E.g., 09/24/2023
E.g., 09/24/2023
Intensifying Focus on Migrant Returns Takes a More Global Stage

Intensifying Focus on Migrant Returns Takes a More Global Stage

Migrants returning to Ethiopia

Migrants returning to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia board buses to their home areas. (Photo: Ayene/UNICEF Ethiopia)

With policymakers under growing public pressure to manage unwanted migration, questions of how, when, and under what conditions unauthorized immigrants, rejected asylum seekers, and other migrants can be returned to their origin countries received increased attention at international levels in 2018.

While generally a bilateral affair between individual migrant-destination and -origin countries, the facilitation of returns was one of the more high-priority (and controversial) objectives negotiated as part of the Global Compact for Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration, which was endorsed by 164 national governments in December 2018. (For more on the compact, see Issue #8: A Once-Smooth Path for the Global Compact on Migration Becomes Rocky.)

Issue No. 6 of Top Ten of 2018

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And in the European Union, still dealing with the aftereffects of the 2015–16 crisis, and now with rising support for right-wing populists stoked in part by anti-immigration fervor, the focus on returns is becoming ever sharper. Carrying out returns can be difficult in practice, requiring both capacity and political will. Less than half of non-EU nationals ordered to leave generally do so. Recognizing these challenges, EU leadership in September proposed a set of measures to clear barriers to timely returns including by strengthening cooperation with key African countries.

Guinea President Alpha Condé speaking to the European Parliament on the need for cooperation on migration. (Photo: European Parliament)

Removal activities perceived as overly aggressive or one-sided can trigger their own set of headaches, however. In the United States, concerns over less-targeted immigration enforcement in the U.S. interior sparked the “Abolish ICE” movement, and the Israeli government’s plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers has proven highly divisive in a country founded as a refuge for persecuted Jews.

Returned to Harm’s Way

Part of what can make this such a contentious issue, both publicly and politically, are the often-fragile conditions awaiting migrants upon return to their countries of origin. 2018 has seen notable examples of states returning migrants to situations of persistent violence and insecurity. Since Saudi Arabia embarked on its latest crackdown on foreign labor in 2017, it has expelled thousands of Yemeni workers to a country where it is taking part in a brutal civil war; some returnees have reportedly been recruited to join the Houthi rebels. And in October, more than 300,000 Congolese migrants in Angola were forced back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the United Nations warns they face extortion, arbitrary detention, and lack of shelter and food (for more, see Issue #10: “Silent” Refugee Crises Get Limited International Attention).

This year has also seen efforts intensify to repatriate some of the approximately 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh following a 2017 military campaign of arson, murder, and rape. Since November 2017, when the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments first announced they would cooperate to return the Rohingya, plans have evolved in fits and starts. A secretive deal signed by the United Nations and Myanmar in June was met with international outcry, and an October agreement between the two national governments was condemned by UN officials who stressed that conditions in Myanmar were “not yet conducive” and that all returns must be voluntary. Come mid-November, when buses arrived in Cox’s Bazar to take the first group across the border, they were met with protests and ultimately left empty. With a general election in Bangladesh scheduled for late December and pressure on the government to ease the strain of hosting such a large and concentrated refugee population, it is uncertain what the next step will be.

Rohingya woman and child at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo: Allison Joyce/UN Women)

Even in the European Union, where deportation decisions are made on an individual rather than collective basis, returns to Afghanistanone of the most dangerous countries in the world—have been on the rise, including from Member States such as Germany and Sweden that have generally been more generous in providing humanitarian protection. A damning report found that Afghan children returned from Europe face precarious conditions, including recruitment attempts by armed groups.

Afghan Citizens Returned from EU Member States Following Order to Leave, 2012–17

Source: Eurostat, “Third Country Nationals Returned Following an Order to Leave - Annual Data (rounded) [migr_eirtn],” updated August 21, 2018. Available online.

A More Balanced Approach?

With this increased focus on returns, policymakers face the challenge of effectively managing migration without losing sight of risks that large-scale returns may overwhelm local infrastructure and strain economies that rely on remittances, potentially driving some returnees to migrate again. As a result, governments in 2018 redoubled their efforts to pair return with effective reintegration assistance, including at a November summit where African Union, EU, and UN leaders met to discuss how to support sustainable reintegration. The balanced approach advanced by the Global Compact—with states pledging to “cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration”—could prove a template for building more constructive migration-management partnerships and ensuring better treatment of returning migrants.


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