacity to fulfill its mandate. Summarily dismissing our interview data as incredulous as the IOM does in the quote above, by contrast, merely serves to protect the IOM’s brand value in the short term.

Finally, the IOM critiques us for not consulting it before publishing our findings. This suggests that the IOM’s chief of mission in Nigeria is simply unaware that the research we conducted was commissioned by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration and that the IOM, being Norway’s implementational partner in assisted return, was in actual fact included in the project’s reference group. As such, the IOM was engaged in the project and invited to give comments to it throughout, as indeed it did on a number of occasions. Moreover, we conducted in-depth interviews with high-level IOM officials in Oslo, Norway, and in Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria, including one at the end of fieldwork in Nigeria, giving the IOM ample opportunity to correct our findings and analysis.

To sum up: It is not surprising that migrants perceive assisted return differently than the IOM. Nor is it surprising that formal policies and actual outcomes diverge. It hardly follows that our analysis is based on “inaccuracies” and “misunderstandings”. For the sake of the IOM’s service delivery and in the interest of future returnees, we do hope the IOM is more interested to benefit from external evaluations than it here lets on in public.

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