Return to sender: The divisive complexities of repatriating irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2021 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Camille Le Coz is a Senior Policy Analyst with MPI (Migration Policy Institute) and MPI Europe, primarily working on EU migration issues. Her research areas include EU policies on asylum, resettlement, legal migration, and integration.

Meeting the Global Compact for Migration’s objectives requires improving the governance of return, reception, and reintegration. Success depends on overcoming an array of practical and political obstacles. And as the Covid-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated, poor international cooperation is high on this list.

Return is one of the most contentious topics between countries of destination and origin. Destination countries often say that an efficient return system for immigrants who do not have legal status and asylum seekers whose claims have been denied is a pre-requisite for credible migration and asylum policies. For some, such a system is essential to maintaining public trust in migration and international protection and preventing the further rise of populist and nativist ideas. European leaders, for example, regularly complain that only a third of the 450,000 orders to leave issued on average each year are eventually enforced. Moreover, policymakers in Europe and the United States have referred to return as a tool against irregular migration, one that can disrupt the business model of smugglers and deter migrants from moving outside legal channels.

On the other hand, these same migrant populations are often a major source of remittances, which represent a lifeline for their families, particularly in times of crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. In turn, their contributions make the governments of these countries less inclined to cooperate on forced return. The sensitivity of public opinion to deportations can also explain the reluctance of countries of origin to engage on this topic, especially in the context of fraught relations with destination countries rooted in colonial history or a record of foreign interference. Some countries are also concerned about additional pressures on public services and local economies, particularly in the case of mass and uncoordinated returns.

Not all returns are so controversial, and some returns are incentivised by origin countries and development actors who seek to attract diasporas back to promote direct investment and knowledge transfers and to boost trade and remittances. Examples include countries such as Ireland, Ghana, and the Philippines, where governments have policies encouraging the temporary or definitive return of their expatriate nationals. Migrants may also choose to go home because they have come to the end of their migration cycle and wish to retire, reunite with their family, or simply go back to where they used to live.

But when this decision is not fully voluntary, the situation tends to be more sensitive. This is the case for returns that are “obliged” or “accepted”, because the migrant does not have the right to remain in the destination country and is driven to accept their departure. The most disputed (and expensive to enforce) returns are the ones that are forced, with migrants being deported against their will, sometimes after a period in detention. Returns usually take place to one’s country of origin, but migrants are sometimes sent to a country through which they transited on their way to their destination. In all these scenarios, reintegration tends to be more challenging as returnees are less prepared to leave and may experience a greater mental toll.

Despite the conflicting interests between countries of destination and origin, international cooperation remains the linchpin of a functioning return system whereby migrants can safely return to their country and receive reintegration assistance as needed. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) precisely enshrines this principle and encourages signatories to work towards these common goals—which have become even more pressing since the outbreak of the global coronavirus crisis. Beyond international cooperation, many countries of destination and origin, as well as service partners and researchers, concur that a better governance of return, reception, and reintegration is needed to deliver on the GCM’s objectives, especially to achieve better reintegration outcomes for returnees. But many sticking points remain, from the lack of cooperation of countries of origin on readmission to the threats of retaliatory measures by countries of destinations, the limitations of reintegration programmes, and the practice of pushbacks and collective expulsions.

The Covid-19 crisis and the pressure for strengthened international cooperation on return

The global pandemic has driven hundreds of thousands of migrants to return home, often in a hurry and in circumstances that have put them at risk of infection. Returnees have also become vulnerable to heightened economic, social, and psychosocial issues once they get home, especially in regions under lockdown or severely affected by the pandemic. Many migrants did not initially plan to go home (and many had legal status in their country of destination); but many felt they had no other choice, for fear of getting sick in a foreign country, being far away from their family, or because they lost their job. Many of these returns were cross-border, but many were also internal. In India, for example, the government assisted over 600,000  international migrants to return home between the beginning of the pandemic and October 2020. At the same time, the country experienced mass migration from urban centres to rural areas involving several millions of people. Around the world, the unprecedented scale of these returns, as well as uncertainties on when borders would re-open (or close again), how many people would opt to re-migrate to their initial destination, and the effects of the pandemic on labour markets and remittances, made it challenging for governments to manage return, reception, and reintegration internally and to work together to address these problems.

Another pressure point stemmed from the difficulties faced by many migrants to go home. In the midst of the crisis, in July 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated the number of stranded migrants at 2.75 million globally.  The situation triggered a whole range of new conundrums for international cooperation, at a time when national health and safety measures kept evolving. The United  Arab Emirates, for instance, warned several South Asian countries it would cancel their migration agreements if they did not help organise the return of their workers.  Meanwhile, countries such as Morocco adopted even more restrictive measures and sealed their borders for several months, leaving out their own nationals. These conditions proved particularly difficult for migrants who did not have legal status, as they often lost employment and could not access emergency response plans. Around the world, measures that had been taken unilaterally became difficult to lift. Ultimately, bilateral and multilateral negotiations, as well as the mediation of organisations like IOM, led to the creation of humanitarian corridors allowing for the evacuation of the most vulnerable (often a few hundred people at a time).

The conduct of forced returns during the health crisis stirred additional tensions between countries. In May 2020, the UN Migration Network—a group of UN agencies and stakeholders overseeing the implementation of the GCM—called for a suspension of forced removals during the pandemic. Many countries agreed to put deportations on hold, especially in Europe, but some continued. Saudi Arabia, for example, forcibly sent back tens of thousands of migrants, often after keeping them in dire conditions in detention centres and without prior coordination with their countries of origin. The United States did not halt deportations either. The government even exposed migrants to the coronavirus by detaining them in facilities where social distancing was not possible, and by not enforcing systematic testing before sending them back. In Guatemala, the government repeatedly blamed the US for returning people infected with Covid-19. As the pandemic continues unabated, more destination countries have started revisiting these initial restrictions and resuming return operations for migrants without legal status and failed asylum seekers. In France, for instance, the government reported exploring the possibility of conducting Covid-19 tests after return, and not pre-departure as usually required by origin countries, to prevent migrants delaying their forced removal by refusing to take the test in France.

All these developments have put even more pressure on return systems and shed light on the diverging priorities and constraints of countries of destination and origin. Still, the pandemic has also shown how critical international cooperation is to conduct returns in a dignified way and mitigate the negative impacts of returns on communities of origin, especially the ones highly dependent on remittances.

Paths to better governance of return and reintegration

Many of the obstacles to effective return and reintegration also result from how return operations and reintegration programmes are being rolled out. In the past few years, governments on both sides have precisely tried to better coordinate and move towards a more comprehensive approach to return and reintegration so as to deliver more systematic services to returnees. These efforts have involved better internal organisation. For instance, since 2015, Germany has spearheaded a whole-of- government approach to return and reintegration with a close collaboration between its Ministry of Interior, Community and Building, its Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, as well as its Foreign Office, its Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and  Development, and its development agency  (Deutsche  Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ). In practice, Germany has sought to link its reintegration assistance for returnees to its broader development cooperation in countries of origin. Thus, it operates job centres across 12 countries where GIZ works with the authorities to deliver information about the local labour market and legal migration opportunities, as well as to provide training for returnees and their broader community.

At the regional level, European countries have attempted to better coordinate their actions, to address the various discrepancies in their return and reintegration programmes, and move towards a more coherent European return system. Most recently, in April 2021, the EU launched its first ever common Strategy on Voluntary Return and Reintegration, with the ambitious goals of strengthening cooperation and learning between EU Member States and increasing the quality control of EU-funded reintegration activities. The document addresses a range of strategic issues with, for instance, the design of a common approach on the return counselling provided to migrants. Such efforts would allow for counsellors from all EU countries to follow a similar approach on reaching out to migrants without legal status and disseminating information about their options and assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) programmes. Still, its operationalisation could go unheeded without clear political steering and frank conversations on engagements with third countries.

In turn, some countries of origin have strengthened their capacity and infrastructure to better manage the return and reintegration of their nationals. In some cases, the pandemic triggered this evolution, due to heightened public health considerations and the difficulties faced by returnees to resettle at home. An increasing number of countries of origin have also integrated return and reintegration into their broader migration and development policies. In Ghana, for example, the government referred to return  and  reintegration in its 2016 National Migration Policy and committed to (among other measures) better assist returnees in their reintegration process.  Countries have also invested in an operational capacity, through their own funding and via donor support. In Central America, for instance, governments work with IOM, civil society organisations, and international donors to manage reception centres for returnees. In these facilities, migrants are registered upon arrival and referred to relevant services.

At the regional level, countries with migrant communities in the same destination states rarely negotiate together on return and reintegration issues, for instance to standardise reintegration support or capitalise on successful programmes. There have been, however, a few regional initiatives, most recently with the African Union (AU) contributing to a joint study on return, readmission, and reintegration with the  European Union and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). Released in May 2021, the report draws on an analysis of return, reintegration, and readmission policies and practices in nine African countries. It introduces a common definition for the African Union of sustainable reintegration and outlines a series of operating procedures and recommendations for AU Member States.

In parallel to these efforts, the field has been enriched by the work of actors at the sub-national level and of civil society organisations, which are taking a greater role to complement central governments. In countries of destination, for example, the EU-funded European Return and Reintegration Network (ERRIN) launched in 2019 the “Reach Out” campaign, an initiative led by France and Belgium to increase awareness among migrants without legal status about their options and AVRR programmes. The Reach Out team worked closely with local authorities in six European cities, to share insights on how to best disseminate this information and provide tailored counselling to these vulnerable groups. In countries of origin, cities have also gained a greater role on migration, including supporting returnees, as local authorities often witness first-hand the difficulties faced by returnees and their families. In Senegal, for example, the Reception, Orientation, and Follow-Up Offices for Senegalese Abroad have branches across the country and are responsible for recording returnees and assisting them. These mechanisms have, however, not been especially active and a EU-funded project aims to strengthen them.

Civil society organisations also play a key role in counselling migrants’ pre-departure and providing reintegration assistance post-return, either through AVRR projects funded by a donor (often a country of destination), the government in the country of origin, or through a network of volunteers. In Europe, diaspora groups are sometimes involved in raising awareness among migrants about AVRR programmes and their eligibility conditions. Several organisations have also been active in engaging with communities in countries of origin, to fight against the stigma faced by returnees at home, and to help them get in touch with their families. In Guatemala, for example, the local organisation Poj No’j assists unaccompanied minors to reconnect with their families.

At all levels, development agencies and international organisations like GIZ, IOM, and ICMPD support these actors and regularly organise trainings and peer exchanges. Capacity-building activities have featured more prominently in recent reintegration programmes, including in the landmark EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, launched in 2016 under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Under this €44-million programme, IOM has delivered a variety of trainings to national and local authorities, and to civil society actors working on return and reintegration. The initiative has had two main objectives: to strengthen authorities’ capacity to facilitate safe and dignified returns (e.g. improving access to consular services for migrants); and to enhance reintegration outcomes (e.g. strengthening referral mechanisms for returnees). Despite these efforts, governments in countries of origin continue to face numerous operational, technical, and political challenges—some of them due to the lack of coordination on the side of donors and destination countries.

Three Stumbling Blocks

Three main obstacles have hampered further progress on the GCM’s objective of safer and more dignified returns and better reintegration outcomes: the persistent lack of cooperation between countries of destination and origin; limitations on what reintegration programmes deliver; and pushbacks at the borders of destination countries.

1.      Lack of common ground

A first stumbling block remains the difficulty for countries of destination and origin to find common ground on return issues. Despite the pandemic and the pressure for more international cooperation, governments still fail to see eye to eye. The economic crisis and likely reliance on remittances for the recovery efforts in several origin countries may make them even more averse to cooperating on forced returns. These same governments often argue that destination countries do not offer enough legal channels, while the latter retort they first need to secure guarantees on return and readmission of third-country nationals. This discussion leads to deadlocks and illustrates the lack of trust on both sides.

Widening this divide, destination countries have often threatened retaliatory measures against countries not cooperating on return and readmission. In Europe, these methods are not new but since 2015, policymakers—  especially on the home affairs side—have increasingly tried to leverage the whole range of EU policy instruments to increase the number of returns. Most recently, the EU started using its visa policy to pressure third countries into readmitting their nationals. There are parallel discussion on the conditionality of EU development funding. A number of actors, including European development agencies, have long objected that such methods contradict the EU’s own policies; risk hampering the effectiveness of  EU  development assistance (which supports countries based on criteria other than migration cooperation), as well as its transparency and accountability; and ultimately hurt the trust the EU is precisely trying to build with partner countries. Besides, a main limitation of EU return policies remains their lack of internal coherence—sometimes the first obstacle to the implementation of return decisions to third countries.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the US government went one step further and, for example, pressured Guatemala into signing up to an Asylum Cooperative Agreement in 2019. Under this agreement (terminated by the Biden Administration), the US could send nationals from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala, regardless of their protection claims. This measure directly contradicted the principle of safe and dignified returns as many asylum seekers were not even informed as to where US officials were sending them. Ultimately, the policy failed to reach its objective of enforcing permanent returns: none of the 945 people who were sent back to Guatemala received refugee status there—mainly due to the weaknesses of the national asylum system—and a number of them tried to move to the United States again.

2.      Limited reintegration

Beyond these divisions, a second main issue for return systems is that the successful reintegration of returnees remains elusive. Not all stakeholders agree on the notion of sustainable reintegration to begin with. Most actors concur that successful reintegration means that returnees have reached a level of economic and social stability, as well as psychosocial wellbeing. But for a number of destination countries and donors, success also means that AVRR beneficiaries will not attempt to migrate again. Other stakeholders, including service partners and researchers, have emphasised that returnees’ immobility should not be an objective in itself. In fact, remigration could be a sign of success and gaining access to new opportunities. But in the absence of legal pathways, returnees are still most likely to migrate irregularly if they decide to move again.

Despite these dissensions, there is a growing acknowledgement that a more systematic, comprehensive, and high-quality support to returnees and their communities is a condition for a more balanced and sustainable return system. It is needed to minimise the negative effects of these returns and maximise their development potential. At the same time, many migrants continue to go home without any form of assistance, because they have been deported and do not qualify for it, or are unaware of its availability, or for operational reasons such as delays in the processing of the reintegration package or security risks traveling to the office of the service partner.

Besides, many reintegration programmes continue to be short-term and focus disproportionately on economic aspects. In the case of many initiatives, reintegration packages consist of a form of in-kind assistance to launch a small revenue-generating activity and counselling comes to an end after six months. There is limited data and information on the longer-term experiences, challenges, needs, and aspirations of returnees. Donors, service partners, migrants, and other stakeholders in countries of origin have increasingly recognised the need to provide psychosocial assistance, especially for the most vulnerable populations. This has led to some promising developments, including incorporating counselling into reintegration activities and developing referral mechanisms for returnees with special needs. For example, in Guinea, Senegal, and Morocco, IOM recently piloted a mentoring approach for returnees, with mentors working closely with these populations and their communities to provide them with direct assistance. These practices remain, however, uncommon. They require a significant investment and documenting their positive effects (and what works) is also challenging due to the difficulty quantifying well-being.

In parallel, the interlinkages between reintegration and development cooperation are still to be fully tapped. Reintegration actors are now more aware that improving conditions at home is essential to social reintegration and for the returnees to gain access to public services such as education, health, or justice. Some, such as IOM and GIZ work towards better connecting these two fields, but the reality is that return and development practitioners often operate in separate silos and building bridges between them raises a wide range of operational challenges. Difficulties include defining common objectives, managing individual and structural approaches to reintegration, working out the correct timing for initiatives that have different trajectories by nature, identifying the right actors to partner with, and addressing the specific challenges faced by returnees.

3.       Pushbacks

Third, pushbacks and mass expulsions continue to hamper the realisation of a rights-based return system. These practices are not new, but they are now reported more systematically. For instance, in 2020, a group of civil society organisations published over 900 testimonies showing cases of refoulement at EU borders—in Greece, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary. Thousands of people, including minors, were returned from Europe to their country or a third country without due process. These practices flout the principle of safe and dignified returns and have cascading effects as they make it more difficult for European leaders to press other countries on this issue. In May 2021, the report of the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants documented cases of pushbacks and mass expulsions from around the world, including the Western Balkans, Algeria, Libya, and also Mexico and Guatemala.


Three years ago, the GCM set out an ambitious agenda for countries of destination and origin to work together towards a more balanced return system. In recent months, the Covid-19 crisis has provided a vivid illustration of how the lack of international cooperation could lead to serious issues in terms of border management, public health, and pressure on communities already hit by the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has put more strain on relations between countries, which have diverging priorities and internal constraints and are at different stages in the containment of the virus. Incorporating a public health dimension into upcoming negotiations on return and readmission will be key in the next year, especially where destination countries want to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with countries of origin.

Although not new, working towards increasing the proportion of voluntary returns—or of “obliged” returns or “soft deportations”— could also be a way to improve cooperation and better support migrants upon their return. This is the spirit of the new EU Strategy on Voluntary Return and Reintegration, and some progress has been made in partnering with origin countries. The US has not traditionally been very active in this type of scheme, but the new Biden administration may become more inclined to offer reintegration support as part of its broader cooperation with Mexico and Central America. Countries that are at once destination, transit, and origin countries, such as Morocco, Turkey, and Mexico, also operate AVRR programmes, even though these remain largely funded by donors and their ownership tends to be limited.

Moving forward, increasing the engagement of origin countries, by outlining what is needed for reintegration assistance to be more successful, should help to align programmes with needs on the ground. In turn, destination countries may need to acknowledge that the low performance of their return policies sometimes stems from the complexity and lack of coherence of their own regulations and procedures.