The IOM and ‘voluntary return’ programmes in Africa

Cover photo by Stefanie Carmichael/UNMEER on Flickr

by Antoine Pécoud

In June 2020, Euronews published a three-part series on African migration to Europe, with a particular focus on the EU-funded projects run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to return migrants to their home country. This is a pressing issue. Even if African migration to Europe remains at relatively low levels, it is regularly described as an ‘invasion’ of European countries. Moreover, Europe’s response to the refugee/migrant crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean region since 2015 sheds light on the tragedies and atrocities associated with the (mis)management of migration, with thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East dying at sea, and others suffering major human rights abuses in countries such as Libya.

Photo by Christopher Jahn/IFRC on Flickr

The European strategy is based on the externalization of border control in order to intercept migrants in Africa before they reach Europe. European states thus intervene outside their territory: they cannot rely on their own state apparatus only, but need implementing partners. This has proven beneficial for IOM, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1951, which today has over 400 field offices worldwide.

The project investigated by Euronews provides an illustration of IOM’s role in the externalization of European immigration policy. Entitled the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, it aims to ‘enable migrants who decide to return to their countries of origin to do so in a safe and dignified way’, while also ‘providing assistance to returning migrants to help them restart their lives in their countries of origin’. It is funded to the height of €357 million by the EU and operates in 26 African countries; some 80,000 migrants have been returned so far, mainly from Libya and Niger to sub-Saharan countries like Eritrea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali or Sudan.

Such returns are called ‘assisted voluntary returns’ and constitute a pillar of IOM’s work. They target ‘migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and wish to return voluntarily to their countries of origin’. By avoiding the violence and coercion of forced expulsions, they would fit into what IOM calls ‘humane and orderly migration’. The project further claims to ‘reintegrate’ migrants in their country of origin, by helping them acquire skills, find a job or create a business, and to ‘mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration’. By combining return with reintegration, IOM intends to operate ‘for the benefit of all’: for receiving states (that want to keep migrants way), for sending states (in need of development) and for migrants themselves (who would benefit from a better situation in their home country).

From narratives to reality

At first sight, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration makes sense. It is sensible to rescue migrants from the hardships of life in Libya and to prevent the tragedies that may occur when they embark to reach Europe. It also seems worthwhile to provide them with skills and professional opportunities in their home country.

But Euronews’ account is quite different. Firstly, while returns did take place, reintegration assistance proved much more elusive, or even non-existent. Whereas IOM is preoccupied with the removal of unwanted migrants, their fate back home seems of less concern. Secondly, returns are labelled ‘voluntary’ but many returned migrants did not see themselves as ‘voluntary’: they were pressured to accept and sometimes received information in languages they did not understand. And thirdly, once returned, migrants felt abandoned – to the extent that many considered re-migrating to Europe.

For instance, in Nigeria, women who had been sexually exploited during their migration journey ended up being sexually exploited again upon their return. In Eritrea, a country with a worrying human rights record, young men who had left without having fulfilled their (forced) military duties found themselves in trouble.

IOM is financially dependent upon a handful of Western migrant-receiving countries. Its projects are therefore donor-driven and prioritise the interests of the Global North in combatting irregular migration

These findings come as no surprise. Julien Brachet documents how IOM in Libya primarily wants to keep migrants from embarking for Europe and is hardly preoccupied with their rights or reintegration. Jill Alpes reaches a similar conclusion, adding that the extent to which returns are ‘voluntary’ depends in reality upon the violence faced by migrants: the greater the hardships in transit countries, the more migrants will prove ‘voluntary’ to return – hence the structural connexion between anti-migrant violence and IOM’s programs. 

To contextualise these findings, it must be recalled that IOM is financially dependent upon a handful of Western migrant-receiving countries. Its projects are therefore donor-driven and prioritise the interests of the Global North in combatting irregular migration. IOM claims to work ‘for the benefit of all’, but its projects are actually ‘for the benefit of some’.

In addition, IOM has an uneasy relationship to human rights. Its constitution makes no reference to rights, which both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lamented as early as 2002. François Crépeau, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, also writes that ‘the mandate and funding of IOM pose structural problems with regard to fully adopting a human rights framework’. From a rights-based perspective, ‘voluntary’ returns are problematic because they may concern people who deserve refugee protection and are exposed to abuses in their country.

IOM’s response

IOM responded to Euronews’ investigation, putting forward several counter-arguments. First, it claims that its activities cannot be solely in Europe’s interest because they draw upon joint Euro-African agreements, including the Action plan adopted in 2015 at an Euro-African Summit on migration in Valletta (in which one of the five ‘priority domains’ is indeed precisely about ‘return, readmission and reintegration’). Formally, therefore,African governments agree with IOM’s EU-funded activities. This raises two key questions, pertaining to (1) the extent to which African governments reflect their societies’ aspirations, and (2) whether their agreement to such action plans are dependent on broader deals about development, security, etc.

Image from IOM website

Second, IOM emphasizes that since its primary objective consists of helping migrants in distress it should not be criticized for failing to provide long-term solutions, which – it further argues – cannot be achieved without the involvement of local governments, the private sector, or civil society. This is a pragmatic argument, rooted in the humanitarian imperative of saving lives, and quite sensible in the face of migrants’ living conditions in Libya or Niger. Yet, the pitfall with such humanitarian logic is that merely saving lives tends to move (or postpone) the problem, as returned migrants face hardships at home or emigrate again – most likely with the same results, and likely with ‘more of the same’ in terms of policy response and IOM’s activities. Third, IOM reiterates the compatibility of voluntary returns with human rights and even mentions a ‘fundamental right to return’. Finally, it contests Euronews’ evidence, which it finds anecdotal and unrepresentative of the actual situation. This is an important (albeit somewhat ironic) issue, because IOM’s projects are hardly evaluated, whether by IOM itself or by other actors. It is easy to count the numbers of migrants returned to their country, but much more difficult to ascertain whether their reintegration proves successful.

IOM’s mandate and activities in question

While IOM puts forward the need for immediate relief among migrants caught in Libya or Niger, its response actually raises many questions about the long-term effects of its projects and the broader political context in which it operates.  

Photo by IOM/Hamza Osman on Flickr

IOM has turned into a kind of ‘super ministry of migration’ in Africa. In 1991, it only had 43 member-states and a $300 million budget. But in 2020, the number of member-states reached 173 and the budget is estimated at $1.8 billion. This growth is most likely to continue: indeed, in the EU, the proposed 2021-2027 budget foresees the tripling of the funds devoted to migration and border management, with almost €35 billion, and part of this money will undoubtedly go to IOM and to the expansion of its activities in Africa.

Yet, IOM generally manages to escape public scrutiny. Its projects are carried out in countries where independent media and civil society are often fairly weak. IOM also devotes important resources to its communication strategy and maintains good relationships with influential researchers, for instance through its ‘research leaders syndicate’ or its publications, which include the widely-circulated World Migration Reports and an academic journal. As a matter of fact, only a small number of critical researchers and small NGOs scrutinise IOM’s activities.  

This makes for a moral and political dilemma, as the governance of migration ‘for the benefit of all’ is not easily reconciled with Europe’s obsession with combatting irregular migration from Africa

Such scrutiny is necessary for African societies to articulate a more autonomous migration policy strategy. It is also necessary in order for European citizens to know what is being done by the EU in the name of migration management. It is, finally, necessary for the international community at large: IOM joined the UN in 2016 and since then embodies the UN answer to migration challenges.

This makes for a moral and political dilemma, as the governance of migration ‘for the benefit of all’ is not easily reconciled with Europe’s obsession with combatting irregular migration from Africa. Euronews’ investigations therefore constitute a rare and welcome occasion of setting the terms for a broader public debate.

About the author

Antoine Pécoud is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sorbonne Paris Nord. His research focuses on the global governance of migration and the role of intergovernmental organisations in migration politics. His last book is The International Organization for Migration. The New ‘UN Migration Agency’ in Critical Perspective (Palgrave 2020).

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