A Question of Voluntary Return and Reintegration?

With a global increase in the number of migrants and refugees, the issue of return migration has recently received greater attention. To date, return and reintegration policies have been shaped by increasing political emphasis on migration control, and tools such as readmission agreements. But these policies rarely target sustainable reintegration.

Robert Westermann: Why do migrants decide to return and participate in Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programmes?

Katie Kuschminder: Research has demonstrated that return decision-making is a complex process influenced by an array of factors including: conditions in the origin and destination country, individual and social factors, and to a limited degree policy interventions. In the study conducted by Khalid Koser and myself, we found that amongst 273 returnees and potential returnees that conditions in the country of destination were by far the most important, followed by individual factors, social factors, policy interventions and lastly conditions in the origin country. Key variables influencing the decision to return included: the inability to work, insecure legal status, and family-related factors such as a change in the family situation at home or a desire to reunite with family back home.

RW: How do you define and measure ‘sustainable return’? What are the influencing factors?

KK: In the study we conducted we defined sustainable return as occurring when: “[t]he individual has reintegrated into the economic, social and cultural processes of the country of origin and feels that they are in an environment of safety and security upon return”. This definition assumes that reintegration is a necessary precondition for meaningful sustainable return. It adopts a comprehensive perspective on reintegration across the dimensions of economic, socio‑cultural and political-security processes. This definition also highlights that the returnee must perceive they are in conditions of safety and security upon return, which should remove the impetus for re-migration at least in the foreseeable future.

RW: How can research help to develop better return policies for migrants?

KK: Research can help to develop better return policies for migrants in three central ways: 1) Understanding the conditions contributing to successful reintegration- At present, there is limited research on how AVRs successfully reintegrate and the factors that lead to this success. What role does programming play? What role do policies play? What are the elements leading to successful reintegration. Gathering robust answers to these questions would enable access to critical information for designing return policies

2) Comparing differences in return experiences and reintegration outcomes in post-conflict and non-conflict countries- Recent research suggests that returnees to post-conflict countries are less likely to select AVR and among those that do select AVR and less likely to be reintegration upon return. Further research is required to understand how policies can be formulated to specifically address conditions in post-conflict countries inhibiting reintegration.

3) Determining local level effects of return and reintegration – Reintegrating with the local community upon return is a critical component of overall reintegration. Little research exists to understand how locals themselves engage with returnees and aid in the reintegration process. Further research in this area could elicit ways that programming and policy can work with locals to increase reintegration outcomes for returnees.

RW: What are the main controversies in this field?

KK: One of the main controversies in this field is how to define and measure sustainable return. Second, the relationship between AVR and development. Who should fund AVR (Interior or development actors)? Is there a relationship between AVR and development? Third, shifting the language towards ‘Assisted Return’ versus Assisted Voluntary Return. Austria, Norway, and the United Kingdom all use the term ‘Assisted Return’. I think that EU countries should all move to use the term Assisted Return versus AVR to reflect the limited agency that migrants have in their return decisions.

RW: How do your study findings relate to the current policy environment of return and AVR?

KK: Return migration is becoming an increasingly salient policy issue, clearly due to the high number of asylum seekers to the EU, and in particular Germany, since 2015, which is combined with a high number of refusals. Our research provides insight into the factors needed to create conditions for a successful reintegration. The research can inform policy by first, suggesting a move away from a policy goal of sustainable return to successful reintegration, and second, in developing an understanding of the types of programming required to achieve successful reintegration. At the same time however, our study highlights several gaps that require more work to be done to understand return and reintegration more clearly.


Over the past years Katie Kuschminder and Prof. Khalid Koser completed a project entitled ‘Comparative Research on Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration of Migrants’ at Maastricht University. Several members of the Maastricht migration team were actively involved in this project, conducting fieldwork in 15 different countries. In 2015 she presented together with Prof. Khalid Koser the results at a roundtable event hosted by the IOM in Geneva.


Further links:

Return Migration and Reintegration Policies: A primer

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  1. The reality is that states are hiding aggressive return policies as ‘voluntary’ when they are far from voluntary. Over recent years, civil society has been deliberately edged out of practical involvement in assisted voluntary return programmes. In the UK in 2011, Refugee Action won a national tender to run AVR across the UK. It was an innovative and inspired move by the UK Home Office and one which they regretted almost immediately when they realised that they could not break civil society values. Since the contract ended, the UK Home Office brought AVR in-house which raises serious questions about the voluntariness of return decisions and the process for helping people make the complex decision your article refers to.
    Return is unfortunately one area of co-operation across EU states which is working well. States have been keen to co-operate both strategically and practically on return programmes which are certainly not voluntary but coercive and dangerous. The risk here is that civil society, which has invested time, energy and thought into organising innovative, safe programmes based on sustainable return no longer have sight of what is happening to returnees on the ground. This is no accident-states have deliberately created this scenario as a way of avoiding scrutiny over risky, dangerous practices.
    Future research should focus on the impact of losing civil society involvement in practical return programmes and the subsequent effect on human rights and sustainable development.

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