VOLUNTARY RETURNS OR FORCED CHOICES? ASSISTED VOLUNTARY RETURN AND REINTEGRATION PROGRAMS IN THE GAMBIA
By Viola Castellano
Despite existing for several decades, voluntary return programs for migrants and asylum seekers became an essential part of the 2020 EU Pact for Migration and Asylum. In the words of EU Vice-President Margaritis Schinas,[i] the program for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration became “One of the pillars of the new ecosystem we are building on returns, to the mutual benefit of the returnees, the EU and third countries”. Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration programs (AVRR) provide recipients with free transportation back to their countries of origin, and an initial financial/counseling/logistical support to re-start their lives there. These programs are generally coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with the support of other humanitarian and co-developmental organizations. They are operated from the countries migrants encounter on their undocumented routes to Europe (the so-called transit countries) and from EU countries. They are sponsored either by the European state from where the return is made, or by international funds such as the European Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). According to the IOM, voluntary return is based on the voluntary decision of the individual which in turn is composed of two elements: freedom of choice - meaning lack of physical, psychological, material pressure - and informed decision.
One of the issues I investigate in my current research on post-asylum subjectivities, is related to how AVRR programs work in the case of The Gambia, the smallest country of continental Africa with a population of two million people. Despite its modest size, in the last decade, more than 70,000 Gambians applied for asylum in European countries, after traveling mainly through the Central Mediterranean Route. The asylum authorities of the various European countries tended to label Gambian asylum seekers mainly as “economic migrants”, even more so after the autocratic and violent regime of Yaya Jammeh ended in 2017 and democracy was restored in the country. This left them undocumented, in legal limbo, and at risk of being repatriated to The Gambia. In addition to Gambians who reached Europe, many more were blocked in the various African transit countries. The number of “stranded” Gambian migrants increased in the last 5 years as a result of: EU and African countries’ agreements on measures to tackle irregular migration through return, deportation, and border externalization, made in the Valletta EU-Africa Summit in 2015 (Pace, 2016); the restoration of the bilateral agreements between Italy and Libya in 2017 to prevent migrants from reaching European shores through the reinforcement of the so-called Libyan coastguard; and, finally, due to Covid-19, which further complicated Search And Rescue (SAR) operations by NGOs in the Mediterranean. The acts of violence that sub-Saharan migrants suffer along the Central Mediterranean Route, and especially in Libya, have been widely reported by humanitarian organizations, with 85% of refugees and migrants suffering torture and inhumane or degrading treatment (Medici per I Diritti Umani-MEDU). Due to these factors, Gambian (and other) migrants stuck in dangerous conditions in transit countries, or those with no chance of regularization in Europe, became privileged candidates for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration programs.
Once back in The Gambia, AVRR programs treat returnees as victims of irregular migration in need of empowerment through self-entrepreneurship, with the goal of discouraging irregular migration by combatting the widespread local stigmatization of “failed returnees” (Schuster, L., & Majidi, 2015). Returnees, indeed, especially the ones repatriated from Libya, are nationally constituted as a political problem, because of the widespread stigmatization they are subjected to, as failed migrants who wasted family resources. This adds up to the general association of deportation with criminality, and to moral suspicion towards those who experienced the violent dynamics dominating the "backway" (the Gambian term to designate the undocumented trip to Europe). Their failure and their traumas accumulated along the journey are therefore perceived as a threat to a country that saw its structural poverty and unemployment worsening in the last decades. In the public eye, their alleged desperation makes them more likely to engage in criminal activities and more mentally unstable. As much as traveling to Europe is seen as a form of social and economic prestige (Schapendonk, 2017), the financial, existential, and emotional cost of the journey, when it is not successful and does not produce wealth to redistribute within the community, becomes a disadvantage, a stigma.
This is why IOM and other organizations’ goal is to revert the imaginary around return and deportation (Fine and Walters 2021). In my research, I observed how, with that goal in mind, IOM depicts AVRR returnees as direct victims and witnesses of the perils of “irregular migration” and of human trafficking. On the one hand, their status, as stressed by Fine and Walters, is seen as a resource and a voice against “irregular migration”, and they are often involved in (paid) activities of sensitization in villages and cities, sponsored by the same IOM and other international organizations and NGOs. On the other hand, they are promoted as enthusiastic self-entrepreneurs and coached through programs in business administration and various work skills in locally contracted companies and agencies. Their “success stories” are presented as living proof of the benefits of homecoming and the possibility of “making it” in The Gambia.[ii]
In the interviews[iii]I collected, I observed how some of the returnees embraced the subjectivity promoted by IOM and EU partners, engaging in sensitization activities and complying with the self-entrepreneurial ethos envisioned by AVRR programs. I also observed how others, instead, preferred not to go back to their village and hide in the metropolitan areas. They were too ashamed to face their families and were willing to embark on the journey again as soon as they had the possibility. IOM and other organizations administering AVRR switched to the direct funding of returnees’ “business plans” once they realized that their previous funding scheme left returnees employed to pay for another trip towards Europe. These business plans, which they need to present to obtain the reintegration funds, are aimed to initiate a new career path in The Gambia. Finally, a third group, mainly constituted by returnees from Libya, strongly politicized their social location and questioned how the Gambian government and its EU partners were managing the issue of returnees, arguing that the humanitarian assistance provided by OIM reintegration programs was not sufficient,.
The efficiency of the AVRR programs indeed has increasingly been criticized by various humanitarian organizations, as well as by returnees themselves. They were labeled as a form of soft deportation (Andrijasevic, 2010; Brachet, 2018; Kalir, 2017), due to the lack of choice of undocumented migrants in such “voluntarily” returns. The questionable degree of voluntariness of these programs is well demonstrated by the fact that they are most successful in dangerous transit countries such as Libya or in European countries where deportations are consistently implemented.[iv]
In the campaigns against “irregular migration”, its own engendered violence is presented as immanent to the moral feature of illegality connected to the mobility effort and to the smuggling network. While presenting the (il)legal violence of undocumented migration as an exceptional form of suffering, these initiatives remove their genealogy and the active role of Europe in what has been called the mobility regime (Glick Schiller and Salazar, 2013).
In conclusion, for European countries, the promotion of voluntary repatriation constitutes another tool in pursuing border externalization through agreements with countries of origin, negotiating economic aid in return of repatriation deals, meanwhile formally responding to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. However, for Gambian asylum seekers caught in bureaucratic mazes with no chance of regularization in Europe, and for the ones who are stuck in detention centers in Niger and Libya, voluntary repatriation is rather experienced as forced choice. This is a crucial element that often invalidates AVRR programs’ appeal to the idea of choice for the neoliberal subject (Crane and Lawson 2020) and their intention to change the social imaginary of deportation.
Andrijasevic, R. (2010). DEPORTED: The Right to Asylum at EU’s External Border of Italy and Libya 1. International Migration, 48(1), 148-174.
Brachet, J. (2018). Manufacturing smugglers: From irregular to clandestine mobility in the between exclusion and inclusion. Antipode, 50(3), 783-803
Crane, A., & Lawson, V. (2020). Humanitarianism as conflicted care: Managing migrant assistance in EU Assisted Voluntary Return policies. Political Geography, 79, 102-152.
Fine, S., & Walters, W. (2021). No place like home? The International Organization for Migration and the new political imaginary of deportation. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-18.
Glick Schiller, N., & Salazar, N. B. (2013). Regimes of mobility across the globe. Journal of ethnic and migration studies, 39(2), 183-200.
Kalir, B. (2017). Between “voluntary” return programs and soft deportation. Return migration and psychosocial wellbeing, 56-71.
Pace, R. (2016) "The trust fund for Africa: a preliminary assessment." Technical Report.
Schapendonk, J. (2017). The multiplicity of transit: the waiting and onward mobility of African migrants in the European Union. International Journal of Migration and Border Studies, 3(2-3), 208-227
Schuster, L., & Majidi, N. (2015). Deportation stigma and re-migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(4), 635-652
[i] “Press remarks by Vice-President Schinas on the EU's Voluntary Return and Reintegration Strategy” of 27/04/202: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_21_1991
[ii] Tekki Fi, which is the name of the EUTF sponsored program of economic development addressed to Gambian youth and return migrants, means indeed “to make it” in Wolof: https://www.tekkifii.gm/about
[iii] I conducted research in The Gambia in November and December 2019. During that period I collected 26 interviews among government officials, IOM and NGOs workers and directors, voluntary and forced returnees and their family members. I conducted two focus groups with the students of the University of the Gambia on the right to asylum and participant observation in a family of a returnee with whom I lived for two weeks. The pandemic disrupted the possibility of returning to Gambia in 2020 and 2021 as planned, but I nevertheless conducted 12 online interviews with some of the people I previously met in the 2019 fieldwork.
[iv] As stated in the IOM Gambia AVRR webpage, 90% of voluntary returns in The Gambia were operated by the EU Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Among them, 2,992 Gambians returned from Libya, another 1,392 from Niger and 618 more stranded along key migration routes in Africa and in Europe. Please refer to: https://www.iom.int/news/iom-hits-milestone-5000-gambians-supported-assisted-return