Friday, 5 April 2013

How voluntary is voluntary return?

Governments and international organizations often stress how voluntary the return of involuntary migrants is. This begs an important question: what is voluntary?

If you are an undocumented migrant from sub-Sahara Africa living in Morocco or in Libya, and if you have been beaten up, or raped, by the police, are refused entry into hospitals, cannot send your children to school, or if you are starving, or fear to get arrested or arbitrarily imprisoned or deported, you may at some point decide that you want to go back home, or to move on to a safer, more hospitable country.

And, indeed, if the opportunity is offered, you may accept an airfare offered by a government or the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In that sense, any decision to return can be seen as voluntary. But, in this view, most refugees should also be seen as voluntary migrants. After all, we can say that their decision to leave has been 'voluntary', as they could have stayed indeed, to 'voluntarily'  face abuse, imprisonment, or death.

Of course this is a morally unacceptable way of reasoning.

So, stressing the 'voluntary' element of return decisions is often a discursive strategy to conceal the role of abuse and fear in compelling people to take such decisions. The point is that governments are often responsible for creating such fears through either not protecting people against abuse and discrimination or through active persecution and harassment.

In a comment on my blogpost "IOM's dubious mission in Morocco", Anke Strauss, Chief of Mission of IOM Morocco, wrote that:

"The situation of irregular migrants .... has recently become tougher as a result of the Moroccan government’s legitimate drive against crime. As a result, IOM and its partners, including UNHCR, MSF and Caritas have witnessed an increasing vulnerability of irregular migrants in Morocco as well as a sharp increase in the number of individuals requesting voluntary return and reintegration assistance."

To me, this is quite a puzzling statement. On the one hand, it seems to be in line with my argument that the presumed increase in people wanting to return is the result of increased racist violence and abuse of migrants rights by the Moroccan government. This why I doubt the moral justification of such return programmes as they, despite their 'humanitarian' veneer of pretending to help miserable migrants, in fact sanction racist abuse and the lack of protection of migrant rights by governments.

At the same time there is the curious, and worrying, reference to the Moroccan government's 'legitimate drive against crime'. What is suggested here? That sub-Saharan migrants are responsible for rising crime, and that this would legitimate Morocco's abuse of migrant rights? I hope this is not the case, but I just find it difficult to read it in a different way.

Such statements wittingly or unwittingly buy into and justify the discourses of some Moroccan politicians (see here for instance) and media to scapegoat sub-Saharan migrants for problems as unemployment and crime, or even to literally represent them as the 'Black Peril'.

Let me be clear: I am not necessarily questioning the good intentions of agencies like the IOM.

But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It obviously everybody's plight to help people whose lives and freedoms are threatened in extreme situations of crisis and war. This can involve helping people to flee out of dangerous situation. This is what IOM and UNHCR have been doing in the wake of the Libyan crisis (see this blogpost).

However, this is something else than sanctioning governments' abuse of migrant rights by collecting funding for costly return programmes (instead of defending migrants' right) or, worse, to buy into racist government discourses.


  1. Ideological comments from a person that should speak to the migrants themselves before drawing any conclusion...

  2. So what is your pragmatic take on this kind of situation? I have been working for a couple of years with NGOs / international agencies on forced migration related projects and I always hear people criticizing, for example blaming the UNHCR for being too politically correct in the country where I'm living in. But should the UNHCR make political claims, it is clear that the government would immediately refuse the agency on its territory. They would have to leave, leaving all refugees with no legal protectiom whatsoever. They would therefore be defenseless. Would that be a better state of affairs? I don't think so, but again I'm really curious to hear your academic take on that sort of topics.


Leave your comments here

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.