European Strategy on Voluntary Return and Reintegration Advances Action within Bloc, Leaves More to Discuss with Countries of Migrant Origin
As a key step forward in the implementation of its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the European Commission this week disclosed its first strategy on voluntary return and reintegration for migrants. This policy document is part of a broader effort to establish a common EU system for returns and it covers a rare area of relative consensus between the EU Member States—compared to other migration domains where they disagree on the principles of shared responsibility and solidarity. Because many European policymakers think of a credible return system as the premise to make legal pathways and asylum work, progress on this front would be a critical landmark for the Commission.
Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) refers to the support provided, often by countries of destination, to migrants to return and reintegrate in their community of origin. The beneficiaries are migrants who wish to go home, and they include asylum seekers who did not receive refugee status, migrants without documentation, and others who opt for voluntary over forced return. At present, fewer than one-third of the returns motivated by a return decision are voluntary. The AVRR programs operated by EU countries usually include reintegration supports in the form of start-up grants, access to vocational training, or job placement.
The goals of the Commission are to increase the number of returns, and especially voluntary ones, but also to make AVRR programs more sustainable and having a greater impact. The strategy notes that success is not only defined by a higher return rate for third-country nationals; it acknowledges that the situation of migrants upon return is another critical indicator of real progress. In other words, delivering quality reintegration assistance also matters, recognizing that migrants’ reintegration is a complicated, multidimensional process that requires significant investments in areas ranging from livelihoods to public service delivery and psychosocial counseling.
While the strategy covers a lot of ground—new coordination efforts across EU Member States, investments in counseling and case management for migrants, a new role for Frontex to work on voluntary return and reintegration, better monitoring and evaluation, and commitments to fund AVRR—one of its most significant developments is the recognition of origin countries’ key role in reintegration. Many AVRR programs have long operated without closely involving governments, civil society, and other stakeholders in origin countries. Yet strengthening cooperation on voluntary return and reintegration is not an easy task, given the agendas of EU Member States and countries of origin are not symmetrical. Still, this is an area where there are common interests and the strategy advocates for stronger partnerships—ultimately, a necessary condition to make reintegration activities more impactful and sustainable.
For these partnerships to be tangible, European countries and countries of origin will need to deploy further efforts to better understand each other’s priorities and varying national contexts. Both sides necessarily look at voluntary return and reintegration through different lenses, and more formal dialogues and informal meetings will help map out common interests and activities where progress can be made. Already, it is apparent there are a few places to begin: Establishing information-sharing channels, for instance, to exchange information about the conditions at home to improve predeparture counseling. It is in the interest of both sides to better inform migrants and to build the conditions for smooth reintegration. In turn, European countries could share more information with governments and civil society in origin countries about their AVRR programs and the profile of returnees, as these stakeholders often lack this basic information.
In parallel, the Commission’s strategy aims to better connect reintegration activities and development programming, which is pressingly needed but very challenging to implement. Return can be a leverage for development as migrants often come back with more skills, networks, and know-how, but these assets are not always activated. In turn, for returnees to durably reintegrate, they need to find a conducive environment, with security, good governance, and access to public services, among other things. Many of the development interventions funded by the Commission and its Member States seek to achieve these goals, but they do not always recognize the specific challenges faced by returnee populations. As the strategy commits to integrating these program streams, the Commission, EU Member States, and their partners do not start from scratch. They should build on the lessons learnt from a range of initiatives already piloted on the ground, with mechanisms to refer returnees to livelihoods projects or interventions in main regions of origin to improve public service delivery and local governance.
In the end, enhanced cooperation with countries of origin can only happen if EU Member States work better together. Despite coordination efforts, there are still wide disparities among European AVRR programs in terms of eligibility and the nature of the assistance provided to returning migrants. These discrepancies make it difficult for programs to engage with the authorities and other partners in origin countries and have also led to tensions among returnee populations. As such, the EU strategy comes with an ambitious agenda, but it is also a test as to whether European countries are able to present a common standpoint when engaging with countries of origin. This is a prerequisite to turn voluntary return and reintegration into a laboratory for meaningful migration partnerships, based on shared objectives with countries of origin.