The EU migrant return policy aims to increase return rates of asylum seekers to their country of origin by making border procedures as efficient as possible. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most contentious yet foundational elements of the Common European Asylum System. Since the increased amount of people fleeing wars in 2015 and seeking refuge in Europe, EU asylum policy has been polarising, with Europe often being dubbed “Fortress Europe” – an impassable fort with watchtowers and border guards prepared to stop at nothing to keep those seeking refuge out. In April 2021, the EU unveiled its very first strategy aimed at encouraging rejected asylum seekers to voluntarily return home and begin a process of reintegration in their country of origin.
On the surface level, this new scheme is marketed as being hugely cost efficient for EU member states and as a “more dignified way” for asylum seekers to return home, according to Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for home affairs. But does the voluntary returns and reintegration scheme really promote a more humane, compassionate approach to rejected asylum seekers and demolish the xenophobic backdrop of “Fortress Europe”? Even so, the system of voluntary returns begs a wider question, one that brings ethics and humanitarian concerns to the table and one that asks, is the right of asylum threatened?
“If a migrant chooses to voluntarily return to their country of origin or transit, member states may offer to cover travel expenses to assist the return of the applicant and also offer financial assistance for a period of time upon arrival back to the country of origin.”
Before answering these questions, what positives, if any, arise from the EU’s new proposal? The new voluntary return strategy represents a key objective under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum which represents a holistic and inclusive approach that gathers together relevant EU policies to create a long-term and sustainable asylum and migration system. It differs from previous schemes in that the 2021 proposal provides a clearer framework for setting up assisted return programmes focusing on the reintegration of migrants who do not have the right to reside in the EU. If a migrant chooses to voluntarily return to their country of origin or transit, member states may offer to cover travel expenses to assist the return of the applicant and also offer financial assistance for a period of time upon arrival back to the country of origin. According to the Commission to the European Parliament and Council, the new system will focus on reintegration as a core component of a common EU system for returns and will theoretically help defeat the psychological and socio-economic difficulties that can arise from migrants returning to the community they fled from. But what happens when voluntary return is neither humane nor ethical? Already the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the European Parliament have criticised the new returns scheme and have presented studies outlining the drawbacks in implementing a procedure merging asylum and returns, particularly with regards to cases concerning non-refoulement (the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution).
In 2018, a case involving voluntary return was brought to the European Court of Human Rights. The case originated in an application against the Republic of Finland by an Iraqi national who alleged that the expulsion of her late father to Iraq violated several articles in the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. After multiple assassination attempts were made on the applicant’s father’s life following his line of work, he sought international protection in Finland. However, over a year later, the asylum application of the applicant’s father was rejected by Finnish Immigration Services. Finnish Immigration Services accepted the facts laid out by the applicant’s father of the assassination attempts made on his life including shootings and car bomb attacks but stated that what the applicant’s father disclosed was hearsay and that these incidences had nothing to do with his personal circumstances or background. Finnish government officials believed that there was no imminent threat to this man’s life and he was to be returned to Iraq. Assisted voluntary return was granted to the applicant’s father and in November 2017, he left Finland. In December 2017, the applicant’s father was murdered by gunshot wounds to the head and body.
The story of this case is by no means an isolated incident. Rejected asylum applications are a narrative known all too well by migrants around the globe who flee their homes, families, and friends because of imminent danger in search of a brighter, more hopeful future. Those who suffer the most unimaginable hardships, harrowing journeys and inexplicable losses are rejected and failed by a system that focuses more on how the EU can send away those who are the most vulnerable instead of prioritising reform of EU immigration services. Instead of focusing on returns, immigration services should instead be more focused on ensuring proper integration for those seeking asylum and proper alternatives to returning migrants. While the prospect of financial assistance and reintegration plans seem theoretically sound and optimistic, they stand for nothing when one must return to a country where political unrest, violence and war are rife.
If the shoe was on the other foot, wouldn’t we want to be treated with compassion and empathy without the fear of deportation to a country that puts human life in imminent danger? Would the EU care more if these migrants were white Americans and not dark-skinned Middle-Eastern people? Perhaps this is a one-dimensional way of thinking about what is a very complex policy, but when a rejected migrant’s only option is to leave the country they sacrificed so much to get to, it makes me wonder, how ‘voluntary’ is voluntary return?
Featured photo by Maria Teneva
This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Alex