Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How counsellors convince asylum seekers to accept ‘voluntary return’

Rejected asylum seekers are often told they can be deported or go home willingly. But are these really the only options?

Reinhard Schweitzer Laura Cleton
8 July 2020, 5.00am
The Ponte Galeria Identification and Expulsion Center on the outskirts of Rome in 2014.
Vandeville Eric/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

At least since 2015, the European understanding of international migration has been predominantly shaped by pictures of refugees fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and sub-Sahara Africa. Some of them found refuge in Europe, while others were deemed ineligible for international protection under the Geneva Convention. This latter group subsequently becomes the target of ‘return policies’, which aim to relocate rejected asylum seekers and other unauthorised migrants to their countries of nationality or prior residence.

Europe’s political leaders often say that this should be done voluntarily if possible, but forcefully if necessary. In line with this official mantra, most EU states are willing to both ‘support’ returns and violently carry them out. Such support is provided under so-called assisted voluntary return (AVR) programmes, which are commonly framed as a more humane and dignified alternative to deportation. But both measures essentially serve the same goal: to ensure that those denied the right to stay do not.

AVR programmes can be operated by NGOs as well as governments, and both are often facilitated by the International Organization for Migration. In both Austria and the Netherlands, most of the operational capacity lies in the hands of IOM and NGOs. Officially, these programmes work towards a sustainable future for the persons involved, usually by providing tailored counselling sessions, financial and in-kind re-integration packages, and training. Much of this work is done by dedicated counsellors, who justify their role in terms of ‘providing options’ and ‘helping’ displaced populations to realise the mobility aspirations they are expected to have given that their asylum or immigration claim has been rejected. Messages like ‘Thinking of returning to your country? We can help you’ are part of this rhetoric.

Officials involved in AVR seek to realign individual aspirations with the outcomes of restrictive immigration laws and policies.

By working towards return, AVR policies often interfere with refugees’ initial mobility aspirations. Rejected asylum seekers often wish to stay in their new countries of residence, while AVR policies promote the opposite. This does not mean, however, that the aspirations of rejected asylum seekers are automatically deemed irrelevant by the individuals implementing AVR policies on the ground. Rather – and this is one of the premises of migration management – they seek to realign these individual life and/or mobility aspirations with the outcomes of restrictive immigration laws and policies.

Managing aspirations, encouraging return

IOM’s informational campaigns against irregular migration are a good example of this type of ‘aspiration management’. These highlight the potential dangers of irregular migration in the hope that this will convince people not to attempt it. In other words, they attempt to change peoples’ behaviour by undermining their aspirations before they depart.

In a similar fashion, return counsellors also act upon individual life and mobility aspirations by providing migrants with particular information. Their own accounts of this work, which we have collected and analysed as part of our research projects, reveal three primary ways in which they deal with migrants’ aspirations.

First, in some cases they claim to be merely acting upon already existing aspirations for return. These can arise from (repeated) rejections or hostile environment policies, as well as from changes in individual circumstances, such as shifting perceptions of safety in the country of nationality or changing family situations. One Dutch state employee gave the example of a woman from Iraq whose asylum application had been rejected but who could not be forcefully deported due to a lack of travel documents. Only when she received the news that her husband in Iraq had suddenly fallen severely ill did she tell the counsellor that she wanted to return immediately and asked him to arrange for her return.

Second, return counsellors simply ignored the aspirations of the people seated across from them, and contented themselves with obtaining informed consent to a ‘voluntary return’. This was more common for counsellors working directly or closely with the state. They perceived and presented return as required by law and thus unavoidable, and often quite strategically mention deportation as the only alternative. The following account from a representative of a small NGO providing return counselling for victims of human trafficking in Austria points at the difficulty of doing this without using deportation as an explicit threat:

If the [client] says she does not want to leave, I will not … convince her of a voluntary return. But if [the procedure] is already at the point where it’s clear, and we cannot do anything […] then I can only say: ‘there is a possibility that you will be deported, and that is quite real, and there is the possibility to leave voluntarily’, but not in the sense of one being better than the other, but: ‘these are your options’.

The appearance of asylum seekers leaving by ‘free will’ has many advantages for policymakers.

Third, return counsellors sometimes actively try to induce aspirations for return. Similar to the above example of information campaigns aiming to reduce migration aspirations, this starts from the premise that individual choices and behaviour can always be influenced, especially by ‘correct’ – supposedly neutral and objective – information on the available options and their implications. Return counsellors therefore first of all attempt to establish a personal relationship with the person in question. This, according to a Dutch state official,

is based on a connection, or a bond that I aim to make with the foreigner and [that] is geared towards getting mutual trust, understanding and respect. The benefits of getting this relation very early on in the return process is that my clients will understand that I am here to help them. If they believe that this is the case already in the beginning of our conversations, they will also believe that I want what is best for them when the prospect of return becomes more real.

Once this trusting relationship is established, return counsellors deploy a variety of techniques to induce return aspirations in their clients. They primarily do this by acting as coaches while foregrounding the decision-making power that potential returnees still have. As a representative of IOM Austria explained:

Ideally, a return counsellor would be more like a coach […] who helps you to make a decision within your own reality, which the coach himself does not influence, but he tells you: ‘Did you look at this? Did you look at that? And what happens if you look at the two things?’

To an extent this is certainly artifice. In the eyes of most return counsellors, the decision-making power of migrants and refugees is limited by the legal framework: the rejection of an asylum application leaves ‘voluntary return’ as the obvious legally available alternative to deportation. In fact, return counsellors often implicitly or explicitly attempt to steer their clients away from other potential options like absconding, which they tend to present as a dangerous endeavour. Dutch state counsellors, for example, often mention things like “within 28 days after the decline of your appeal you will live in the country illegally – is that really what you want?” By hinting at the hardship that living without formal permission can certainly entail, they sometimes make strategic use of the specific situation individual returnees are in, such as their children risking growing up without legal status.

Another common strategy is to establish business plans and emphasise the available in-kind and in-cash assistance to realise these plans. Such ‘reintegration assistance’ is built into most AVR programmes and is believed to trigger mobility aspirations, as it provides returnees with a perspective to generate economic stability in their country of nationality.

The tenacity of hope and agency

Of course, such strategies to steer mobility aspirations are not always effective, as unauthorised migrants themselves simultaneously try to realise alternative life aspirations. A well-known strategy among asylum seekers is to destroy or hide their identity documents and refuse identification, often already before or during the asylum procedure. Since returns – whether ‘voluntarily’ or forced – can only take place once the nationality and identity are established, this strategy can buy valuable time for furthering plans to realise actual aspirations.

Another strategy is to go underground. Rather than engaging with a system that will try to return them, they leave the reception centre and attempt to disappear. In this context, the AVR process itself opens additional possibilities for resistance, delay, and for realising aspirations that do not include return. This has to do with two crucial requirements of AVR: that return must be based on a ‘voluntary choice’ – which can thus also be revoked at any moment – and must not involve physical force. By signing up for AVR and then changing their mind at the last moment, rejected asylum seekers can not only delay their return but sometimes successfully abscond from the return process, which in contrast to the deportation procedure happens in the absence of state authority (like the police) that could stop them.

Despite these challenges for policymakers, they widely celebrate AVR schemes and present them as the best way to effectuate their return policies. The appearance of asylum seekers leaving by ‘free will’ is advantageous to them in many respects. It underlines the alleged fairness, rationality and legitimacy of the asylum system and undermines the validity of other asylum claims made by co-nationals.

For example, the sudden increase in voluntary returns from Finland to Iraq at the beginning of 2016 led a member of the Austrian parliament to argue that, “when asylum seekers voluntarily return to their home country, this clearly shows that their life and limb were obviously not threatened. For this reason, also Austria should carefully examine future asylum claims of Iraqi citizens to determine whether there really were reasons for flight.” Individual counsellors make use of similar arguments. As a Dutch state counsellor told a rejected asylum seeker from Eritrea, “people think that they cannot return to Eritrea all the time, but eventually it always turns out that they actually can.”

What makes the management of migrants’ aspirations so complex – whether at the point of leaving their country or returning to it – is that the individual counsellors are always only one of many factors in migrants’ decision-making processes. What makes return counselling problematic is that trying to align mobility aspirations with immigration law, even if well intended, reinforces an overall restrictive and violent migration regime.

These projects have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 790197 (Schweitzer) and from the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek.(FWO) under grant agreement No. G072317N (Cleton).

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