Assisted return of irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers has become an important tool of migration control. European destination states have invested massively over the last decade in assisted return, framing such return programmes in the humanitarian language of ‘helping’ migrants to ‘come home’ and ‘facilitating their reintegration’ there.
This language is carefully crafted. Labelled ‘assisted voluntary return and reintegration programmes’ (AVRRs), such programmes incentivise compliant return as an alternative to deportation, and then present it as voluntary. In 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) offered return assistance to more than 98,000 migrants worldwide through assisted return programmes. This is the highest number of what the IOM calls ‘AVRR beneficiaries’ during the last 15 years. The ‘assistance’ given through AVRRs is budgeted by states as developmental aid, although there is little evidence of any positive developmental impact.
The type and scope of return and reintegration assistance varies widely across funding states. It can include plane tickets, financial support, counselling and information by the IOM or staff at the asylum reception centre, as well as in-kind (non-cash) assistance to set up a small business in the country of origin. Other types of support, like for housing, medical assistance, or education, are comparatively rare.
It is particularly important to monitor and evaluate programme outcomes for the most vulnerable of these ‘beneficiaries’. Only approximately 3% of those who received AVRR support from the IOM in 2016 were designated migrants in vulnerable situations. Yet despite the small percentage, that equals approximately 3,000 people in a single year. And, in IOM’s wording, “specific and tailored assistance is particularly critical for returning migrants in vulnerable situations…”.
Vulnerability is a legal-bureaucratic construction rather than a given fact.
Returning Nigerians from Norway
Norway is a country that in the last 15 years has experienced an increase in asylum applications from people from Nigeria. In this period, Nigerians have been the largest national group of ‘possible victims of human trafficking’ in the country, however the vast majority who apply for asylum are rejected – in 2018 the rejection rate was 94%. But even if few are granted asylum, many plausibly qualify as vulnerable.
We have studied Norwegian authorities’ efforts to offer assisted return to Nigerian migrants without residence permits in Norway, and how those who are considered vulnerable may experience assisted return. Norwegian authorities offer comparatively generous return and reintegration assistance to those designated as vulnerable, with the stated aim of helping them overcome their vulnerabilities. The question is whether the assistance accomplishes that.
Vulnerability is a legal-bureaucratic construction rather than a given fact. Based on interviews with professionals either working with Nigerian migrants or tasked with informing migrants in general about return, we found that the immigration authorities, frontline personnel and migrants themselves all displayed a series of conceptual blind spots. These produced a gendered hierarchy of vulnerabilities with two main implications.
Firstly, Norway’s international obligations to protect victims of trafficking affect the determination of vulnerability. Norway, as a signatory to the UN Trafficking Protocol and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, has compelling reasons to provide all victims of trafficking with additional assistance and monitoring upon return. However, most professionals focused squarely on the sub-category of those trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. Identified victims of trafficking for other purposes in Norway were given less consideration, and thus less access to reintegration assistance.
Secondly, women were much more likely to be considered ‘vulnerable’ than men. Most recognised victims of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution were women. Hence, they more easily accessed the additional support that came with such a designation. The professionals we interviewed more or less reflexively associated vulnerability with women. Given that male victims of trafficking are typically less likely to self-identify as victims and seek assistance as such, this compounds the problem of what is in effect institutionalised discrimination against men.
Vulnerability after return
We also did fieldwork in Nigeria. This included conducting interviews with sex workers and victims of trafficking who had returned from either Norway or another European country, as well as with professionals working at the international, national and local level to aid the return and reintegration of alleged victims.
The gendered hierarchy of vulnerabilities we observed in Norway was also readily observable in the sending region of Benin City, Nigeria, an established hub for irregular migration and trafficking to Europe. A plethora of NGOs there cater to the needs of alleged victims of human trafficking upon return, yet their focus was uniformly on women. Gendered biases in both Norway and Nigeria had resulted in organisations discriminating against those whose vulnerabilities are not politically convenient or do not harmonise with established stereotypes.
Interviewing returnees who had gone through the AVRR also shed light on serious shortcomings in the nuts and bolts of IOM’s programme implementation. Those who returned through the programme as ‘vulnerable’, and had thus been identified as having particularly acute need for support, described IOM’s service delivery as hampered by delays and bureaucracy. Some complained of a fundamental lack of respect by the IOM staff after returning to Nigeria.
One had to close her business as a direct consequence of delays in IOM’s delivery of in-kind assistance to support it. She also had to take her children out of school because she had not been able to pay school fees in time. Two reported that they had to call their previous IOM caseworker in Norway to exert pressure on their caseworker in Nigeria. The following quotes are illustrative of such bureaucratic challenges in accessing reintegration assistance.
The last instalment of the money [cash grant] was supposed to be paid on Friday, but on Monday I had to call IOM in Norway to ask for it. IOM in Norway had to contact IOM in Nigeria. Then they paid the next day. If I wouldn’t have called, who knows how long I would have had to wait.
It was hard for me to find a place that I could rent for my business. I did eventually find a venue for rent, but then the IOM didn’t give me the money in time. I had to wait for two weeks from the moment I asked for it from the IOM. That was too long [for the landlord]. Someone else got it.
One of the reasons that motivated my return was the financial assistance.… It was only when I landed here I realised that this was not going to be cash in hand.… The rest of the money, they said, I would get when I would come up with an action plan [business plan]. I have written an action plan and sent it to IOM’s office here a month ago, and I have still not heard anything from them.
As found in our study, and as has been argued elsewhere, AVRR programme effectiveness is compromised and the vulnerabilities of returnees are exacerbated when they find the reintegration assistance to be more difficult to access than expected.
Poor service delivery, not to mention the glaring lack of a formal and independent complaints mechanism upon return, seems to do little to help those in situations of vulnerability to overcome their problems. While the optimal type and scope of assistance is open to debate, our findings suggest that AVRR-funding states should systematically monitor and evaluate their programmes and ensure that returnees receive the assistance that they have been promised and to which they are entitled.
A longer version of this article was first published in the Anti-Trafficking Review issue 10.